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Songs and Albums


[This section adapted from A. Howard, "Rotuma,"The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 9, Australia and the Pacific Islands, edited by Adrienne L. Kaeppler and J. W. Love. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998]

Music and Dance

No major gathering takes place on Rotuma without singing or dancing. Depending on the size of a festival (kato'aga), performances range from an hour of informal singing around a few guitars or ukuleles, to all-day sessions in which several well-rehearsed groups formally sing and dance. At domestic ceremonies, such as weddings or gravestone-raisings, songs honor specific persons. When a group from one village or district performs at another location, it presents songs to honor its hosts: texts reference local chiefs, pertinent events, and outstanding features of the community or landscape. Annual events (such as Cession Day, and the Methodist Church Conference), and specially-scheduled events (like a visit from a high dignitary or the dedication of a building), allow groups to polish their performances in rehearsal.

On some occasions (for example, the Methodist Church Conference), performances take place within a competitive framework: judges evaluate presentations by such criteria as appearance (costumes, stances, expression), unity, and degree of difficulty. At these performances, audiences enthusiastically receive successful innovations.

During celebrations, public musical performances occur where convenient: for religious occasions, in or next to a church; for a wedding, near the bride's home; for a feast, at the host's house. A few villages maintain open public spaces (marä'e) for receiving guests. Sheds may be erected to protect honored guests and dancers from rain and sun. While informal singing or dancing may occur prior to serving kava and food, formal performances generally follow feasting, with participants facing the high chiefs and featured persons.

Music also forms an integral part of playtimes, periods set aside for intensive socializing. Most notable is the four-to-six-week mane'a period during December and January: little work is done, and youths go on visiting-expeditions(fara), when, on the grounds of selected houses, they sing and dance to the accompaniment of guitars and ukuleles. In reward, household members sprinkle the performers with perfumed powders, and spray them with cologne; if adequate supplies are on hand, the hosts also dispense soft drinks and food.

In pre-missionary times, youths of courtship age frequented dancing-houses and played beach games (mane'a hune'ele) that included singing and dancing. The beachgames provided culturally controlled frames for courtship, but the missionaries, fearing immorality, curbed them. In the late-20th century version of beachgames, young people gather in informal groups around a guitar, often under the auspices of the church, to perform hymns and religious action-songs. In the 1980s, spontaneous singing began to give way to passive participation: listening to tapes played on cassette-players (boomboxes). Guitars, ukuleles, and cassette-players are not available for purchase on the island, but return sojourners bring them from abroad.

Composers are known as manatu (reflecting PPN manatu 'think, remember'); with song-leaders, they are also known as purotu (reflecting PPN 'music experts'). Several persons have local reputations as composers. Some older people keep song texts in notebooks, which they sometimes bring to meetings, to consult while planning performances. A few Rotuman bands have composed and recorded songs in late-20th century popular Polynesian styles.

Traditional musical instruments

No clear record of indigenous musical instruments remains, though Rotumans told Gordon Macgregor in 1932 that they formerly had a nose flute and a panpipe (Macgregor 1932). By the mid 20th century, rhythmic beating on a pile of folded mats had become the only normative accompaniment to tautoga (Rotuman action-song; see below);it may have replaced a wooden drum (Eason 1951:23). Chimes, homemade from bicycle bells, bullet casings or other hollow metal containers and struck with a large nail or metal strip, provide accompaniment for a class of hymns called mak pel.

Traditional songs

At the time of European intrusion, Rotuman music included "chants," paddle dances, and tautoga.

Mosese Kaurasi (1991) distinguishes three types of Rotuman "chants": those composed for action songs and dances; those sung before battles or wrestling matches; and temo, sung during a chief's funeral or at a reception for a visiting chief.

Action songs commemorate special events or occasions: war-provoking incidents, the death of a notable person, a successful seafaring venture, a festival involving two or more communities. Their sentiments depend on circumstances, varying in mood from solemn to exultant.

To mobilize sentiment and muster courage, the songs and dances performed before battles were textually belligerent and kinetically aggressive. In form, they resembled songs for traditional wrestling-matches (hula), though the latter, usually tempered by good-natured teasing, alternated in exchange, between hosts and visitors (Kaurasi 1991:147-9).

Temo praise deceased individuals, respected chiefs, and special places. Before conversion to Christianity, mourners sang them at funerals. Song leaders chose a tempo, and started the singing; they sat close to a few others, facing inward, and the rest of the company gathered sitting around them. The leaders performed temo in sets of four: the first three pieces were slow and subdued; the fourth, quick and bright, with handclapping. In accompaniment, the chorus hummed a drone.

The melodies of temo usually have a range no larger than a perfect fourth, plus indefinitely-pitched notes wailed in high registers. By about a semitone, singers depress the pitches of notes, and then slide back up again. Temo end with a slide down to a speaking tone, with diminishing volume. To signal the end of a song, the leaders repeat the first line. In 1932, temo took a volume-level "so low that one feels that those outside the circle are not supposed to hear or understand the words. The clapping too is very soft. The best chanting of temos resembles the singing of toothless old men" (Macgregor 1932). Temo are no longer performed and only a few elderly individuals claim knowledge of them.

The people performed paddle-dances (mak paki) within the ritual cycle associated with the offices of sau and mua, spiritual representatives of the unified polity. Because they originated in pagan worship, they fell into disuse after the 1870s, when conversion to Christianity was complete. In 1865, Rev. Wm Fletcher witnessed a paddle-dance of "mostly elderly men":

each performer had a small paddle in his hand. The sau and the mueta [mua] stood together, all the rest squatted down near them. Rising up, they commenced a song, raising the legs alternately, and brandishing the paddles. The song over, they rushed, one half one way, and one half the other way, and meeting in the centre of the square, stood in two lines, the sau and the mueta being in the centre of the front line. A man sat before a native drum to beat time, and lead the chanting. All joined, moving the legs, and gently brandishing the paddles, now giving them an oscillating movement on the front of the head, and again striking them gently with the tips of the fingers of the left hand. At intervals, the back line dividing into two went round and joined again in front of the line, where stood the sau and the mueta, which line in its turn divided, and passed to the front. In each song these evolutions were gone through five or six times. The whole may have lasted about half an hour. (1866; letter, 4 November 1865)

Fletcher adds that the songs seemed to be invocations to the deities. Severed from their original context by the 1880s, paddle-dances continued in secular settings, where they highlighted special celebrations.

Reserved for large festivals, tautoga embody late-20th-century Rotuman taste. For their performance, men and women usually arrange themselves in rows, men on one side, women on the other. Movements occur in synchrony: men's are vigorous and coarse; women's, restrained and delicate. Costume essentials for the tautoga include lavalavas (ha'fali), usually of the same color and design. The women wear theirs down to their ankles, the men to just below the knee. Skirts (titi) of ti leaves are hung around the waist. Women wear theirs plain; men's are decorated with sweet smelling flowers. Dancers adorn themselves with garlands (tefui) made from young coconut-palm leaves, supplemented by sweet-smelling flowers and leaves. The men wear more elaborate versions, tied together with colorful wool. Women usually let their hair down as a "mark of respect and deference" (Hereniko 1991:133). In form, a complete tautoga is a suite of pieces in three types: sua, tiap hi, tiap forau; examples of these types follow in sequence. [See photo]

For the sua, dancers stand in place: men, with their feet apart; women with their feet together. The basic movement involves lifting the hands from the side, clasping them together in front of the waist, and releasing them to the sides; the dance also requires the alternate bending and straightening of the knees.

Sua normally consist of four-verse stanzas, whose texts allude to the occasion. The music consists of a single phrase in duple meter, repeated many times. All performers sing the same melody, but in parallel fifths: the women take the upper part; the men, the lower. Rarely, singers sound other notes, to create three- or four-note harmonies.

After the sua come the tiap hi, dances of two kinds. In one, hi tägtäg 'languid hi' the women sing "hi'ie, hi'ie, hi'ie, hi'ie," while the men grunt to the effect of "hui'i, hui'i, hui'i, hui'i". The performers focus on a major triad, with the men singing the root, and women singing the third and fifth; a subdominant triad serves as an auxiliary. The performers clap their hands on downbeats. In the other kind of tiap hi, the hi sasap 'sustained hi', the men drag out the "hui" more. In both subgenres, some of the singers breathe while others vocalize, so the music spins a continuous thread of sound.

As in the sua, the women remain stationary while performing the tiap hi; they confine their movements to graceful, subtle hand motions. The men may jump from side to side, or in circles. In the tiap hi, the contrast between women's constraint and men's vitality becomes strongly marked. In one version of the genre, the men maintain a textless drone, while the women sing four or eight verses, recounting legends. In the sua and the tiap hi, each of the first three rows of dancers takes its turn in front; after completing a set of verses, the dancers in the first row drop back, to permit the row behind them to come forward (Hereniko 1991:128-130).

Tiap forau offer a performative contrast: sua and tiap hi have a more restrained character; but lively yelping and clowning punctuate tiap forau. Spectators may spontaneously get up and join in the performance. During the dance, the back row splits: the men come down one side of the group, the women down the other, until they join in front, replacing the first row. The process continues until each row has had its turn in front. Songs usually acknowledge distinguished personages, especially the chiefs acting as hosts; the texts praise people whose labors have contributed to the event (Hereniko 1991:130-131). Many tiap forau are in duple meter, but some are in compound triple meter (transcribable as 6/8 time).

Tautoga may include from one to three sua, one or two tiap hi, and two or more tiap forau; for a complete performance, at least one example of each type must occur. A group of elders provides accompaniment for the sua and the tiap forau: with wooden sticks, they beat on a pile of folded mats. They begin each dance by introducing the song, and take responsibility for sustaining the rhythm and tempo.

In the late 19th century, a missionary described the songs of tautoga as sung in unison, except when both men and women participated. In the latter case, the men sang in a lower range, about a fifth lower, without following the melody closely. The rhythm changed little between the different songs. Most were characterized as "andante," but some songs, on humorous themes, were "allegro." The melody consisted of three or four different notes, the first note repeated three or four times, followed by a note a third higher, returning to the first, again repeated three times, followed by a higher or lower note, finishing with "an unharmonious flat note" (Müller, cited in Gardiner 1898:491).

Church music and 20th-century influences

Both Wesleyan and Roman Catholic missionaries introduced hymns, which have taken a central place in Rotuman music. In addition to their religious function, hymns adorn secular situations. Choral contests are frequent; at the annual Wesleyan conference, they culminate in a competition among parishes. The Rotuman Wesleyan hymnal (Him Ne Rot Uesli) was prepared by C.M Churchward in 1927-28, and revised in 1986-89. It contains 405 Rotuman hymns with do, re, mi musical notation.

Hymns take two styles: the traditional European style, based on western four-part harmony; and a distinctive island style known as mak pel 'bellsong', in which a bell struck with a nail keeps time. Religious songs in English and Rotuman are sung at gatherings of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, sometimes in conjunction with skits on biblical themes.

Rotumans have adopted foreign styles of singing and dancing, as they have come to know them through travel, films, radio (mostly Fiji stations) and video. Many Rotumans are now familiar with the Samoan sasa and ma'ulu'ulu (via its Tongan analog), and Fijian vakamalolo, plus dances from Tahiti, Kiribati, and other regions of the Pacific. Pan-Polynesian modern music is popular, with Rotuman words often substituted for the originals. The most popular foreign musical genre is Rarotongan: a group of Rarotongans, who in the late 1940s visited the island for more than two months, introduced it. Rotumans associate Rarotongan-style dances with playtimes.


Fara literally means “to beg, request, ask for” according to A New Rotuman Dictionary (1998: 195). In the case of dance it refers to the indirect asking for gifts, such as talcum powder, perfume, lemonade, and fruit.

When people talk about “going fara” it means that they, mostly during the evening and night, go from
place to place and at each house make music, sing, dance and have fun for about thirty minutes. As a sign of appreciation for coming to their house, people sprinkle talcum powder and spray perfume on the heads and shoulders of people in the group. In some cases refreshments are distributed, such as watermelon, pineapple, lemonade, bananas and biscuits or money. The fara is very lively and exciting.

Fara takes place during the av mane‘a period. Av mane‘a literally means “time to play”. It starts at the beginning of December and ends in mid-January. During this period Rotumans take things easy and in general do not need to work hard. Time is spent on picnics, harvest festivals, kava drinking, playing cards, and going fara. [adapted from Untie the doves cord, when it is free it sings fara: dancing and singing on Rotuma, by Ragnhild Scheifes]

For an account of fara in urban Fiji see Fara Fantastic, by Dawn Gibson.


Eason, William. 1951. A Short History of Rotuma. Suva: Government Printing Department.

Fatiaki, Anselmo, et al. 1991. Rotuma: Hanue Pumua (Precious Land). Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

Fletcher, William. 1866. "Letter from Rotuma" The Wesleyan Missionary Notices, No. 37. Sydney: Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Conference.

Gardiner, J. Stanley. 1898. "Natives of Rotuma," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:396-435, 457-524.

Hereniko [Tausie], Vilsoni. 1991. "Dance as a Reflection of Rotuman Culture," in Fatiaki et al., Rotuma: Hanue Pumua (Precious Land). Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

Kaurasi, Mosese. 1991. "Rotuman Chants, Sports and Pastimes," in Fatiaki et al., Rotuma: Hanue Pumua (Precious Land). Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

Macgregor, Gordon. 1932. Field Notes on Rotuma. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, Ms. SC Macgregor, Box 2.11.

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