About the project

Montserrat Conservation Project

CULTURAL SOUNDS AND CONSERVATION TEXTS: Soundscapes of a lost Montserrat (British West Indies)


Dr Jonathan Skinner

       Dr Skinner is a social anthropologist who was caught in July 1995 by the first waves of volcanic eruption on the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat in the Eastern Caribbean.  He was undertaking qualitative ethnographic research into the possibilities of a postcolonial environment on Montserrat, one which is figured through the performing arts and their articulation of belonging to the land (Skinner 2004).  Since the initial eruption of 1995, Skinner has chronicled and documented the successive devastation of the volcano upon the island habitat (Skinner 2000, Skinner 2006a, Skinner 2006b) and the resilient islanders (Skinner 2003b, Skinner 2005a), and he has worked as a consultant and academic critic of DfID ‘social development’ projects on the island (Skinner 2003a) and their resettlement programme (Skinner 1999) as approximately two thirds of the population have migrated from the island to Great Britain, North America and neighbouring islands in the Caribbean; and some 75% of the remaining population have had to relocate to the safe zone in the north of the island with the permanent destruction of Plymouth capital and many villages such as St. Patricks in the south of the island.


This project is an example of cultural reconstruction, a salvage ethnography, of lost sounds of and from the island.  It is a conservation project digitising and making public some original ‘jumbie dance’ sound reels from the 1960s courtesy of retired anthropology Professor Stuart Philpott; the ‘jumbie dance’ is an ancestral trance healing dance now only performed and sung for tourists.  The sound files support teaching texts used by students (Skinner 2004, Skinner 2005b) on anthropology and ethnomusicology modules at Queen’s University Belfast.  Furthermore, they are an active archive on hypermedia modules.  In other words, they are soundscapes from life pre-eruption Montserrat by students, but also the interested and concerned public – such as those Montserratian migrants to the UK.  Thus, this aural project is an attempt to reach a wide audience and to show them and let them listen to island life and island cultural events which have now been lost.


This project benefits the students at QUB who study anthropology and ethnomusiciology.  It builds upon the work of Dr Suzel Reily who has set up an internet platform on the sounds and sights of John Blacking’s innovative ethnography of the Venda in S. Africa from the 1950s (http://www.qub.ac.uk/VendaGirls); as well as more contemporary soundscapes from Belfast with the ‘Making Music in Belfast Project’ (http://www.qub.ac.uk/sa/resources/Belfast_Project/index.html).


It was John Blacking, the first Professor of Anthropology at The Queen’s University Belfast, who published as an ethnomusicologist pioneering work about the connection between music and the environment (1976).  Blacking laid the basis for the study of ethnomusicology when he wrote that cooperation and social interaction are biologically programmed human conditions.  They are developed through music and movement - the prerequisites for cognition.  Sounds, for example, evoke emotions and feelings, and it is ‘[f]eeling [that is] the catalyst that transforms acquired knowledge into understanding, and so adds the dimension of commitment to action’ (Blacking 1977: 5).  Herein lies the connection between ethnomusicology and sustainable development, between the study of sounds and the motivation of community actions such as sustainable practices.  This is where the soundscape informs the development-scape.  It is through the conservation of the island sounds that we mobilize powerful feelings of continuity and place.  We hope that these are harnessed by this project.


Please pass on the details of this website to others, feel free to link to us, and send us materials for inclusion.


Jonathan Skinner

Queen's University Belfast

January 2008


HEA and C-SAP for funding and support
QUB for hosting this site
School of History and Anthropology for local assistance
Harin Valladares website design
and Dr Suzel Reily for some inspiration and encouragement.




Blacking, J. (1976) How Musical is Man?, London: Faber and Faber.

Blacking, J. (1977) ‘Towards an Anthropology of the Body’ in, J. Blacking (Ed.) The Anthropology of the Body, London: Academic Press, pp.1-28.

Defra (2006) ‘Furthering Sustainability: A Step-by-Step Guide for Colleges - The Government' s Sustainable Development Strategy’, http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/sustainable/educpanel/furthering/02.htm, accessed 28th May 2006.

Laderman, C. and M. Roseman (Eds), The Performance of Healing, London: Routledge.

Lave, J. and E. Wenger (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skinner, J. (2006a) ‘Land and landloss on Montserrat’ in, J. Besson & J. Momsen (Eds) Land and Development (2nd Edition), London: Macmillan (in press).

Skinner, J. (2006b) ‘Disaster creation in the Caribbean and planning, policy and participation reconsidered’, in J. Momsen and J. Pugh (eds) Environmental Planning in the Caribbean: context and case studies, London: Ashgate Publishers (in press).

Skinner, J. (2005a) ‘Colonising Narratives, Double Consciousness and Barbarian Writing: Fergus and the Writers’ Maroon of Montserrat’ in, J. Besson & K. Olwig (eds) Caribbean Narratives of Belonging: Fields of Relations, Sites of Identity, Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean, pp.245-262.

Skinner, J. (2005b) ‘Interning the serpent: witchcraft, religion and the law on Montserrat in the twentieth century’, History and Anthropology, 16(2), pp.1-23.

Skinner, J. (2004) Before the Volcano: Reverberations of Identity on Montserrat, Kingston, Jamaica: Arawak Publications.

Skinner, J. (2003a) ‘Anti-social “social development”? The DFID approach and the ‘indigenous’ of Montserrat’ in, J. Pottier, A. Bicker and P. Sillitoe (Eds) Negotiated Development: Power and Identity in Development, London: Pluto Press, pp.98-120.

Skinner, J. (2003b) ‘Voyeurs, Voyagers and Disaster Tourism from Mount Chance, Montserrat’ in, D. Macleod (Ed.) Niche Tourism and Anthropology, Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, pp.129-144.

Skinner, J. (2000) ‘The eruption of Chances Peak, Montserrat, and the narrative containment of risk’ in, P. Caplan (Ed.) Risk Revisited, London: Pluto Press, pp.156-183.