Musical Culture in French Polynesia

Though separated by many miles of ocean, the Polynesian Islands of the South Pacific possess rich overlapping musical heritages in instrumental and lyric form. The Polynesian peoples use music in many ways, but music retains an important role in Polynesian life in part because it offers a means to present the stories of the people and their ancestors. Music is used to explain genealogies linking ancestors back as far as families can trace. Many musical forms are related to dance traditions, another method by which stories could be told and performed to others. Nowadays, Polynesians also use music as people all over the world do—as a social activity, bringing generations together both in traditional and informal events.

To define exactly what pre-European contact Polynesian music consisted of is a difficult task, for “what is popular with indigenous people may differ from what is popular with migrants to the same area, and what is popular with one generation may differ from what is popular with another.”[1] Music is constantly changing to meet the needs of a society, while still maintaining roots in traditional styles. Many of the instruments and musical styles that were used in pre-contact times have been revived since the 1960s, when Polynesians began to reconnect with indigenous traditions and build upon them in popular music. The influences of “ethnic identity, festivals and tourism”[2] have also boosted the musical revival. Because music has the ability to connect past and present, it is an essential tool for students and practitioners interested in the cultural history of the Pacific.

The early Polynesians developed a number of instruments, many of which are still part of their culture today. As with societies all over the globe, the Polynesian musical culture is defined by a set of four instrumental types. These categories are idiophones (instruments which vibrate themselves), membranophones (instruments which involve a stretched skin), aerophones (instruments through which air vibrates) and chordophones (instruments which involved stretched strings).[3] In the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Edwin G. Burrows observes that “In accordance with their general inclination to simplicity in material equipment, the Polynesians had only a rudimentary assortment of musical instruments.”[4] Idiophones and membranophones, the most abundant among Polynesian instruments, are percussion, and a small assortment of wind and string instruments was also present. This diversity allows ethnomusicologists to recognize the Polynesians as a musically well-developed people.

The category of idiophones includes rattles and gourd drums. The calabash gourd drum, or ipu, has numerous forms. Ipu are made from calabash gourds specifically grown for instrumental use.[5] The Ipu Hula is a drum unique to Hawaii and present since pre-contact times. It was fashioned from two hollowed ipu, one large and one small, which were inverted upon each other and cemented with breadfruit tree sap. A hole in the top allowed for sound to escape. The ipu hula could be played either by thumping the sides with fingers, or hitting the bottom-most gourd on the ground.[6]

Membranophones are also percussion instruments, in this case consisting of a hard shell covered on one end by an animal skin. The pahu is one Hawaiian wooden kettledrum which evidence suggests came from Tahiti. Formed in sizes from 1 to 3 feet tall and varying in pitch and timbre, pahu were formed by hollowing a log and covering the top with fish or shark skin. These drums were beat with the open hand.[7] Pahu were used in sacred ceremonies and rituals involving dance, and “Besides being used in the service of gods, pahu announced important births, opened and closed wars, and marked funeral and memorial services.”[8] Even today the pahu are involved in ceremonies and traditional life in both Tahiti and Hawaii. Other Polynesian islands possess this type of drum as well. While on the island of Nuku Hiva in February 2012, the S239 class was able to try their hand at performing on traditional style drums, ranging from 4-5 feet in height.

Figure 1.
Pahu in Nuku Hiva. Photo Michelle Rossi, February 2012.

A number of aerophones were also used by the Polynesians, including conch-trumpets, rolled-leaf whistles and the nose flute.[9] The conch-trumpet, pu, is seen in other cultures as well, and here too is considered “more of a ceremonial trumpet than a purely musical instrument.”[10] Made by removing the apex of the shell to form a cavity to blow into, the pu could be heard 2 miles away.[11] Probably the most interesting instrument to a non-Polynesian is the nose-flute or ohe hano ihu—bamboo nose instrument.[12] The nose-flute is the only known Polynesian instrument which would produce a melody—all others discovered are used only for rhythm.[13] As the name suggests, the nose-flute is played by blowing into a carefully drilled hole with the nose. Pitches were formed by placing the fingers over a number of holes along the length of the bamboo tube. A quiet and airy instrument, it was reserved for lovers.[14] The Polynesian culture includes many legends about the creation of objects, and the legend about the first use of the nose flute is as follows:

[The legend] describes a prince on the mountain top about Wailus, Kauai, playing to call a princess living below him in the valley on the bank of the river, who awakened to the sound and followed it, accompanied by protesting members of her court, until she located the player who had been taught how to make the ohe and to use it by a god who wished him to win the princess for his bride.[15]

The last group of instruments, the chordophones, has developed most significantly since the 1800s. “As indigenous musical instruments, chordophones were rare”[16] and consisted mainly of the ukeke, or mouth bow. Comprised of a thin piece of bent wood strung with 1 or more strings, the ukeke was played by holding one end of the wood in the mouth and plucking the strings.[17] The instrument was reserved for private audiences and lovers.“As the musician strummed the strings, he or she would silently mouth words or phrases to his or her partner.”[18]8

Further chordophones did not appear in the Hawaiian culture until the arrival of Portuguese and Spanish sailors in the 1800s, when these travelers began making 4, 5 and 6-stringed instruments. The 4-stringed braghe was soon popular among visitors and locals, and quickly became ubiquitous in Hawaiian music. The name ukulele came from “an army officer who was popular at the Hawaiian court. He was a small and active person who was nick-named ‘ukulele’ or ‘jumping flea.’”[19] Along with the ukulele, the guitar also became a widespread instrument in Hawaiian music—two instruments that, although not indigenous to the culture, have become an important aspect of musical life and have managed to cross “cultural and national borders in ways other indigenous instruments have not.”[20]

Specific to Tahiti are two instruments which have evolved in recent years, the Tahitian Bass and the Tahitian Ukulele. The Bass, found in modern street music, is typically made of an upside down garbage tub through which a pole is fitted. A fiber strung from the lip of the bucket to the top of the pole is plucked. Movement of the pole to stretch or relax the string allows for various pitches to be played.[21] The Tahitian Ukulele, much like the well-known Hawaiian ukulele, has 4 strings, or 8 strings doubled, made of fishing line tuned to G-C-E-A. Fishing line is used as opposed to traditional metal or nylon strings because it is always readily available. The unique sound of the Tahitian ukulele comes from the C being tuned above the G, instead of below it on the Hawaiian Ukulele.[22] In addition the sounding hole, instead of residing on the front of the instrument as on a guitar or Hawaiian ukulele, is located on the back of the body. This allows the sound to resonate through the performer’s body and for the instrument’s volume to be adjusted by the position in which it is held.[23] The strings are generally strummed much faster than a Hawaiian ukulele, creating a sound which is higher pitched and airy, yet sometimes more frantic.

Figure 2.
Men playing music in the Papeete Marketplace. Note the Tahitian Bass on the far left. Photo Michelle Rossi, February 2012.

Figure 3.
Tahitian ukuleles being sold in the Papeete Market. Photo Michelle Rossi, February 2012.

The instruments themselves would be nothing without vocal chants that play so big a part in Polynesian music. For Polynesians, music is “distinctly a social rather than individual means of expression”[24] and therefore music is not just about melodic variety but also about the stories told. These chanting fusions of music and poetry, known as mele,[25] were used for “prayers and prophesies, dirges, love songs, war songs, name chants.”[26] Mele were also used in certain work settings such as when hauling a canoe to shore, traveling by canoe, or announcing the canoe upon arrival.[27]

Attempting to categorize chant versus what western culture considers “music” is nearly impossible because of the language of the South Pacific Islanders, which is “mellifluous and lends itself easily to chanting.”[28] The SEA SPICE Class S239 was treated to a taste of mele while being welcomed at the City Hall of Fa’a, Tahiti. The story told described the formation of the island of Tahiti and the way the land was pulled from the water. The movements used by the performer to accentuate his speech were enough to give the non-Tahitian speaker a sense of the story he was telling. Other chants used for purposes other than storytelling were extremely important in the Polynesian culture. The most important among these were chants dedicated to a person at birth. These chants “‘belonged’ to the person, or the family of the person to whom they were dedicated and for whom they had been composed. Others were not allowed to use them, except to repeat them in honor of the owner.”[29]

Meles can be found in two types—mele oli and mele hula. The mele oli includes the chant meles. These chant songs are normally intoned on a single pitch--“melodic intervals are usually small.”[30] Still, much of the traditional vocal music now found in Tahiti and Hawaii has been strongly influenced by European practices. Although some musical traditions have been preserved, “with the change from a nonliterate to a modern society and to a different religion, the oli no longer serve the same purposes”[31] and therefore much has also been lost.

A large influence to Polynesian music was the Christian Missionaries. Protestant missionaries were the first to come to the south pacific, and Polynesia was among the earliest regions to be successfully evangelized.[32] Each missionary group brought with it a particular musical style, eventually including American evangelical tunes and gospel hymns. Over the past 150 years, the music introduced to Polynesia has become important in community life and has been “accepted by islanders as a part of their heritage, as a tradition inherited from elders and passed on to children.”3[33] The combination of both traditional Polynesian music traditions and Western traditions is seen especially in churches, where pahu are present for worship. This is a great example of how music has the ability to grow with a community and adapt with cultural traditions. Eventually musical ideas become so integrated with the community that they begin to be part of the culture and transmitted as tradition. 

Figure 4.
Pahu drum in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Taiohae, Nuku Hiva. Photo Michelle Rossi, February 2012.

Different missionary groups introduced varying levels of musical knowledge into the regions where they settled. Certain American missionaries promoted musical literacy and taught solfege, while others only provided hymnals with text only and no musical notation.34 In Hawaii, musical literacy was developed so that by the mid-19th century Hawaiians began notating music in the Western style and composing new secular music derived from traditional themes.[35]

In recent years, composing music for the public has become more popular and many Hawaiian artists have entered mainstream music. Although for many “residents of the continental United States, Hawaiian music boils down to five letters: Don Ho,”[36] recent years have showcased the diversity of popular Hawaiian music. In 2005 the Grammy Awards introduced a new category for best Hawaiian music, which stipulated that nominees have at least 51% of their album in Hawaiian. Although a controversial criteria for many Hawaiian artists, ultimately the award is helping to promote and preserve Hawaiian musical culture. One of the most well-known names in Hawaiian popular music is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, a singer most well known for his rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” National Public Radio recently recognized Israel as one of its “50 Great Voices,” along with others such as Nat King Cole, Diana Reeves and Placido Domingo. Israel’s broad media exposure has brought new interest to Hawaiian music.[37]

In musical culture, chants, lyrics, song styling and melodies are performed with the use of modern instrumentation, thus allowing a continuing evolution. To many Polynesian people the maintenance of traditional chants, genealogies and musical traditions is just as important as the enjoyment of music itself. Music can bridge generations, cultures, and geographical distances as wide as the Pacific, and it will continue to provide researchers and practitioners an opportunity study and celebrate the vibrant history of Polynesian culture.

Michelle Rossi, Muhlenberg College


[1]Kaeppler, Adrienne L., “Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 9: Australia and the Pacific Islands” (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[2] Kaeppler, Garland Encyclopedia, 126.

[3] Kaeppler, Garland Encyclopedia, 371.

[4] Burrows, Edwin G., “Polynesian Music and Dancing,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 49.195 (1940): 334.

[5] Roberts, Helen H., “Ancient Hawaiian Music” (New York: Dover, 1967): 51-52.

[6] Catalogue of the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, Volume 2: Oceania and America (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1913): 49-50, ill.

[7] Roberts, “Ancient Hawaiian music,” 49-50.

[8] Kaepplar, Garland Encyclopedia, 385.

[9] Burrows, “Polynesian Music and Dancing,” 334.

[10] Roberts, “Ancient Hawaiian Music,” 45.

[11] Ibid. 46.

[12] Ibid. 35.

[13] Kaepplar, Garland Encyclopedia, 769.

[14] Roberts, “Ancient Hawaiian Music,” 38.

[15] Mark5 Ibid. 38.

[16] Kaepplar, Garland Encyclopedia, 385.

[17] Catalogue of the Crosby Brown Collection, 49-50.

[18] Ibid. 49-50.

[19] Smith, Barbara B. “Folk Music in Hawaii,” Journal of the International Folk Music Council 11 (1959): 52. Web. 10 January 2012.

[20] Kaepplar, Garland Encyclopedia, 385.

[21] See photo below of musicians in the Papeete market, 1 Feb 2012.

[22] Kaepplar, Garland Encyclopedia, 291.

[23] Ibid. 291.

[24] Burrows, “Polynesian Music and Dancing,” 341.

[25] Smith, “Folk Music,” 50.

[26] Ibid. 50.

[27] Burrows, “Polynesian Music and Dancing,” 340.

[28] Pukui, Mary Kawena, “Songs (Meles) of Old Ka’u, Hawaii.” The Journal of American Folklore 52.245 (1949): 247. Web. 9 January 2012.

[29] Ibid. 255.

[30] Burrows, “Polynesian Music and Dancing,” 336.

[31] Smith, “Folk Music,” 51.

[32] Stillman, Amy K. “Prelude to a Comparative Investigation of Protestant Hymnody in Polynesia.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 25 (1993): 89.

[33] Ibid. 97.

[34] Ibid. 89.

[35] Stillman, Amy Ku’uleialoha. “Beyond Bibliography: Interpreting Hawaiian-Language Protestant Hymn Imprints.” Ethnomusicology 40.3 (1996): 477.

[36] Ogunnaike, Lola. “A Grammy Hawaii Can Call Its Own,” New York Times, 12 February 2005, Section B: 7.

[37] NPR’s story can be viewed at

How to cite this page:
Michelle Rossi. “Musical Culture in French Polynesia,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2012. Web. [Date accessed]