French Polynesian Culture: Music and Dance
When the missionaries came to Tahiti, they tried to suppress the powerful, life-affirming and sensual sounds and movements that embody Polynesian music and Tahitian dance. In the dance and rhythms, Tahitians give voice to their Mana, allowing it to rise from the sea, descend from the hills, and emanate from the soul of every Polynesian man and woman who falls under its mesmerizing spell. Today’s Tahitian dance and Tahitian music celebrates the resilience of Polynesian culture to overcome and maintain their sacred expressions of life. In ancient times, Tahitian dances were linked with all aspects of life. One would dance to welcome a visitor, to pray, to challenge an enemy or to seduce a mate.
Today’s dance remains a powerful, potent symbol, especially when accompanied by the harmonic voices of the Tahitians, the thunder of traditional drums and plaintive song of conch shells.
Tahitian Music & Song
Traditional Tahitian Instruments
Today’s orchestras use percussion and stringed instruments. Among the percussion is the to’ere; the fa’alete; the pahu with two skins and beaten with a stick and the pahu tupa’i rima, with one skin, that is played with the hands. The stringed instruments consist of the ukulele and the guitar.
Other instruments that had long disappeared from Tahiti culture have progressively made a come-back, those such as the ihara, a split bamboo drum and the vivo, a nasal flute. Finally, all sorts of sounds are obtained by clacking stones, from shells, by using penu (pinion) or coconuts.
Other chants were secular and accompanied the events of everyday life. There are sound reminiscences of collective activities such as beating tapa (bark cloth). In the Marquesas Islands, the chants in religious ceremonies were often only understood by the priests, and were accompanied by drums and handclaps.
During the festivals of Tahitian tradition, the chants progressively accompanied the beat initiated by the pahu drums. The rupture with the Polynesian cultural past is most profound in the domain of music. Perhaps this is because no one bothered to write it down or perhaps it’s because the European influence was imposed very early on without violence.
The European influence started with sailors and their profane songs and music. It continued with the missionaries who brought their canticles and hymns. The himene is a cross between the religious hymns imported by the first Protestant missionaries and polyphonic Tahitian chants that were sung before the arrival of Europeans.
The main forms of himene are himene tarava, himene ru’au and ute. The first two are rooted in English Protestant liturgy and in the pre-European period. Both types of musical expression generally praise a legendary god, a famous chief or protective animals. These songs use very poetic lyrics. Each island and district has its specific interpretations.
In pre-European Polynesia, dances “were many and varied” (W. Ellis, 1831), but little else is known about them. All we know is that both Polynesian men and women danced, together or separately. Certain dances were performed standing up, others sitting down. Musicians used to accompany the dances with a limited number of instruments, essentially the pahu (drum with two skins) the vivo, a nasal flute.
Associated, as was tattooing, with nudity and therefore with immodesty, dancing was forbidden by missionaries. It was not until the 1950s that this ancestral art found its place again among Polynesian customs, and was reborn thanks to Tahitian natives’ oral transmission and the writing of travelers.
Types Of Tahitian Dancing
In Tahitian dancing today there are, four types of dance.
The Otea: this must have been originally a somewhat military dance among Tahitian natives, reserved for men. It has become the most famous of the Tahitian dances. It is choreographed around a theme and its musical accompaniment is performed on percussion and made up of rhythmical motifs called pehe.
The Aparima: in this dance, the hands of the Tahitian dancers mime history. The aparima can be either vava (silent) and consist of pantomime, generally performed while kneeling and accompanied by percussion or it can be sung, aparima himene, and the movements are in time to the chant which is accompanied by stringed instruments.
The Hivinau: during this choreography, male and female dancers wend round in a circle and a male soloist voices a phrase that the choir takes up. The orchestra is made up of various drums and the pace is maintained by the dancers’ songs.
The Pa’o’a: this dance seems to be derived from the movements used to make tapa (a sort of parchment made from vegetable matter). Male and female dancers crouch down in a semi-circle. A male soloist voices a theme that the choir answers. A couple get up and perform a short dance in the circle to the sound of ‘hi’s and ‘ha’s.
The other archipelagos were greatly influenced by Tahitian dancing, but they have preserved certain of their own dances such as the bird dance in the Marquesas, kapa in the Tuamotus and pe’i in the Gambiers.
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