The South Pacific immediately conjures up the picture of a land of paradise rich in adventure, excitement and mystique. The original inhabitants of these Islands were adventurous pioneers that took on Tagaloa’s (God of the sea) challenge to take to the sea, to explore and conquer the largest Ocean on the planet with a simple canoe. Ingeniously augmenting the single-hulled canoe into the more elaborate and spacious double-hulled canoe enabled whole families and communities to travel long distances between these Islands of paradise. Guided only by the stars at night and the patterns of the sea currents by day they quickly learned and understood the ways of the sea. These master navigators could find an Island thousands of miles away with amazing accuracy. At the same time their counterparts in Europe were only able to sail while closely hugging the coastline.
Traditional South Pacific Music has been the centre of much speculation whether by students doing their university thesis or the enthusiastic ethnomusicologists. These studies in many cases have been done referencing others who were referring to those who went to the Islands interviewing elders and recording whatever traditional music they found at that time, then cross referencing with other studies etc. It makes sense that this research would then be seen as the basis as what is regarded as “True” on the subject of South Pacific Music. But it was only based on what was captured and determined on that trip and in that particular capsule of time. I think just as valid, is to extrapolate out by also considering traditional music from other regions as they will be found to share much in common. These regions also had incantations for their own Gods, developed their instruments from what was readily available in their environments. Unacknowledged is the fact that in every one of these areas certain groups of people were given the task of writing chants/songs to record important events. This is how music in general was first developed. Music makers from the very beginning were validated for the important role they played within every society. They kept their group and society motivated with words of hope and satisfied with them words that pleased the gods, with appropriate music to mourn and music for celebration. They were always looking for new ideas to inspire and create new works that eventually would become assimilated into their own culture. They were the historians/record keepers even before the written word, without them this history would have been lost.
In the beginning chants were used to summon the gods for favours, for permission to go fishing or simply cleanse ones sins and injustices or to ask for help. Rituals were also developed for more formal and serious occasions. In these ancient times the songs or chants were mainly sung in monotone as melody was introduced much later through outside influences. The close family communities would sing songs of celebration or sadness, these songs were written by the nominated music makers. Simple rhythms accompanied the chants made by clapping using sticks or body percussion and so was recorded each story to be passed down from generation to generation.
Traditional South Pacific Music is not dissimilar to any other geographical area of the world. The Polynesians had many gods with as many incantations to call and appease depending on the circumstances. With different Islands settled over time they each developed their own distinct sound and style. Naturally the inhabitants would visit each other and return to their respective Islands with these new sounds and ideas to incorporate into their own. Music makers were no different in those times, they were ever watchful for new ideas to inspire so as to create new and exciting sounds of their own. The log drums originally used to call meetings in villages were given emphasis in East Polynesia where complex rhythms and dance created irresistible excitement for everyone. While the more graceful rhythms were popular elsewhere. The South Pacific today is full of these exciting cultures which each have their own unique style of song, dance and language.
The arrival of Te Vaka in 1994 was inevitable. It seemed to have been perfectly timed because it coincided with a phenomenon that was gathering momentum around the world. What was special about this movement was the fact that it highlighted or acknowledged traditional forms of music and dance. And thus the many traditions from around the world were encouraged to share their own unique culture in song and dance on the big stage. They were of course chosen and called to perform all over the world in what was called World of Music Arts and Dance festivals or WOMAD. Te Vaka was fortunate to have been one of the chosen groups and we took every opportunity to proudly showcase our unique South Pacific cultures to the world.
Original Contemporary Pacific music and South Pacific Fusion are arbitrary names that I have used to describe my work as the song writer for Te Vaka. Even if they had other connotations it was the concept that was most important because it firmly connects the listener to the geographical area, in other words whatever idea one has about it, the music was solidly and definitely anchored in the South Pacific. This was most important to me. In my view various factors have to be observed in order for any piece of music, or any art form for that matter, to qualify as contemporary Pacific. It must have the Pacific elements outweighing or dominating other influences that are being used. And on listening or viewing it should instantly convey the Pacific as the major concept from it’s content and it should also be in a Pacific language. I do these things naturally without giving it any thought because of this final point - I am extremely proud of my Polynesian culture and the achievements made by the original Pioneers of the South Pacific and I love telling their stories. It is this inspiration that I believe has helped me a lot to keep it real and authentic and it has also allowed me to stay the course for a very long time. As a plus point I have found that presenting the musical influences and culture of the South Pacific in a contemporary form has made it much more accessible to other cultures and this has been a great way to introduce other cultures to the traditional music and dance of the South Pacific.