Want to make your own Tahitian Pahu drum to use in your Tahitian drumming ensemble? 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 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.
Polynesian drumming ensembles, such as those from Tahiti — like the one in this video — 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 and the more resonant pahu, such as the Tahitian bass pahu, which drummers hit with padded sticks.
This week our online classes finally take us to Polynesia — yay Melanesia!, yay Micronesia!, but super-yay to the thousands of glorious islands of Polynesia! This week we specifically land in French Polynesia, and, even more specifically, in the French Polynesian nation of Tahiti. The first inhabitants of Tahiti arrived between about 300 and 800 CE, having traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific from other island groups, mostly Polynesian ones, like Samoa and Tonga. As on many Polynesian islands, Tahitian society is organized based upon a complex interplay of chiefdoms, clans and the power dynamics between them. In Tahiti, clan leaders were powerful but not all-powerful; they generally made decisions in consultation with general assemblies. Tahitian culture had a strong oral tradition involving an extensive mythology based on tales about various gods, as well as extensive traditions surrounding tattooing and navigation. Tahitians opposed colonization byt the French for centuries, supporting a strong succession of kings from Pōmare line. In 1880 the French forced Pōmare V, to abdicate the throne. In 1946 France made all of French Polynesia an “overseas territory” and granted Tahitians French citizenship. In 2003 French Polynesia became an “overseas collectivity” and in 2004 it transformed into “an overseas country.”
The most distinctive indigenous Chamorro instrument is a one-stringed bow called a “belembaotuyan.” This cousin of the Brazilian berimbau appears at Chamorro weddings or other celebrations. According to Guampedia’s introduction to the belembaotuyan, “the meaning of belembao in Chamorro means ‘swaying of the trees’ and tuyan means ‘stomach.’ Essentially, belembaotuyan means either a ‘one-stringed belly echo’ or ‘vibrations of the belly.'” We like both.
One of Guam’s favorite traditions is “Kantan Chamorro,” a playful tradition of improvised poetry and silly, taunting song. A Kantan Chamorro session might start with one singer choosing a familiar four-line chant and using it to tease another member of the group, who then pick up the musical challenge and tease back. This interplay can last for hours. The poetic interplay of Kantan Chamorrita is part of a widespread global tradition of jousting through poetry and song, which appears in the Caribbean as an “extempo war,” in Lebanon as “zajal,” in Greenland as a “drum dance” and in the U.S. as a rap battle.
Yesterday we met a man who is arguably Guam’s favorite Chamorro musician, roots rocker J.D. Crutch. Let’s listen to one more song in this video as we appreciate the appreciation Guampedia expresses for this “Talofofo Boy”: “The musician ‘J.D. Crutch’ was a man who was both artist and outlaw, in a manner of speaking….His voice was a blend of Rod Stewart raunch and the nasal sound of the Chamorro techas who lead prayers at Guam rosaries and novenas.”
One of Guam’s most popular Chamorro-language rockers of all time is J.D. Crutch. Born in 1955, the son of one of the Guamanians
who captured jungle-hiding Japanese World War II “straggler” Shoichi Yokoi, John Anthony Castro Duenas became known as “J.D. Crutch” after he had to adopt the use of crutches due to a childhood bout with polio. When Crutch was young he was an enthusiastic singer of Kantan Chamorita, traditional Chamorro poetic songs that often take the form of competitions between two vocalists competing to impress the crowd, often by taunting their opponents. Crutch’s quick wit and broad irreverence made him a natural and propelled him through an energetic career as a Chamorro roots-rock star. Crutch passed away in 1996.
We start our week in the Mariana Islands in Guam, where we are the special guests at an intimate party in the backyard of a Chamorro family. “Careless Love” is an old jazz-blues standard, a traditional tune with lyrical variations aplenty that has been an active part of the repertoires of jazz and blues artists since the beginning of the 1900’s. Musicians have taken many liberties with the song’s lyrics, but the story always has to do with a broken relationship, destroyed by one partners’ carelessness, or lack of depth in love. W.C. Handy’s 1926 “Loveless Love” compares “loveless love” to artificial food: “Oh love oh love oh loveless love, Has set our heart on goal-less goals,, From milkless milk and silkless silk, We are growing used to soul-less souls.” The version we hear in this video blends traditional lyrics with a version in Chamorro, the main indigenous peoples’ language of Guam. Enjoy this Chamorro cover song performed at the Camacho family’s home. A translation: “Why are you like that baby to me. Please come closer to me and I’ll tell you how my heart is hurting. We’ve been together a long time. And now this is our situation. Baby please tell me what have I done wrong To make your heart also hurt.”
We spend this week in our online classes among the Marianas, a chain of islands in Micronesia. Archaeologists aren’t of one mind about the exact history of the people who initially populated the Mariana Islands, but most suggest people first arrived from Southeast Asia, likely from Indonesia, about two thousand years B.C. The people came to be called the Chamorro, and they developed their own language as well as a particularly stratified social structure that is fairly similar to that in place in other nations in Micronesia. The first European visitors to the Marianas — consisting of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands — arrived in 1521 with Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing on behalf of Spain, which eventually colonized; over time an estimated 90%-95% of the islands’ original Chamorro population either died from diseases they caught from the Spanish or married non-Chamorro settlers. By the late 19th century the Germans and Americans claimed the islands too. Early in World War I Japan invaded the Northern Marianas and a day after attacking the U.S. at Pearl Harbor in 1941 brutally took Guam. U.S. forces fought defeated the Japanese in 1944. Today, Guam is an “unincorporated territory” of the U.S.. and the Northern Mariana Islands are considered a “commonwealth” — both are considered “insular areas.” The islands sometimes ponder reuniting politically, but memories of the incredibly difficult relations between the two during wartime years still remain.
We’re on a roll now…so let’s visit one more island nation in Micronesia — the Marshall Islands. Until World War II the Marshall Islands followed much the same historical path as the other island nations in Micronesia; first there were people who spent a thousand or so years developing their own clan-based culture, then there was Spanish exploration, then German colonization resulting in the islands becoming part of German New Guinea, then, in 1914, absorption into the Japanese empire. The Japanese settled the Marshall Islands heavily and replaced local paramount chiefs, who had ruled the Marshall Islands for centuries, with Japanese-appointed leaders. During World War II the United States bombed the Marshall Islands extensively and then invaded in 1944. The battles were harsh and many Marshallese, Japanese, Koreans, and Americans perished there. After taking the Marshall Islands the U.S. used the nation as a staging base for more Pacific campaigns. In 1979 the Marshall Islands became independent since then the nation has signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States. The compact assures the Marshall Islands of U.S. military defense while also allowing the U.S. to maintain a missile testing facility on Kwajalein Atoll.