This season in our online classes we’re going to celebrate so many cultures of Pacific Islands — singing, dancing and enjoying holidays that we meet in our classrooms. Fortunately for us, people across the Pacific revel in their rich multiculturalism too. Here, from the Solomon Islands, is an example of a light-hearted performance at a “Sing Sing,” a Pacific cultural celebration that inspires dancers to put their best feet forward as they compete with ensembles from other villages or islands. We will experience more Sing Sings as we sing forth around the region.
Oh, we’re doing to dance this season as we travel through Oceania and the Pacific Islands. Pacific dance ensembles, like the one in this video from the French Polynesian Marquesas Islands, can be riveting. We will hop like Huli Wigmen in PNG, pilou pilou with swishing straw in New Caledonia, tahiri tamau (boom boom!) in Tahiti . . . .
In Oceania and the Pacific Islands percussion 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 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.
Introducing Oceania and the Pacific Islands! Today in All Around This World’s online classes for kids we begin an adventure that will take us to one of the most naturally beautiful, geographically fantastical and musically exuberant regions of the world. Oceania and the Pacific Islands are a vast and – until the very recent advent of air travel – practically impenetrable array of thousands of islands that rise above the now-rising waters of the Pacific Ocean. The 300,000 square miles of land are strewn across millions of square miles of ocean. Water defines the life in all but the largest of the area’s land masses; the incredible distances between earthen peaks are as much a character in the region’s story as the histories and complex cultural customs of the peoples themselves.
For the next three months we will be traveling clockwise, more or less, around the region. We’ll start in Australia whose two-headed tale of ancient Aboriginal and comparably recent British population continues to unfold. There we’ll join Aboriginal youth on a metaphorical coming-of-age Walkabout. In Papua New Guinea we’ll compete as Huli Wigmen in a Sing-Sing, in Fiji we’ll use our hands to dance a story about the sea. In New Caledonia we’ll meet French colonizers and Kanak life-cycle celebrations and in Kiribati we’ll wake up before dawn to climb a coconut tree. In Guam we appreciate the saints with a feast, in Tahiti we shake our hips to a frenetic beat, and in the Cook Islands we sing harmony with a dozen disparate voices. In Hawaii we strike a chord for equality by eating pretend poi, and we end in New Zealand with a terrifying, and cathartic, dance. Over the course of the season we’ll learn two dozen songs that will introduce us to the rhythms of the deep wood drums that resonate beyond the boundaries of the shore and to melodies that rise from volcanic peaks to the endless sky.
This week in class we sing “Tulo Tulo,” a Ugandan lullaby, which we first learned from Eastern Uganda’s Abayudaya Jews.: “Tulo tulo, go to sleep my pretty baby, dream sweetly through the night….” Enjoy this performance of “Tulo Tulo” by Philly Lutaaya, one of Uganda’s most admired musicians. Before Lutaaya passed away in 1989, a victim of AIDS, he became one of the first prominent voices in Africa to speak out about the disease. Toward the end of his life he performed and lectured in schools and churches around the nation, speaking for the dignity of people living with HIV. His last album was the before-its-time, stunningly frank, “Alone and Frightened.”
Yesterday we heard a 1920s recording of the classic, and classically sad, Cajun song, “J’ai Passé.” We don’t avoid sad songs in All Around This World classes, though, most often, when we sing sad folk songs we still find some way to have fun. So, here, we don’t just wallow in sorrow. Instead we sing, bounce and tickle. We take the lead in this from folk musicians themselves, like Cajun musicians who sing “J’ai Passé” at Cajun dance parties while music fans dance the two-step.
This week in class we sing “J’ai Passé,” is a well-known Cajun classic from Louisiana. It’s the sad tale of someone who goes to visit a love, passing by the friend’s doorway and calling their name. Upon not receiving an answer the singer goes inside, see funeral candles and realizes the object of affection has passed away. In this video you’ll hear a classic version of the classic, a 1920’s performance by Cleoma Falcon.
On our best days All Around This World welcomes kids to class during the South and Central Asian season with, “Ilelele,” a rollicking east Indian welcome song — specifically from Assam, a far eastern state of India. We first heard on the Smithsonian Folkways recording, “Songs of Assam, Uttar Pradesh, and the Andamans” (listed as “Abor No. 4”). According to the album’s liner notes the song “is usually sung on occasions when some guests are received by the village folk,” and summarizes the lyrics like this: “Many people from outside are our guests this evening. The people of our village have also gathered. So you girls should now sing loudly and entertain the assembly here with whatever music they want to hear.” This video is a treat — the Sand Family band performing the song at the Wild Rose, Wisconsin, public library in 2018.
This week in class we sing “Ilelele,” a song from the far eastern Indian state of Assam. Nestled at the foot of the Himalayas between Bhutan and Bangladesh, Assam is a center of eco-tourism in India, promoting itself as the home of Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, and the almost-but-not-quite extinct one-horned Indian rhinoceros. Assamese culture is a fluid mix of influences from the many ethnic groups that have mingled in the region, like North Indian Vedics, Tibetans, Bamar, Shan and many others from as far east as China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. We don’t do the Assamese Bihu dance in class, but, watching this video, we can’t think of a good reason why not.
This week in on online class we sing our version of “Jangar,” a celebration of the Oirat/Kalmyk epic tale of Jangar the great warrior. The Kalmyks are the only group of people in Europe’s that are of Mongolian-ancestried, primarily Buddhist people. They originated as one of the ancient Oirat peoples of Western Mongolia, moving westward in the 17th century to avoid conflict with the Chinese/Eastern Mongolians. Unfortunately they ran into the eastwardly expanding Russian empire. While in the 18th century some tried to return to Mongolia, most stayed in Russia, constantly struggling to maintain their language, culture and religion, and eventually suffering terribly in the ‘40s and ‘50 when Stalin forced migration to Siberia. Most Kalmyks returned to Russia in the late ‘50, and today the Russian republic of Kalmykia is the only majority-Buddhist region of Europe.