Voyager recording returns to Kandingei


IN AUGUST and September 1977, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) launched the two Voyager spacecraft.
Over the next 12 years, they sent back stunning colour photos of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their moons. And the two Voyager are still going. One of them is more than 21.7 billion km from earth: the humanly made object that is most distant from Earth.
In case the spacecraft was found by some life forms in outer space, each carries a gold-plated, copper audiovisual disc, with 115 photos, greetings in over 50 languages, natural sounds, and 27 examples of music.
The selection of materials was made to represent the people who sent Voyager. The music examples were chosen to represent the diversity and magnificence of human creativity in sound. One example is of bamboo music from the Nyaura clan of Kandingei village in East Sepik. This is the story of how Kandingei people have been able to reconnect with this music and amazing event.
The music was chosen and assembled in less than two months by a special committee concerned with the disc. The committee was headed by well-known astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–96). He noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”
Amongst the musical examples are eight of Western classical music, and three of Western jazz, rock, and blues. There are then six examples from Asia, two each from Africa, North and South America, and one of European folk music. In addition to the one example from Papua New Guinea, there are also tracks from our neighbours Australia and Solomon Islands.

Only a few chosen
But, consider that there is nothing from most countries in the world. For example, there is nothing from Polynesia, Micronesia, the Middle East, Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, Canada, etc. Technical restrictions were very strict. Only a few examples could be chosen, and the committee had a very hard time deciding what to include and what to omit.
There was no question that they attempted to choose exceptional examples of music. Someone who worked closely with the committee remarked, “If we don’t send things we passionately care for, why send them at all?”
Items were not chosen because they were from a particular part of the world, but because they represented what was felt to be supreme examples of musical excellence from this planet.
The example from Kandingei village was recorded by Robert MacLennan (1931–2013), an Australian doctor who at the time was a specialist medical officer based at the district office of Maprik. In addition to his duties as a doctor, MacLennan loved the traditional music he was lucky enough to encounter. He bought the most professional, portable recorder he could find.
On July 23, 1964, he recorded 19 items in Kandingei, shortly before departing for New Orleans to pursue study at Tulane University. One of these items would be sent on Voyager, but MacLennan didn’t discover which one until much later.
MacLennan’s love of the music he recorded never lessened, and he was always keen to share such music with anyone interested. In such a way, he must have passed on various examples of Papua New Guinea music he recorded to Alan Lomax (1915–2002), who was interested in music from all over the world for his own research. MacLennan himself never gave his recordings to the Voyager committee. Instead Lomax copied them for the committee, along with music from many other parts of the world.
In 1978, a book called Murmurs of Earth about Voyager, its mission and its very special disc was published. But the information concerning the PNG recording is mostly absolute nonsense. About the only thing correct is that MacLennan is identified as the man who made the recording.

Music aboard Voyager
In order to try and figure out what recording of MacLennan’s was actually sent on Voyager, I was able to obtain a cassette of the music in 1989. I quickly sent a copy to MacLennan. He compared it to his own recordings, while I compared it to copies MacLennan had placed in the music archive of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies (IPNGS), a government institution focussed on cultural research.
We finally had an answer. The recording is the opening section of bamboo music called Mariuamangi of the Nyaura clan, as performed by Pranis Pandang and Kumbui. Men have just sung the names of the clan’s totemic ancestors, and this bamboo music is the response, to the delight of those present. Hence, it was 12 years after the launching of Voyager that MacLennan finally learned which of his recordings was included.
In 1992, CDs of the music plus a copy of the Murmurs of Earth book were published. In 1995, MacLennan himself presented a copy of this publication to our prime minister, Sir Julius Chan. While MacLennan was unhappy that the information in the book was so wrong, he still felt it important that people in Papua New Guinea know that their music is on Voyager.
Another publication, celebrating 40 years since the launch of Voyager was planned for 2017 by Ozma Records, but this time the compilers wanted to get the information on the recordings right. While MacLennan had died four years earlier, the producers of the publication wrote to IPNGS, asking if we had any information about the Papua New Guinea recording on Voyager. Luckily I had written information from MacLennan that corrected the errors in the previous publication. I shared this with Ozma. They were thrilled to finally be able to correct the information about the recordings.
By the end of 2017, the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies received a copy of this new publication called The Voyager Golden Record, a beautiful book plus two CDs of the recordings. I was also in contact with anthropologist Dr Christiane Falck, who was conducting research in Kandingei and especially neighbouring Timbunmeli, to which many Nyaura clan members had relocated. She had been asked to try and contact me to learn more about Voyager and the disc with their recording.
There were naturally many questions about who made the recordings, why their permission to include the recording on Voyager was never sought, why MacLennan never returned to Kandingei to explain what had happened and give them a copy of the disc, and so forth. I could answer some questions, but as I was uninvolved in the Voyager project, my knowledge was quite limited.
But I said I would try to get a copy of the recordings to give to them. I originally sought a copy of the problematic and long out-of-print Murmurs of Earth publication, but when the new, corrected, and much superior version by Ozma appeared, I knew that it would be the appropriate one. But who should get a copy of the publication? There is seldom only one recognised leader of any clan.
Falck worked with Nyaura clan members to produce a list of families who should receive copies. I then wrote to Ozma. They were immediately supportive and generously agreed to send 20 copies of the publication, most of which were to be given to the families identified. They also asked us to “pass on our deepest respect and gratitude to the clan” for their contribution to the Voyager mission.

Travel to Kandingei
At the end of August, IPNGS music archivist Gedisa Jacob, music technician Balthazar Moriguba, and I travelled to Kandingei to explain as much as we could about Voyager and the recordings, and to present copies of the publication to each family identified.
One day was spent explaining to anyone interested how a recording from Kandingei happened to be included on the spacecraft. The following day was primarily for Nyaura clan members and included the presentation of the recordings to Nyaura families and the descendants of the performers.
Falck was also a participant in the event that she had worked so hard to organise. We always tried to answer questions on anything to do with Voyager and its recordings.
While concerns remain over the unauthorised use of the recordings, there is also considerable pride that a recording of Nyaura bamboo music has been included on Voyager to celebrate the diversity and excellence of human musical creativity. But people also wonder how the Government can recognise their unique contribution to this amazing accomplishment of humanity. After all, this short recording not only represents the Nyaura, but also Kandingei village, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea, and, most importantly, every one of us on this planet.
The IPNGS is one of three national cultural institutions that come under the National Cultural Commission, within the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture.
This year, IPNGS received much welcomed funds under the Government’s Public Investment Programme to be used for archiving and storage activities.
While most of the funds will be used to improve facilities at IPNGS, the presentation of the recordings and reconnection of them with their owners are also very much part of an archive’s job. IPNGS appreciates the on-going support of Minister Emil Tammur for sourcing funding from the Government to support and enable us to undertake desperately needed renovations.

  • Prof Don Niles, PhD, OL, is acting director and senior ethnomusicologist of the IPNGS.
Voyager record. – Picture from
Looking at the book concerning Voyager. – Picture by Don Niles

Leave a Reply