It will be my great pleasure to be able to discuss,
at least in a much broader outline, a little more
about the beautiful traditional music of Polynesia.
This will be in the context of the origins and the
early migration of the Polynesian people. The word
"Polynesia" means "many islands" - it comes from
the Greek words 'poly' which means many and
'nesos' which means "island".
Polynesia is a group of island chains spread
across much of the Pacific Ocean, and includes
many countries and territories. Internationally,
Polynesian music is mostly associated with
twinkling guitars and grass skirts, Hawaiian hula
and other tourist-friendly forms of music. While
these elements are justifiably a part of Polynesian
history and culture, there is actually a wide variety
of music made in the far-flung reaches of Polynesia.
Interestingly, recent studies of DNA in Taiwan has
provided some interesting conclusions about the
origins of the Polynesian and Melanesian people.
Certainly, linguistic studies have pointed to
the fact that the Polynesians, undoubtedly the
greatest seafarers in history, have their
origins in Taiwan.
Of the 23 million people in Taiwan, only
400,000 are descendants from the original
inhabitants. These people originally spoke
a language belonging to the Austronesian
group which is unrelated to Chinese but
includes the Polynesian tongues.
DNA studies of the original group found
three mutations shared by Taiwanese,
Polynesians and Melanesians, who also
speak Austronesian. These mutations are
not found in other Asians and hence suggest
that the Polynesians and Melanesians have
their origins in the original inhabitants
Certainly, human occupation of Oceania -
those vast reaches of the Pacific encompassing
Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia - began
on Papua and Papua New Guinea. It is on here
that archaeologists have dug primitive stone
tools and charcoal more than 25,000 years old
from camp sites used during the last Ice Age,
when sea levels were lower and the distances
between Australia, Papua New Guinea and the
other Indonesian islands were much less.
When melting ice raised the level of the
ocean and increased distances between land
falls, Papua New Guinea and its dark-skinned
inhabitants - Melanesians - became more
isolated until the coming of the brown-skinned
people - out of island Asia - Indonesia, the
Philippines and Taiwan.
In their outrigger and double canoes with sails
of plaited leaves, the latter reached New Guinea
and nearby islands about 4,500 years ago, but
did not dislodge the Melanesians they found
already living there. Among these seafarers were
the ancestors of the Polynesians. Using Fiji as
a staging area, some eventually sailed on to
uninhabited Tonga and Samoa.
Indeed, to have developed the physical types,
language, and culture that the Polynesians share
in common, these Polynesian forebears must
have been isolated for a time in a home group
of islands. A chain of archaeological discoveries
leads us to believe that this isolation started
in the islands of Tonga and Samoa roughly 3,000
years ago. Radiocarbon of Lapita pottery has
suggested that Tonga is the longest-inhabited
island group in Polynesia, with radiocarbon
dates as early as 1140 B.C. Thus we conclude
that Tonga's first settlers, the people who made
Lapita ware, were the first true Polynesians.
Language ties indicate that this migration
continued via Samoa eastward to the
Marquesas, where the oldest sites in Eastern
Polynesia have been found. Far to the
southeast of the Marquesas lies evidence of
a truly remarkable feat - a voyage to Easter
Island, some 2,400 miles away, in the face
of prevailing winds and currents. Polynesia's
easternmost outpost, Easter Island, is not
only the most isolated inhabited island in the
Pacific, but it is only 15 miles long.
The sites on Easter Island show clear evidence
when considered in conjunction with the
archaeology and languages of the Society and
Marquesas Islands indicate strongly that the
pre-historic culture of Easter Island could
have evolved from a single landing of
Polynesians from a Marquesan island, fully
equipped to colonise an uninhabited volcanic
island. Their success in making this windswept
sixty-four square miles, without an edible native
plant, not only habitable but also the seat of
remarkable cultural achievements, is testimony
to the genius of these Polynesian settlers.
A study of excavated adzes, fish hooks,
ornaments and other artefacts indicates that
Tahiti and the other Society Islands must
have been settled soon after the Marquesas.
Present information indicates that Hawaii and
New Zealand were settled after A.D. 500.
Radiocarbon techniques permit us to assign
tentative dates to this entire Pacific migration:
entry into West Polynesia about 1000 B.C.,
reaching East Polynesia about the time of
Christ completing the occupation by
In central and eastern Pacific is a large triangular
area referred to as the Polynesian Triangle.
The triangle is formed by a line drawn from Hawaii
to new Zealand, bending westward to include the
Ellice Islands (Tuvalu) and passing between Fiji
and Tonga. This north to south forms the base.
Easter Island is the apex, located 4,000 miles to
the east. The Marquesas lie almost to the center
of the eastern line; from Easter in the south to
Hawaii in the north. Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti and
Cook islands are surrounded by the triangle.
New Zealand, the farthest south group of
It was in the Polynesian Triangle that the unique
and beautiful Polynesian culture evolved over
hundreds and, indeed, thousands of years. The
striking unity of the languages spoken in these
different islands, as well as sufficient similarities
in their arts, culture, custom and tradition allow
the world scientists and anthropologists to agree
that the Polynesians are a racial unit. It is
also here that the beautiful traditional music of
Polynesia has its origins.
The early music of Polynesia was composed
of rhythm instruments and vocals; they
comprise mainly chants without any harmonic
structure and without any oriental or occidental
influence. This early music was very fundamental
although some islands did use flutes and drums
to accompany their singing.
As there was no written language to record the
history of the Pacific Islands, it was our beautiful
island music that provided one essential record
of our heritage and this was passed from generation
to generation. Besides the tales of migration and
wars, the daily life of our Pacific Island people
was chronicled in our music. Throughout most of
Polynesia, contemporary music has been influenced
by outside influences. The only major stronghold to
retain traditional culture without much evolution
has been Tonga, which has pursued a relatively
Throughout Tonga, traditional music has been
preserved in the set pieces performed at royal
and noble weddings and funerals, as well as in
the song sung during the traditional ceremony
of apology, the 'lou-ifi'.
Radio Tonga begins each day's broadcast with
a recording by a nobleman and celebrated virtuoso
of the nose flute which is otherwise rarely heard.
Some ancient dances such as the ula are still
performed. The 'lali' or slit-gong, is still in use --
as a substitute for a church bell by congregations
that cannot afford a bell.
Generally throughout Polynesia, the lyrics of
traditional songs are by far more important
than the melodic accompaniment, as it is the
lyrics that contain the elements of our cultural
heritage that are being preserved such as the
stories of the people, genealogies, histories
and migrations. Elements like rhythm melody,
harmony and dance are traditionally viewed
as accompaniment to the primary focus, the
lyrics, serving to embellish, illustrate and
decorate the words.
It is important to remember, however, that song
and dance are integral parts of the same cultural
elements throughout Polynesia. In action songs,
dance is used to illustrate the lyrics by moving
the hands or arms; some dances are performed seated.
Traditionally, dance moves do not illustrate the
song's narrative, but rather draw attention to
specific words and themes; in modern times,
however, dances are more often explicitly narrative
in their focus. There are also traditional dances
performed without lyrics, to the accompaniment
of percussive music.
The most important instrument is the voice, though
multiple varieties of slit drums and conch shells are
also popular; the human body is used as an instrument,
with clapping and knee-slapping used accompany songs
and dances. Other instruments include the pandanus,
a sitting mat that is also used as a percussion
instrument, nose flutes and, later, derivatives of
Portuguese guitars such as the ukulele and slack-key
In the 1790s, Christian missionaries arrived in
Polynesia for the first time. Hymns and other forms
of Christian music were instituted, and native musical
genres were largely driven underground and prohibited.
Soon, traditional polyphonic singing was merged with
Christian styles and church singing became an important
part of Polynesian culture across the Pacific.
The music of Polynesian is the most well known music
from Oceania. It includes everything from the Hawaiian
hula and steel-guitar traditions to joyful, polyphonic
choral music of Tahiti. Though traditional instruments
such as slit-gongs and nose-flutes can be found throughout
the region, the voice has long been the most important
instrument among Polynesian peoples. Whether singing
Christian hymns imported by missionaries or traditional
songs such as the 'lakalaka' of Tonga that date back
generations, their choral music is unsurpassed. Also
important in Polynesian musical culture is dance, both
to accompany "action songs" such as the hula and the
'aparima' of Tahiti, or in the signature seated-dance
styles such as Western Samoa's 'ma'ulu'ulu'. Polynesia
also offers the unique music of New Zealand's Maori
people, whose legendary 'hakka' dance can still send
shivers down an onlooker's spine.
I do hope that you have enjoyed this brief outline
of the origins of our traditional and beautiful
Polynesian music. In the next edition, it will be
my great pleasure to share with you a little more
information on the origins of the traditional music
of our beautiful Micronesia!
PACIFIC CHANTS: TRADITIONAL MUSIC
OF EASTERN POLYNESIA
David Fanshawe presents important highlights
from his monumental Pacific Collections, recorded
over fourteen years (1978-1992). The selections
focus on the rich variety of authentic himene (hymns)
indigenous to Tahiti, the Cook Islands, the Society
Islands, the Austral Islands, Manihiki, Pukapuka,
Maupiti, Tahaa, Bora Bora, and Raivavae. The 20
tracks include a valuable collection of traditional
music including, The Signing Reef 1 - 5, Legend
of Maupiti and Marae Arahurahu.
RUIA AND RANEA
The talented Maori twins, Ruia and Ranea Aperahama,
deliver a celebration of contemporary Maori music that
is performed completely in the Maori language. The
musical styles include reggae, soul, Latin rhythm elements,
and a strong spiritual theme that ties the album together,
giving it a natural Maori essence.
Soul Paua are Jerry Banse and Turi Reedy. Jerry is
Samoan, Turei, a Maori. Their music is in te reo,
sometimes in English and a mix of rock, jazz, blues
folk and traditional Maori music. Their debut album
is based on the story of an urban young Maori prophet
and is currently being developed as a stage production.
The songs on the album follow the story of one man
from his birth, the troubles he is confronted with,
the prophetic abilities he discovers and how he
reflects on his journey.
The themes talk about the ability of anyone to
do anything at any time. The story is based on
the tales of Maui and the prophets - both of
which came from unlikely beginnings. Maui
was abandoned at birth and the prophets were
often considered rebels or on the outside of
That's all for now. I wish you all a wonderful
and prosperous day. Thank you.
For further information, please check my four