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A Stalker of Wild Music. David Fanshawe says he's racing with television to save tribal songs from extinction. ADVENTURER/COMPOSER

BEFORE David Fanshawe composes music, he says, he goes ``fishing for sound.'' His foremost artistic tools are a tape recorder slung over his shoulder and microphones suspended on booms. With headphones on and tape rolling, he captures sounds that few people have heard before: otea drum dances in Tahiti, a singsing in Papua New Guinea, and a hoko war-dance reenactment on Easter Island.

Mr. Fanshawe calls himself a ``musical beachcomber,'' hunting down and recording traditional instruments and folk songs that are fast becoming extinct. The speed of change is so rapid - largely because of the influence of video, he says - that the cultural past of many peoples will be history by the turn of the century.

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``That is why it's so desperately important to record what is left,'' Fanshawe said in an interview. ``We are far too inclined not to understand how important is the now - the value of the moment.''

Fanshawe has been recording ``the moment'' for the last 30 years, ever since his late teens. From the shores of the Nile River to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, his musical journeys have netted more than 4,000 tapes of ethnic music and environmental sounds. He has spent the last 10 years island-hopping in the Pacific, gathering field recordings for a monumental musical work called ``Pacific Odyssey,'' due for completion in the mid-'90s.

In the meantime, Fanshawe's Pacific wanderings have been featured in a two-part ``Adventure'' special on PBS TV: ``Pacific Journey: Adventures of a Musical Mariner.'' (Part 2 airs tonight at 8, check local listings.)

Though Fanshawe has spent more time in the wild than most ordinary composers - qualifying him as an explorer, sound recordist, and archivist - the excursions also serve as a framework for his compositions. Fanshawe's best-known work, ``African Sanctus,'' was inspired by his pilgrimage up the Nile River during the late '60s and early '70s. The choral piece, performed widely in prestigious halls around the world, is a Latin mass harmonized with field recordings he gathered from Egypt to Uganda.

Finding his musical material has never been easy. ``I know what it's like to be alone, lost, and in danger of losing my life,'' says Fanshawe, who even as he speaks looks ready to spring into action, with his khaki trousers, matching paramilitary-style jacket, and cap.

He mentions being imprisoned and roughed up in Africa, dealing with former cannibal cultures, and being washed out to sea (see story at left). He even had a run-in with some hippos once and survived a crash landing in the African bush.

THEN there's the political red tape: ``You don't just barge into a country and expect people to drop everything and perform traditional ceremonies. You have to ask [the government's] permission.'' Arranging get-togethers with locals takes time and lots of patience, he adds.

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``At age 6, I told my parents I wanted to go to Africa and be an explorer,'' says Fanshawe, who was born in Devon, England, and now lives in Australia. Besides dreaming of faraway places, ``I used to invent whole symphonies and sing myself to sleep at night.'' But it wasn't until age 17 that Fanshawe was ``discovered'' by a French baroness who taught him piano and helped him publish some compositions. At 23, he was awarded a four-year composing scholarship by the Royal College of Music, despite his lack of formal training. ``That absolutely saved me,'' he says.

During school in the late '60s, he often hitchhiked across Europe and the Middle East. When he heard Islamic music, it was ``so fresh to me, I thought, `How can these great sounds not be heard in the Western world? Why haven't I heard them before?''' On his next trip, Fanshawe brought a tape recorder.

``Since that day, I've been recording and photographing everything I see on a daily basis,'' says Fanshawe, who then snatches a camera from his bag and snaps a photo of his interviewer.

He keeps painstaking records of every place he visits and every sound he records. His archive of tapes lines the walls of his home in Sydney, where he lives with his wife and baby.

Because of his collection, certain musical forms live on forever, he says. ``I know that the Bwala Dancers of Uganda, nearly all of them, were murdered in the uprisings of the early '70s ... shortly after I made my recording of them. But their dance lives, every time `African Sanctus' is performed.''

According to Fanshawe, the rapid spread of video among the Pacific Islands is taking time and interest away from preserving traditions. People ``are very hungry for shows like `Dallas' and American movies,'' he says. ``I go on long journeys across vast stretches of ocean, yet I find them all watching television at night. And it's hard to ask islanders to practice their traditional songs, to record them, when they are absorbed by `Kojak.'''

HE hears plenty of Western pop music, too - some of which filters through the traditional music. Take the Wagi Brothers Bamboo Band, in Banz, Papua New Guinea, for instance. The players distort the sounds of guitars and ukuleles through amplifiers made from old transistor radios and bang on giant bamboo xylophones with rubber sandals. ``Great stuff,'' says Fanshawe. ``It's traditional, yet contemporary and ever evolving.'' The Wagi brothers are included on Fanshawe's new compact disc, ``Musical Mariner'' (Polygram Records), along with other selections from the ``Adventure'' program; ``African Sanctus'' is being released on CD as well.

Fanshawe has never had a formal sponsor for his work, he says. Instead, he's relied a great deal on private individuals - such as Roman Catholic priests in Tahiti who housed him during an extended stay there. Even now, his trip to the United States includes efforts to obtain funds for maintaining his archive.

But he can't wait to get back ``to the silent world again,'' he says - back to the calm reefs and lagoons of the Pacific. This summer, he heads out to the Tuamotu Archipelago in Polynesia, one of the few Pacific regions left for him to visit.

Fanshawe has already written the opening of ``Pacific Odyssey,'' which will be a full-scale orchestral and choral opus. And he's begun the gargantuan task of cataloging his tapes to make them accessible to ethno-musicologists, linguists, sociologists, and historians.

What will ``Pacific Odyssey'' sound like? It will combine traditional Western instruments and voices with island music such as Tahitian drum dances, Sepik flutes, and gospel chants - not to mention sound effects like Hurricane Oscar, birdsongs, and ships' horns. The theme is ``Here is your child, safeguard him,'' a phrase that comes from an ancient Hawaiian prayer.

To him, says Fanshawe, that means ``protect the environment, look after what you have, honor it, and don't lose your soul.''

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