Lesson 1: Oceania and the Pacific Islands–Instruments

Percussion from Oceania and the Pacific Islands is a confident and cacophonous way to communicate. Drummers “speak” with rhythm, piecing together beats into patterns analogous to sentences, arranging those into longer pieces that form the background rhythms for dancers who further the storytelling with narrative motion. Polynesian drum ensembles, such as those from Tahiti (like this one) and the Cook Islands (like this one) are composed of multiple drums of different sizes and pitches, all of which are made from materials found nearby. A drumming group from the Cook Islands–a set of islands that originated much of the drumming from the region (no matter what the reputation of Tahiti)–will often feature instruments such as the sharply pitched to’ere, pronounced “to-eddie,” which is a narrow cylindrical drum made from a hollowed-out log and hit with a wood stick (see the “to’ere” in action) and the more resonant pahu which drummers hit with padded sticks.

The primary drums of Papua New Guinea, known as “kundu,” are wooden hourglass-shaped drums with a snakeskin head, most often held and struck horizontally, unless the drummers get carried away. Hawaiian drum ensembles rely more on the pahu and on smaller, accenting them with higher-pitched drums to underlie the chants and narrative moves of hula dancing.

Want to make your own Pahu? It’s easy! Just follow the step-by-step instructions included in this 11 part YouTube series. All you have to do is cut down one of your local coconut trees, chop out a drum-sized chunk, remove the bark with a stick, scrape the outer bark off the stump with a slightly angled dropling/draw-knife, spend a couple days with a Japanese spear point plane and a half dozen other tools to get at the next layer…okay, so it’s not so easy. If you don’t have time to make your own pahu, take inspiration from women on the Southern Pacific island of Vanuatu, who participate in “water drumming,” in which they use the ubiquitous blue ocean water to drum out their rhythms. Enjoy some Vanuatu water drumming.

The Polynesian percussion vocabulary, as demonstrated on a to’ere in the YouTube videos linked through this page, has multiple flexible phrases, each of which has a distinct name: Napoko, Toma, second Toma, Pahae, second Pahae, Paea, Puara-Ta, Takoto, Mati, Bora Bora, etc….

More information:
More about Hawaiian Pahu | More about the music of the Cook Islands | For your enjoyment, Cook Island musical and cultural historian Jon Jonassen compiled Drum Beats of the Pacific Volume 1 and Drum Beats of the Pacific Volume 2 | Want to use Maori drumming and Haka war dance as a team building exercise for your corporation? Sure you do! (As the site says, “For the ultimate surprise, we will take the MD/CEO and dress him/her in their own ALL BLACK rugby strip (complete with Maori face paint) and have them perform on stage during the big finale.”) Or, how about using the haka as a team-building exercise for your actual team?

Explore these instruments from Oceania and the Pacific Islands:
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