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Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga


The music of the Tongans was inseparable from the dance (by which I mean the rhythmic movements of any part of the body), and it therefore esteemed rhythm before melody or harmony. There were two principal forms, the Me'e-tu'u-baki (dance standing up with paddles) and the Otuhaka (song, with gestures). Since the inculcation of English hymnsinging a third form, known as the Lakalaka, which is music composed by Tongans on the European model, has been introduced, and of this the Tongans are inordinately fond. Fortunately the taste of the older chiefs and the influence of the French missionaries have been strong enough to preserve the old forms intact, and both the Me'e-tu'u-baki and the Otuhaka are given on ceremonial occasions, though their ultimate decay is certain.

The specimens of Polynesian music that have found their way into the text-books are, from Mariner downward, nearly all inaccurate. Written down by untrained musicians, they have afterwards been "faked" to bring them into line with our notation, and (infamy of infamies) harmonised! The visit of a composer page 219with time on his hands and a patient determination to record the native music faithfully, at any sacrifice of time and temper, was an opportunity not to be neglected. Soon after our arrival, therefore, we paid a visit to Mua, where the old music is most cultivated, and invited the people to entertain us with the Lakalaka, for we had naval officers with us, and the Otuhaka is strong meat for the uninitiated. At the close of the performance I sent for the leader, Finease (which is Phineas), and unfolded my proposal, which was that, for value to be received, he and a select band of musicians of the old school should come to Nukualofa and sing without ceasing until they had yielded up their treasures to the paper. Plainly they thought it a fatuous proceeding, but they consented lightly, not knowing what lay before them.

Three mornings later we were at work in the huge wooden shed which serves Dr. Maclennan as operating-room and hospital. At the further end lay two patients who had undergone serious operations on the previous afternoon; what they thought of our proceedings I do not know, but I could make a shrewd guess from the expression of the old ladies who were nursing them. Amherst Webber sat at a deal table littered with music-paper, with Phineas and three middle-aged ladies, all noted singers, sitting in a row on the floor before him. He wore a harassed air, for it soon transpired that the ladies, thinking that they knew better than he did what he wanted, were bent on running through their re'pertoire without encore. When I explained that they would have to sing each phrase, not twice, but perhaps forty times over, they were at first amused and afterwards distinctly bored. Webber found it impossible to take page 220the music down phrase by phrase, because they were incapable of picking up the melody where they had left it; the only way was to make them begin each time at the beginning, and carry the score a few notes' further with every repetition. Moreover, it was discovered that Phineas seldom sang the same phrase in exactly the same notes, for the melody is overlaid with innumerable turns and ornaments at the will of the singer, and these are impossible to represent in our notation. Two hours at a time being as much as writer or" singer could stand with safety, the work took several days, but, thanks to the good sense of Phineas and the patience of Webber, a valuable collection was ultimately made. For the notes I am, of course, indebted to Amherst Webber.