French Polynesia–Music


Before missionaries made their way to French Polynesia in the early 19th century, public music in French Polynesia deeply intertwined with dance to enable musicians and dancers to tell “multimedia” stories. Polynesian rhythms and dances are often a direct form of cultural and spiritual communication. 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) are composed of multiple drums of different sizes and pitches, all of which are made from materials found nearby. A drumming group 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, such as the Tahitian bass pahu, which drummers hit with padded sticks.

(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.)

When Christian missionaries arrived in French Polynesia most considered the music as primitive and too seductive in nature; colonial authorities regularly banned much Polynesian music, replacing it with hymns and other forms of “more appropriate” songs. French Polynesians took quickly to Christian music, called “himene” (hymns), and by the early 20th century three general types of himene had developed:

1) Himene tarava: features a large choir (up to 80 singers) composed of men and women who sing in complicated multi-part, multi-tone harmonies. According to National Geographic’s page on the music of Tahiti, “this form of singing…is distinguished by a unique drop in pitch at the end of the phrases, which is a characteristic formed by several different voices; it is also accompanied by steady grunting of staccato, nonsensical syllables.” [An example of himene tarava.]

2) Himene ru’au: slow a capella songs, usually sung by a choir and soloists sitting in a semicircle. [An example of himene ru’au]

3) ‘Ute: celebratory songs, often with a satirical tone, that a small number of people sing accompanied by guitars and/or ukeleles. [An example of ‘ute. And another.]

Today Polynsesian string bands like Tahiti’s Te Ava Piti combine multi-part (polyphonic) harmonies with guitars and Tahitian ukeleles to create uplifting songs tailor made for your family feast or community party. There are also slower, more romantic songs that blend Polynesia and the West; musicians play string band instruments and dancers accompany with an ‘aparima dance. Even much of today’s Tahitian pop music uses Polynesian percussion or chanting as its foundation, meshing ancient island instruments and sounds with electronica or Euro-pop.

More information:
National Geographic on Polynesian Choral Singing | National Geographic on Polynesian String Bands | JanesOceania on the music of Tahiti | Don’t you dare miss the Heiva i Tahiti festival in July

In class we’re going to listen to:

— The Tahitian Choir, “Tangi Maha Te” and “Te Tia Mamoe”
In 1992 French musicologist Pascal Nabet-Meyer recorded a group called The Tahitian Choir from the French Polynesian island of Rapa Iti singing Polynesian microtonal and polyrhythmic songs. The album became an unlikely global hit. French Polynesian choral music mixes Polynesian polyphonic harmonies with Church-inspired hymns. The style features many voices singing complicated, intertwining harmonies, as well as a distinct and unique drop in pitch at the ends of vocal phrases. Singers also are known to grunt to add emphasis to the music. Listen to the Tahitian Choir sing “Te Moko.”

— from Toa Reva, “Chants et danses de Tahiti (The Best of Traditional Music from Tahiti),”

“I Ruga Ima Uga Pu”

— Toa’Ura, “E Miti Afa’i Hau”
Toa’Ura, meaning “Red Warriors,” is a multifaceted Tahitian ensemble that fuses traditional Polynesian percussion and melodies with contemporary Western instruments and song structures. To get a sense of how this works–and it works very well–you can watch many
Toa’Ura videos on YouTube, such as in this series from a live performance, dancers and all: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7. Plus, sing karaoke to “E Miti Afa’i Hau.”

In class we’re not going to listen to Guy Gorgeous.

Comments are closed.