POLYNESIAN MUSIC

 Extract from Jane's Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter (Island Music), 5th June 2006

In this edition of our Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter, 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 of Taiwan.

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 A.D.1000.

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, is the farthest south group of Polynesian Islands.

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 isolationist history. 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 guitar.

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.

Thank you so much for visiting the above four Domains. I am very pleased to be able to share with you that further limited advertising on Polynesia Music Page, along with other Web Pages within the above three Domains, are now available. Potential advertisers are cordially invited to choose from several thousand Web sites available for placement of your important advertisements. For further information, please contact me at:

jane@janeresture.com or jane@pacificislandsradio.com


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!

More Polynesian Music images to be included on this page ...

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