Thursday, September 9, 2010

Oceania - The Hawaiian Music And Dance

Welcome Everybody!

It will be my great pleasure to be able to spend
a little time discussing the relationship between
the traditional music and dance forms of Oceania
with particular reference to the beautiful
Hawaiian hula.

In this respect there is often some confusion
as to which comes first, the music or the dance.
In a general sense it is fair to say that the
music, in the absence of any written language,
was one of the primary means by which much of
the cultural heritage of island people was
passed from one generation to the next.
Indeed the origins of traditional music are
generally quite obscure with the music having
been handed down by older folk to the younger
children. Composing traditional music involves
a considerable amount of ritualism and magic.

The composer does not compose the music
himself, but rather the song or songs are given
to the composers in a mythical setting - possibly
in a dream or a trance. The task of the composer
is then to follow the secret methodology that
his/her predecessors had passed on to him/her
to produce a song that is regarded as being
magically blessed.

In addition to traditional forms of music, the
second method of composing songs is one which
involves no magic and results from somebody
wishing to have a song made for him. In this
case, the person tells the story to be told to
the composer who listens intently and full of
concentration. At a later time, the composer
may ask for further information and the person
requesting the song must provide all the needed
details. The most commonly composed songs of this
nature are love songs. These are often about love
for someone you will never see again or a place
that you have left behind.

The most popular ones, however, are about love
between a boy and a girl, a man and a woman or
a husband and a wife.

The Polynesians are natural musicians and the
Samoans are no exception. They love to hear and
sing good music. Robert Louis Stevenson once said
that the Samoans composed a song for every trivial
occasion. . . Song is almost endless. The boatman
sings at the oar, the family at evening worship,
and the workman at his toil. No occasion is too
small for the poets and the musicians; a death, a
visit, the day's news and pleasantries will be set
to rhyme and harmony.

In this context, the dance forms resulting from the
music becomes an exciting visual and artistic
interpretation of this cultural heritage, including
love songs, conveyed by the music. Older style dancing
motions are slow, swaying and interpretive. Chants
and old poems are sung and recited on special
occasions. They are often referred to in speeches
and debates. They are also used to figure the time
of past historical events. The faataupati (clapping
in syncopation dance) is accompanied by ancient
war songs and drums.

Ancient and modern Samoan dances do not
use songs in three-four tempo. Most of the
songs composed for single or group dancers
are in four-four and two-four tempos. Drums
have often been used to accompany the
ancient dancers.

The early Tuvaluans, untouched by western
influences and aspirations, highly valued their
traditional singing and dancing. Apart from
simply providing entertainment, the fakanau
and fakaseasea, which were formerly very
popular form for dance, were composed to
commemorate the reign of an aliki or toa,
or to praise certain outstanding figures for
their skills in canoe building, fishing, house
building or for their wealth or bravery within
the community.

The fakanau which has a tune that is
between speech and singing was performed
while dancers are standing on their feet.
The rhythm of the fakanau is much quicker
than those of the fakaseasea and the present
day fatele. With the arrival of the
missionaries, because of the wide swaying
movements and actions required in the fakanau
were considered to be sexually stimulating,
efforts were made to put an end to this
kind of dancing. At first it was difficult,
but as more and more people came to accept
the new religious beliefs the pastors
became powerful and influential figures
who ultimately dominated the rights of the
aliki. Because of this the fakanau, which
the pastors regarded as evil dancing,
gradually declined until it disappeared

The fakaseasea is said to be as old as the
fakanau. This type of dancing is still
performed nowadays by elders. Unlike the
fakanau, the fakaseasea is sung much slower
to a lovely tune and has one or two
performers dancing on their feet. Normally
the fakaseasea requires no uniformity of
actions but the performers are free to make
actions which express the meanings of the
words. The survival of the fakaseasea up to
the present time is due to the fact that the
first pastors, fascinated by the lovely tune
and the gentle slow actions of the fakaseasea,
did not do anything to stop people from
performing it. However, in the early days the
unique fakanau did not only play an important
part in social entertainment but also in
worshipping. The faleaitu (house for gods) in
which the people worshipped their gods is
where one could hear different rituals and
fakanau. There were specially composed
fakanau which could convey to the gods the
worshippers' gratitude together with pleas for
mercy. During communal work such as digging
of pulaka pits the women sang and danced on
the banks while the men were busy digging.
In this way singing and dancing encouraged the
men and stopped them from getting tired easily.

Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote of Kiribati
Mwaie (Ruoia) that was performed on Butaritari:
"Of all they call dance in the Pacific, the
performance I saw on Butaritari was easily the
best...Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul: it
makes one thrill with emotion, it uplifts one, it
conquers one: it has the essence of all great art:
an immediate and far from exhausted appeal".

In Hawaii, traditional chants fall into two broad
categories referred to as mele oli and mele hula.
Before the arrival of Europeans in Hawai'i, the
term mele was used to mean "poetic language;"
it has since evolved to mean song. In early
Hawai'i, there was no melodic singing. Special
bards, or haku mele, spent years learning to
compose, recite and teach others to perform
the ancient chants, beginning their training
while still children.

Mele oli are chants unaccompanied by any
instrument that are generally performed by
one individual; while mele hula are chants
accompanied by dance or by dance and
musical instruments. Mele hula are often
performed by more than one person. Indeed,
there are dozens of kinds of chants, formal
and informal for specific occasions: mele pule
or prayer chants; mele inoa, an individual's
name chant; mele koihonua, which recounts
a person's genealogy; mele he'e nalu, a surfing
chant. There were chants of angst, chants to
grumble or praise, chants of affection, chants
to make a request of someone.

The power (mana) of a chant, lies in its
hidden meanings, or kaona. Hidden meanings,
such as rain as a metaphor for love, could
make a chant both a recounting of an actual
event within a family's history, or it could
tell of the love and passion that one person
might feel for another, depending on who
heard and understood the chant.

As the missionary influence became stronger
in the islands and the use of the Hawaiian
language was forbidden in public schools
in 1896, the art of chanting diminished and
indeed, many of the old chants have sadly
been lost forever. Fortunately, in the last
decade, a renaissance of pride in the
Hawaiian culture and the rebirth of the
Hawaiian language through immersion
classes for youngsters have brought
about a revival of chanting.

Unfortunately, in Hawaii, as in much of the
Pacific, the missionaries also did their best
to destroy the native dance forms, and, in
particular, the "lewd and lascivious Hawaii
hula". But they wrote detailed accounts of
the dances in their diaries, and these,
ironically, have provided a basis for the
current revival of the ancient and beautiful

In this context it is certainly pleasing to
see that Kulia i ka Punawai--Kumu Hula
Association of Southern California (a
non-profit organization of kumu hula--master
hula instructors--dedicated to perpetuation
of hula) has produced a new and exciting CD .
Titled "Kalakaua," the CD presents
contemporary settings of historical poetic
repertoire that honours Hawai'i's King David
Kalakaua. The centrepiece is a set of 15 mele
composed for Kalakaua's Birthday Jubilee in
1886, and published in the Hawaiian-language
newspapers. The CD contains the work of
some twelve award-winning kumu hula who
live and teach throughout Southern California.
Every one of the 15 mele is by a different
kumu hula, and the finale of the set, as well
as one other track on the CD, are mass numbers
in which all kumu hula participated. All texts
and translations are included with the CD, as
well as a historical essay. The CD should be
available through and also even
iTunes. In the mean time you are invited to
visit Punawai's temporary website at

It is certainly worth mentioning that this project
represents unprecedented collaborative effort
of hula practice and scholarly research. The
scale of historical reconstruction exceeds
anything undertaken to date. The results are
indeed a remarkable testament to the strength
and depth of the tradition of the magnificent
Hawaii hula in the 21st century.

That's all for now. I wish you all a wonderful
and prosperous day.

For further information, please check my four Domains:

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