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Polynesia is a group of island chains spread across much of the Pacific Oceanmarker, and includes many countries and territories. Internationally, Polynesian music is mostly associated with twinkling guitars and grass skirts, Hawaiianmarker 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.

Traditional music

Throughout most of Polynesia, music has been influenced by European, Americanmarker,South America and East Asian contact. The only major stronghold to hold to traditional culture without much evolution has been Tongamarker, which has pursued a relatively isolationist history.

Within songs, the lyrics are by far more important than the melodic accompaniment, which has been sometimes changed to Western pop music structures in modern times. 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. Indeed, a song sung to traditional melody is considered no more Polynesian than the same song sung to a modern imported melody (Linkels, 218).

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 drum 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 (best-known for Tonga's Honourable Ve'ehala) and derivatives of

Christian music

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 driven underground and prohibited. Soon, traditional polyphonic singing was merged with Christian styles and church singing, and along with brass bands became an important part of Polynesian music culture across the Pacific.

Popular music

Some Polynesian islands have developed a cassette industry, most notably Fijimarker, Tongamarker and Samoamarker. In the 1980s, Fijian stars like Laisa Vulakoro and Lagani Rabukawaqa became popular across the Pacific.


  • Linkels, Ad. "The Real Music of Paradise". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 218-227. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

  • Hebert, D. G. (2008). Music Transculturation and Identity in a Maori Brass Band Tradition. In R. Camus & B. Habla, Eds. Alta Musica, 26, pp.173-200. Tutzing: Schneider.

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