The material on this website is from Jane's Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter (Island Music) Vol. 5, Edition No.3, March 2006. It discusses the beautiful music of Melanesia in the context of Oceania migration as well as its relationship with the traditional music of Polynesia and Micronesia.
edition of our newsletter, it is my great pleasure to be able to discuss
briefly, with all of you, our most valued members, the wonderful music of
Oceania, in terms of its origins, its similarities and those many things that
make Pacific Island music most unique and beautiful.
The people of Oceania, in common with all of mankind, have a common origin in
Africa. The migrations to the Pacific region, however, came about through
different routes and over a long period of many tens of thousands of years. The
first to arrive were the Melanesians who are by far the oldest ethnic group in
the Pacific region, and who are the proud owners of a very rich and diverse
The Melanesians were followed much later by the Polynesians whose migratory path took them through Taiwan, and along the back of the Melanesian archipelago of Papua and New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji, until they finally settled in Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tuvalu, as well as the remote Easter Island.
The last to arrive were the Micronesians whose journey took them much later through the scattered islands of Micronesia, located mainly to the north of the Melanesian Islands. They settled on the main Micronesian islands of Guam, Palau, Saipan, the Federated States of Micronesia (Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Yap), the Marshall Islands and Kiribati.
The traditional music of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia thus had very little in common in terms of musical styles. What the music did have in common was that, in the absence of any written language, much of the music had a religious significance and was originally chanted to appease or call on the gods. Some of the chants are also part of the oral traditions of the people and these special chants documented our history in a manner that could be handed down from one generation to the next.
In Melanesia, Christian missionaries disapproved of Papuan traditional music throughout the colonial period of the country's history. Even after independence, the outside world knew very little of the diverse peoples' traditional music genres. The first commercial release to see an international audience didn't occur until 1991. After 1872, Christian hymns were also introduced with the Gold Rush bringing an influx of Australian miners who introduced the mouth organ.
The best known traditional celebrations, which include song, dance, feasting and gift-giving, is the singsing. Vibrant and colourful costumes adorn the dancers, while a leader and a chorus sing a staggered approach to the same song. Since 1953, singsings have become extremely competitive in nature, with contests occurring in Port Moresby, Mt Hagan and Goroko.
Television was introduced to the country in 1993, and American popular music continued to affect Papuan music following on from the diffusion of radio since World War II. By the end of the 1970s, a local recording industry had appeared, and artists like George Telek, began to successfully integrate native and Western styles like rock and jazz. Indeed, the music of George Telek is proudly featured on Pacific Music Radio, Pacific Islands Radio and Radio Melanesia.
Modern Solomon Islander popular music includes various kinds of rock and reggae,
as well as a distinctive original form of music known as island music which
features a guitar and ukulele ensemble format influenced by Polynesian and
The traditional music of Vanuatu featured instruments such as the tamtam drum, which is intricately carved from a log, as well as panpipes, conch shells and gongs. The music industry of Vanuatu has grown rapidly since the 1990s. So much so that people take drum lessons that specialize in the Vanuatu style.
The early part of that decade saw bands forging a distinctly Vanuatuan modern musical identity, with artists such as the young talented and gifted artist, Vanessa Quai, following in their footsteps.
Caledonia, music is a fundamental element of every traditional ceremony, and the
range of instruments includes conch shells, rhythm instruments and bamboo
flutes. The Caldoches, or white New Caledonians, are mostly descended from
French convicts and have forged their own culture, more akin to that of rural
Australians or rural Americans than the metropolitan French. Among the Kanaks,
dance has developed into a high art form. The traditional pilou dance tells the
stories of births, marriages, cyclones or preparations for battle, although
colonial authorities banned pilous in 1951 for the high-energy and trance-like
state they induced in the dancers.
Throughout Polynesia, song and dance are integral parts of the same cultural elements. The dance is used to illustrate the lyrics by moving the hands or arms with some dances being performed while the dancers are 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.
Within songs, the lyrics are by far more important than the melodic accompaniment, with elements such as rhythm, melody and harmony being traditionally viewed as accompaniment to the primary focus, the lyrics, serving to embellish, illustrate and decorate the words.
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 to accompany songs and dances. Other instruments include the pandanus, a sitting mat that is also used as a percussion instrument, nose flutes and derivatives of Portuguese guitars like the ukulele and slack-key guitar.
Throughout Oceania, the missionaries did all they could to wipe out traditional
Polynesian culture by levelling temples, destroying carvings, and banning
tattoos, and that heady, erotic dancing that Bougainville told Europe about. The
missionaries sought to make the Polynesians follow the teachings of the Good
Book and their own autocratic commandments, but fortunately some of the
traditional ways, including our traditional music, survived. Recently there's
been a strong push to revive old ways and rediscover traditional arts.
Traditional musical instruments include pahu and toere drums and the nose flute called a vivo. Guitars and ukuleles made their way into Polynesia and the locals developed a unique song style that owes much to country and western music in form but has a distinctive South Pacific island flavour. Traditional dance, based on the traditional music, has also slowly made its way back into Polynesian life.
In common with the music of Melanesia and Polynesia, Micronesian music is influential to those living in the Micronesian Islands. The traditional music is highly spiritual and is based around the ancient Micronesian mythology. The music can call upon one of the gods or spirits for a blessing or help in a task to be undertaken. The music of Micronesia covers a range of styles from traditional songs, handed down through generations, to contemporary music, much of which comprises contemporary interpretations of the traditional spiritual music.
Micronesian traditional music, like much Polynesian music, is primarily vocal-based. In many cases, this results from the lack of suitable material on the many low-lying coral atolls of Micronesia to construct the kind of drums and other percussion instruments available to the Melanesians and many of the Polynesians.
Music is an integral part of life on the islands of the Pacific. Indeed, the songs and dances are woven into the very fabric of everyday life. Life, love, work, play, the ocean, the gods, the earth itself; they all flow through the music of the Pacific Islands, as surely as the sand erodes into the sea. Pacific Island music is truly the music of the world and is proudly featured on our Pacific Islands Radio stations!
Thank you so much everybody for your continual support, and I do hope that you enjoy our News and Views in this special edition of our Newsletter.
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