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Music: Music and Religion in Oceania


The uttering of formulaic texts, the sounding of musical instruments, and the enactment of physical movements are all integral to the expression of religious beliefs throughout Oceania. The supernatural beings that were contacted varied widely in the extent of their powers and the nature of their physical embodiments, but much human activity was intended to open lines of contact with that other world. Music was not and is not a self-contained art, nor merely the vehicle for communication with the other world, but in many instances it is the means of opening such lines of communication, and it is intended both to express and to reveal. Singing at a predetermined location and appropriate time enables contact with beings somehow residing outside space and time. For participants, religious rituals exist primarily to be perpetuated. A personal understanding of the theological or mystical bases for rituals, or the meanings of song poetry, or the symbolism of their myriad of sacra, is secondary. Essentially, process takes precedence over product.


Accounts of the origins of the universe established the first associations between humans and gods. Rituals maintained such links through a body of sacred lore administered through both individual and group expressions of worship, supplication, instruction, and appeasement. Polynesian pantheons consist of named categories of supernatural beings and named individuals within those categories. Major deitiesTāne, Tū, Rongo, and Tangaroa in East Polynesia; Tangaloa and Maui in West Polynesiawere associated with land creation and elements of nature. References in oral tradition to such beings tended to be confined to spoken accounts or recited poetry. East Polynesia, particularly Tahiti and Hawaiʻi, saw the development of religious specialists in the form of an established priesthood, and religious buildings in the form of temples. The carvings on pre-European East Polynesian drums, particularly those beaten during temple-based rituals, often included representations of major deities. The priesthood also held responsibility for the many years of teaching chants and dances to neophytes. In the many and varied contexts of performance, the agent activating the human-superhuman link was the uttered word.

Mythology credits the importation of the first pahu temple drums and their associated sacred dances from Tahiti to Kauai Island, whence its use in heiau temples spread to Hawaiʻi's other islands. The primary use of this sharkskin-covered wooden drum was to signal major events within the temple, summoning gods to enter the precincts and to speak through its sound. It also accompanied sacred dances. On Tahiti itself, such a drum was used both for signaling and for accompanying religious rituals. In both areas, the drums were given personal names.

The areas of association and influence of minor deities included natural events, local topography, and specific domestic activities. Such beings were considered contactable during periods of heightened emotion, particularly at moments of danger, such as illness and warfare. In Samoa, people of two villages used a song to summon the deadly Nifoloa to avenge any major insult to local residents. In another village the locally based god Te'e was appeased through a song in its honor. To cure certain ailments, Samoan traditional healers may still resort to exorcism, singing their command to the malign spirit believed responsible to leave the patient's body.

Throughout East Polynesia, minor gods were routinely contacted to ensure ongoing maintenance of the normally benign social relationship with local communities. In this context, the gods were held to share human pleasure in the performing arts, most notably singing and dancing, together with the sight and fragrance of costumed and perfumed bodies in action. The practice of performance as god appeasement was most developed in Hawaiʻi, where Pele and Laka were considered divine patrons of dancing. Much song poetry was dedicated to these beingsand still is, as part of the ongoing renaissance of Hawaiian culture. Whether invisible or existing in emblematic form, the gods were believed to be present during performances. The religious goal of hula performances was additionally based on a belief in sympathetic magic. By presenting an act in the context of dance, one gains power over it. One can thus govern the outcome of a future act or cause a past act to happen again.

The elevated nature of such expressive arts was emphasized by a corresponding expectation of performance perfection. If such perfection was not achieved due to accidental error, the result was held to be personal disaster. The accidental omission of a word in an incantation performed at the birth of the Maori mythological character Maui resulted ultimately in his death and failure to win immortality for humanity. Avoidance of breath breaks in the melodic flow was a feature of traditional Maori incantations and group chant on the grounds that the consequences were death or disaster. A system in which the group leader, having snatched an early breath, continued singing wordlessly at the ends of poetic lines while the group took breath overcame such concern.

In some regions ancient song poetry addressing gods survived Christian missionizing through prompt transcription, but it exists now more as an artifact of culture than an instrument of religion. In Tokelau, a handful of songs referring to the supreme god Tui Tokelau are now sung at festivals as affirmations of corporate ethnicity, and on Niue a song addressing the god of the ocean, Tagaroa, is routinely featured in cultural displays and competitions. The revival in the 1970s of oceangoing voyaging in reconstructions of traditional East Polynesian canoes stimulated a return of interest in associated rituals and performance styles. A convergence of such canoes at the sacred Tahitian site of Taputapuatea in 1995 signaled the formal reconnection of ancestral relationships among several Polynesian island groups. The renewed interest in cultural activities, also began in the 1970s in Hawaiʻi, French Polynesia, and New Zealandpossibly influenced by the newly established South Pacific Arts Festivalhas seen the incorporation into public performances of various reconstructions of practices associated with indigenous religion. In Hawaiʻi, the construction and use of pahu drums, revived performances of chants and dances honoring named gods, and the performance of chants at the opening of the state legislature and other major public events all testify to the renaissance. Recitation of karakia incantations to national gods is a routine feature of major Maori activities, such as the openings of new public buildings and museum exhibitions.

In several parts of urban Polynesia, an ironic shift in attitudes has recently occurred. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christian missionaries strove hard and successfully to ban many performances of dancing on the grounds that the activity was heathen. Now, however, among both island homeland and expatriate communities of Polynesians, Christian churches may include dance tuition among their cultural programs and even numerically dominate competitions of traditional dance at local and national levels.

Although details of most Polynesian religions are now recounted in the past tense following almost two hundred years of intensive and successful Christian missionizing, a few Polynesian-populated outlier islands in Melanesia have attempted to maintain their indigenous practices in a reaction against what they consider the culturally damaging activities of missionaries and Christian churches. Communities on the islands of Takū (Mortlock Islands), Nukumanu (Tasman Islands), and Mungiki (Bellona Island) have participated in such a movement. Although some activities are now restricted to some extent by national legislation, others flourish. On these small, fragile, and remote islands, ongoing supernatural assistance is considered a survival necessity for which the formal performance of a variety of songs and dances is offered as a gesture of gratitude. Men may call on their dead ancestors while fishing, and, in the poetry of songs composed to mark their subsequent success, duly name their ancestors and acknowledge their supernatural assistance. In preparation for formal dances on the ritual arena, both men and women may wear emblems of their clan's founding ancestor as protection against the malevolent spirits believed to be in attendance during the performance. Also on the ritual arena in front of the assembled community, senior men take turns to intone long invocations to clan spirits and ancestors in order both to ensure continuation of clement weather and bountiful fish stocks, and also to avert crop diseases. The poetry of such invocations tends to be fixed by tradition and contains semantically dense language.


Preliminary findings from the few published studies of Micronesian religion indicate that religious activities incorporating singing (with or without dancing) tend to focus on village or matriclan efforts to ensure the maintenance of personal health, food production, and travelers' safety. The Micronesian pantheon contains no recognized paramount individual. Typical group religious activities have a patron god possessing limited geographical authority. Shamans sing to establish contact with such beings and to obtain advice and admonition, using incantations to lay a mantle of divine protection over hazardous occupations. At shrines, priests lead performances of humanly or divinely composed songs and dances to entertain a village or district god whose reaction in turn is conveyed by the priests.

Island Melanesia

Diversity features strongly among the many religious practices of Island Melanesia, where speech rather than song tends to be the chief medium of communication with the supernatural realm. Both here and in Papua New Guinea there is no sharp distinction between religion and magic. Human ancestors function not only as genealogical markers of the historical past but also as points of supportive contact for living descendants. Musical performances are featured in ancestor worship rituals in the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu. Dances and songs assist families of the recent dead to ensure that the physical severance occurring at death is accompanied by the spirit's enduring departure from the region, since a lingering presence can be mischievous. By contrast, in other regions the ability of the recent dead to maintain useful and essentially benign contact with the world of the living is ritually emphasized as elderly relatives sing in imitation of spirit voices while living descendants dance.

In contrast to Polynesia, specific sound quality itself may assume religious significance in both Island Melanesia and Papua New Guinea. Blasts from conch trumpets may be believed to expel unwanted spirits at a funeral or to represent actual spirit voices. It is a widespread belief that the ghost of a local person influences local affairs, causing or curing sickness, prophesying, and controlling the weather and crops. In regions where male initiation still assumes cultural significance, the real origin of the sounds of conches and flutes is initially kept secret from initiates (who are told that they are hearing spirit voices) and only later revealed as sound-producing devices. Until the mid-twentieth century, secret societies flourished in Vanuatu, where men (and sometimes women) achieved social elevation through competitive grade-taking that culminated in large-scale performances of song and dance.

Until it was sanitized by missionaries to become primarily a social activity in New Caledonia, the round dance was the means of contacting ancestors at the culmination of the large-scale pilou-pilou ritual. Processing around a central pole that symbolized the material connection between the living and the dead, Kanak men and women believed themselves to be the very bodies of their own ancestors as they danced. Other Kanak men's dances are totemic, giving visual expression to an association with either a maternal or paternal clan. The totemic ancestors' world, characterized by black land, a rancid smell, and ashes, can be entered only by persons possessing those same features. Dancers therefore plaster themselves with layers of earth and ashes as part of an effort to acquire the ancestors' restorative powers. The totemic bonds between paternal and maternal clans may similarly be given visual expression through dancing.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea represents a maze of sociocultural groups and extreme linguistic complexity. Published information on cultural practices is marginal for many regions and may be nonexistent for others. The following generalized comments are therefore necessarily tentative.

Much New Guinea music is associated with various types of revelation in the context of religious ritual. Religious experience and understanding are the intended results of enhanced sensation and heightened emotion, states that are frequently instigated and sustained by periods of singing and dancing. The sense of mystery may be additionally intensified by the use of lyrics that are ungrammatical, archaic, foreign, or even secret. Men's formal activities tend to be held inside communal longhouses over a period of several days and nights. In contrast with other regions of Oceania, one goal of religious activity here may be the invocation of benign spirits, who are invited to meet with the living and so strengthen them.

Sacred instrumental music tends to be valued more for its sonic qualities than its aesthetic content as such. Flutes and bull roarers are widely used to produce sounds understood by the uninitiated to be spirit voices. Only after their physical ordeal are the real sources revealed to male novices, but even then under pain of secrecy. Slit drums and bull roarers are prominent in this respect in New Britain and New Ireland. Slit drums and paired flutes predominate in the central Highlands, Papua Gulf, and Huon Gulf areas. The absence of finger holes on these end-blown or side-blown flutes from the Sepik and Highlands, whose unequal size represents male and female identities, allows only the fundamentals and selected harmonic pitches to be sounded. The so-called fanfare melodies produced result from a sharing between the two instruments of individual notes in the melodic line. Acoustic continuity is one goal of both the paired flutes and other sound-producing devices, fostering the illusion of a nonhuman source of the sounds. For a similar purpose of subterfuge, men may modify their voices by singing into empty containers such as gourds, bamboo, or conches. In some regions the handles of the hourglass-shaped drums that men carry to accompany their own dancing may be carved with ancestral figures or combine human and avian forms to emphasize mythological connections. Bird symbolism is also common for paired flutes and their repertoires, and is visually represented through men's knee-bending dance movements. Much ritual dancing is more participatory than presentational, constituting statements of entitlement intended for fellow participants rather than acts of entertainment intended for an audience.

Among the Kaluli of the Southern Highlands province, bird calls are simultaneously avian identifiers and talk from the dead, since birds are a frequent visible form of a spirit reflection. In particular, gisalo dance songs, whose tonal organization is identical to that of musical representations of the call of a fruit dove, are composed with the intention of moving a male audience to tears. Women's response to the men's weeping is to break into song, thus creating a culturally activated cycle based on the belief that the gisalo performer is transformed into a bird during song and dance performance.

Ancestor appeasement through singing is widely practiced, using a limited repertoire of music that those ancestors themselves either composed or transmitted. Easing the passage of the human spirit from the human world is also a part of religious ritual life in the Trobriand Islands. Songs sung in what is believed to be the language of the dead describe in glowing and erotic terms the quality of life in the afterworld, thus facilitating the departure. These (and other related) activities confirm the spirit's retention after death of aesthetic preferences and values espoused during life.

Mythology frequently attributes the invention or discovery of specific musical instruments to women, who later yielded them to men. Men subsequently appropriated the instruments for themselves and continue to monopolize their use through stealth and deception in an apparent gesture of male self-enhancement. A prime focus of religious music in New Guinea and islands to the immediate east is the widespread practice of puberty rites, in which singing and dancing are integral to each stage of the rituals. In some regions the structure of male initiation rituals suggests the processes of menstruation, impregnation, gestation, and parturition, as men further attempt to obtain for themselves through ritual the female life-imparting capabilities denied to them in reality. In other areas the initiation ritual, together with its complex of songs and dances, may reflect and validate sex-role social structures.


It is not possible to generalize in a temporal sense for all of Oceania, since continuation of religious beliefs and practices is no longer universal, largely as a result of Christian missionizing. Whereas Polynesia and Micronesia have favored the undisguised human voice in vocal contributions to religious ritual, Island Melanesia and Papua New Guinea seek to disguise it as being of nonhuman origin, furthering the notion of deception by restricting knowledge of the real source of instrumental sounds. In the one region, musical sound is an elevated and consciously refined form of the uttered word, and in the other it was and is a vocal means to an essentially nonmusical end. In much of Oceania, careful contact with the spirit realm was considered expedient, if not essential, for the achievement of essentially positive social outcomes.

Whether through family heads or specialists within the society, contact with a variety of supernatural beings was couched in terms of individuals whose personal identity was known and acknowledged in song poetry. Some activities were preemptive from a position of social balance and were intended to achieve ongoing physical and mental health, continued sexual attractiveness, and the availability of adequate food resources. By contrast, remedial activities such as healing and forceful victory over adversaries arose as a result of perceived social imbalance. In all such spheres of activity, whether by invocation or entertainment or supplication, the gods' potentially benevolent powers were exploited and their potentially malevolent attributes avoided. And one major means by which peaceful and productive coexistence with the gods was managed wasand in some regions still isthrough the performance of song and dance.


Ammann, Raymond. Kanak Dance and Music. Nouméa, New Caledonia, 1997. A survey of the music and dance output of the culturally diverse nation of New Caledonia.

Feld, Steven. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. 2d ed. Philadelphia, 1990.

Handy, E. S. Craighill. Polynesian Religion. Honolulu, Hawaii, 1927; reprint, New York, 1971. Includes a section on music and dancing and a comprehensive regional bibliography.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L., and J. W. Love, eds. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 9, Australia and the Pacific Islands. New York, 1998. Contains several articles on the links between religious belief and musical performance.

McLean, Mervyn. Maori Music. Auckland, New Zealand, 1996. The most comprehensive publication on Maori music, including references to religious beliefs.

Rossen, Jane Mink. Songs of Bellona Island. 2 vols. Copenhagen, 1987.

Tatar, Elizabeth. Hula Pahu: Hawaiian Drum Dances, vol. 2, The Pahu: Sounds of Power. Honolulu, Hawaii, 1993.

Richard M. Moyle (2005)

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