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MUSIC OF KIRIBATI – SONG AND DANCE
by Dharmadeva
Background
The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced keer-i-bahs and also called I-Kiribati) consists
of the Gilbert Islands (including Ocean Island or Banabas), Phoenix Islands and Line
Islands. These are groups of low coral islands or atolls in the Micronesia area of the
Central Pacific that straddle the Equator. The population in 2003 is around 77,000
with the major religion being Christianity. English is spoken as is the local native
language. The pace of change in Kiribati is slow and thatch and tin is very much the
structure of many buildings. In 1979 the islands became an independent nation after
80 years of British rule. A sizeable number of Kiribati emigrants also live in the
Solomon Islands, Hawaii and the USA mainland where they have maintained their
culture.
Before British rule, Kiribati had no sense of national unity. The northern islands were
somewhat culturally different from the southern islands. Each island was governed in
its own way and right. People felt an identity with a particular island. In the northern
islands the people were governed by chiefs who came to power through victory in
war. The southern islands were governed by elders comprising men from each family
group. The maneaba or meeting house was central to their affairs and for the
community as a whole. Here women would also sing songs about love and the sea
(Kazama 2001).
Nowadays, whatever the island may be, the hospitality of the Kiribati people is a
unifying factor. The maneaba also remains central to all of Kiribati social and
political life, having been adopted and encouraged across Kiribati by the previous
British administration. The seating arrangements of the maneaba continue to reflect
the social structure of the island communities and this applies also to watching dance
and song performances. In pre-colonial times, one’s seat in the maneaba was
determined by a person’s role in fighting (more so in the southern islands) and those
who defended the village also took the lead role in performances. Traditionally, the
maneaba is divided into a number of boti, which is the sitting space assigned to an
extended family. When a person visits another island, in that maneaba they are
invited to sit in the boti to which they are related. Other visitors will sit in the boti
reserved for guests or strangers.
The performance culture of Kiribati today expresses a heritage of indigenous martial
arts, dance forms and musical styles, carried out at the maneaba. This culture has
been influenced by Christianity and, more recently, the modifying impact of secular
activities, such as tourism.
Traditional song from ritual and magic
Traditional musical composition involved elements of ritualism and magic, being
undertaken in a serious way using sacred knowledge and methods only passed on
from father to son or grandfather to grandson. The composition of songs was always
done by the trained tia kainikamaen (skill worker), who was regarded as a magician or
sorcerer. The missionaries appear to have used the words te ibonga for this role
instead. He was also a reference point for a defined social descent group and its
members. His skills were considered valuable clan property.
The tia kainikamaen performed certain rites so that the words and tune of the song
would come to him in a dream or be taught to him by the spirits. This involved
carrying out a kario or ‘bringing down’ ritual, which is believed to give the song
strength and vitality. In addition, the belief is that should the composer not follow
traditional instructions exactly, this would have serious ramifications which could also
result in death during or after the process.
On composing the song, it was sung back to the composer by a selected group called
the rurubene (also referred to as tia-ototo or song doers and tia-kamaen or tia-kario).
They were assistants. At this point the public was allowed to listen to the song and it
became everyone's song. A slow chant (te katake), usually done by elderly men and
women, was particularly popular. Because the songs were considered magically
blessed (mamiraki), they became very popular with the Kiribati people. Mamira or
ceremonies to bestow blessings on a song to enhance its appeal or the composer are
still found today.
Elements of the kainikamaen (skills of musical composing and performing) exist
today. Accordingly, when new songs and also dance steps are composed their
derivation is kept secret for a while to surprise the audience. Traditionally, this was
important because of the intense competition between different descent groups, which
also manifested itself in dance and song. Performances were a public and communal
display of the strength of the tia kainikamaen shown through skills in musical
composition and performance.
General song composition
Today, the tia kainikamaen are not found because the role of descent groups is not
strong. Different civic organisations such as churches, schools and clubs have taken
their place. The method of song composition, which became prevalent, is that
someone requests a song be made specifically for that person. The person tells a story
to the composer who concentrates intensely and listens attentively. Further
information may also be asked for and must be provided. The procedure adopted by
the composer is basically to compile a list of important words needed in the song,
select appropriate musical notes from which a tune is developed, and refine the song
by constant repetition. Once the composer is content with the form of the new song,
the assisting group (rurubene) listens to it and practices it by heart without giving any
opinion about the song. They then sing the song back to the composer who polishes it
up by making the necessary alterations to the lyrics and tune.
As no magic is seen to be involved in these songs, they may not become popular
unless they are particularly clever. Also, unless skilfully sung in public only then will
the song attain some enduring quality similar to that of magically composed songs.
Love songs are the most common, but the same process is used for wedding, religious
and children’s songs, as well as dance songs. These composers may also compose
their own original songs without being requested to do so and without the assistance
of the rurubene.
Generally, songs utilise the five tone scale roughly equivalent to D E G A B. Three
tones are also used. Melodies are syllabic (meaning that only one note is used for
each syllable of the text) and conjunct (that is, a rise or fall follows precisely the
successive pitches of the scale). Songs are also through composed (the music changes
throughout) in 1 to 3 sections, but these sections can be repeated. The rhythm goes
from a free meter to duple meter (two basic beats in a measure) as it becomes
accompanied by stamping, clapping and slapping of the body
Impact of Christianity
The impact of Christianity is such that the maneaba is today also used as the central
place of worship. However, in this instance, everyone is both guest and host to
signify sharing and service. The Christian missionaries drew upon aspects of Kiribati
culture in their efforts to explain and spread their religion. Amongst the various
religious sects and rituals, it was the Catholic Mass that knowingly incorporated
Kiribati dance into its celebrations. This transformed some of the lasciviously
inclined elements and links with sorcery into Christian ideals. This integration also
resulted in performances of dance and song taking place after worship along with the
meal or feast (botaki) that followed. At this time, different families and groups share
their traditional songs, dances and dramas, but because of the occasion they are
mainly related to Biblical stories or traditional stories that have Christian application
(Meo 1994).
The Christian missionaries were responsible for the decline of the importance of the
descent groups as they moved Kiribati society towards broader social affiliations
(churches, schools and clubs). Composition became more of an individual affair and
the observance of ritual methods was loosened. Kairi or hymns, particularly Catholic
and Protestant, became well known pieces and used indigenous melodies. By the
1960s, the kuaea or songs sung in choirs, which had been influenced by hymnal
singing, had become an institutionalised genre noticeable for its beautiful harmonies
in unison in thirds, fourths or fifths. This vocal genre is sung by males and females
using western harmonies that are an octave apart and in duple meter. It is also now
accompanied by guitars and ukuleles.
Christian influenced music has been set aside a little bit since the latter part of the 20th
century as the influence of western popular music has taken some hold. In fact, since
World War II there has been greater cultural exchanges. This has seen the emergence
of some string band music and the occasional electronic keyboard. Informal singing
(anene) incorporating western musical elements has increased in popularity and may
be found at weddings and other social functions.
General aspects of Kiribati dance
Dance is central to Kiribati life. Dancers can be found rehearsing virtually
everywhere. Kiribati dances are exciting, vibrant and intense so as to absorb both the
performers and audience alike. This includes both the ruoia or early indigenous
dances and the mwaie or dance-songs developed around the beginning of the 20th
century.
Generally, the dancers do not move across their stage to any significant extent, and so
to give excitement the accompanying singers clap, slap and sing very vigorously.
There were very few musical instruments in Kiribati, so bodily percussion was
important. The conch trumpet (bu) was used for signalling and assembling. Today,
the rhythm of a dance tends to be beaten out on wooden boxes (boaki) or tin plates.
Since the 1980s the use of a bass drum and small log idiophones have also emerged.
Formal dance practice is a strict discipline. Warm ups (kawawa) need to be practised
before a performance. The actual dances are quite intricate, although this is not
always obvious to the observer. For example, the dancer when in a standing posture
can lean forward a bit, but never backwards. The position of the elbow, hand and
angle of the palm must also be particular and precise, so as to look relaxed. The
dancers concentrate on the movement of their hands and feet, but also the position of
their eyes is important, as is the right moment to make facial gestures such as a smile
or to look grave and serious.
The songs that accompany the dances involve a rising pitch and speed – a gradual
build up - as the excitement grows. Likewise, the dances begin slowly and
progressively accelerate. The adrenaline of the dancers builds up and the singers react
to it, which gives more energy. The overall effect is a crescendo of sound and
movement along with colour from the costumes.
Costumes are an important composite in dancing. Kiribati costumes are colourful.
For women they consist of swaying grass skirts and patterned upper body attire
(although before European influence the breasts remained exposed), belts of shell,
necklaces (natural materials of grass or manufactured beads) and striking headdresses.
The influence of sailors has resulted in beads and more colourful materials being
used. Men wear fine woven mats made from pandanus for standing dances. Smaller
headdresses can be worn as well. Red is a popular colour for headdresses. Another
form of dress for men is the lava lavos (skirt) tied with hair.
The lyrical text of an accompanying song to a dance expresses how the people look at
life. The text and meaning of songs often concerns love or important genealogical ties
and symbolism passed down through generations. Because of the emotional nature of
the songs, singers and dancers do break down during or at the end of a performance.
Overall, dance performances are emotional. They reflect a struggle between control
and creativity. Kiribati culture is very controlled, and so powerful emotions are
released and expressed creatively, spontaneously and with passion, through dance and
song. The society has discouraged outward displays of individual achievement, and
dance is an occasion to express individual feelings. This emotional experience results
in dancers laughing and crying, or going ecstatic (teruru). A body may shake and fall
on the floor, or a person can even go into a trance. It is an occasion when someone
can stand in front of others and express their emotions.
In Kiribati, dance remains the focus of creative energy. Music, movement, poetry and
oral history are all wrapped up within the dance tradition. Dances also relate the
myths of creation and immigration, whether centuries old or recent. So a dance can
portray the great battles of traditional Kiribati history as well as those of World War II
between the Allies and Japanese.
Traditional Kiribati dance
The Kiribati people believed in a supernatural ‘power of the dance’ – te angin te
mwaie. This is expressed by strong breathing, loud vocals, trembling, vigorous
movements, increased dance tempo or tonal level in songs, and movement with
greater force. All these elements create tension. In addition, the job of the tanikaunga or exciters is to roam amongst the singers encouraging them to sing
enthusiastically, thereby inspiring the dancers.
The nantekei were depictions in dance suites of battles between chiefs. Also, before
battle, to encourage the warriors, communities sung and danced. This reflected the
group competition prevalent in Kiribati life. The most important warrior dance for
men was the ruoia.
The features of the indigenous ruoia dance are flowing movements interspersed with
poses and abrupt movements of the head, hands and arms, as well as stamping of feet
and slapping of skin. In 1889 when Robert Louis Stevenson saw this dance
performed on Butaritari in the northern Gilbert Islands, he wrote (Stevenson 1900):
"Of all they call dance in the Pacific, the performance I saw on Butaritari
was easily the best. … Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul: it makes one
thrill with emotion, it uplifts one, it conquers one: it has the essence of all
great art: an immediate and far from exhausted appeal".
The ruoia, as with other dances, begins with the akeia, which is a distinctive solo cue
to give a starting pitch for the melody of the accompanying song. This involves the
word ‘Akekeia!’ being echoed from one side of the maneaba to the other. The lead
singer begins and the chorus joins in.
As the lead singer raises his arm, dancers are called to readiness. They perform in a
line of 1 to 6 dancers. The atmosphere becomes charged, and the dancers step
forward, while from behind the wall of men begin to clap in rhythm while chanting
(Whincup 1994). The singers behind the dancers are called the tan-uboubo (‘those
who clap’, but they also stamp their feet and slap their bodies). The dance involves
some short stylized type of walking, bending of knees and actions based on birds,
fishing, sailing, canoes and martial arts. Some dances are actually quite fierce and
before colonialism could involve actual fighting. There is no interaction with the
audience. The dancers maintain a fixed aloofness throughout the performance.
Dances performed today
The ruoia dance is still very important today in formal contests (kaunikai) between
rival troupes. In pre-colonial times competitions also existed and these were really
between bodies of knowledge (kainikamaen). Malevolent objectives existed and
ritual preparations were undergone to encourage the spirits to work through the
singers and dancers and to make them fit and strong. The missionaries succeeded in
making modifications and the dance context evolved into a competitive spirit between
troupes or clubs. Competitions (uaia) also now exist between individual performers.
Women are also adept dancers. In particular the kabuti is a dance that involves hip
shaking. It is one of a range of song and dance combinations called mwaie. Some of
these (kateitei, kaimatoa, buki) are derived from the ruoia style with percussion box
accompaniment. Mwaie are quick and subtle dances that are modelled after bird
movements such as mimicking a bird in flight. The bino is an elegant sit-down mwaie
performed in free rhythm in the first section and duple meter in the second section
with choral clapping.
The kabure is a quartet of seated individuals, and almost a game, in which people slap
each other’s hands and bodies while singing three tone melodies in duple meter.
Other forms of seated dances are the wanibanga and wantarawa performed by men
which can be quite explosive. This involves a melody on one tone that rises
throughout the performance. In fact, many dances, both of men and women, or a
combination dance form (kamei) involving both genders, end with what is called the
motika, which is a dramatic effect or climax at the end of a song and dance. The
typical form is the introductory akeia, followed by a free rhythm melody moving to a
strong duple meter (sometimes called the ruruo passage) of verses, and ending with a
motika.
The mwaie are performed on numerous social occasions. These dance-songs now
incorporate traits of outside music or dance. Western traits of the diatonic major
scale, functional harmonies and duple meter are the most common. Some dances
from other Pacific Islands have also taken a hold in Kiribati such as that of te batere
which is a standing dance involving 50 to 60 people and derived from Tuvalu
(formerly the Ellice Islands to the south-west of Kiribati). It is accompanied by the
wooden frame-box (te orobaoki) and adopts the usual rising crescendo format. There
is also the taubati which features Polynesian style movements and costumes derived
from Samoa.
Lastly, stick dances are still practised. The karanga are standing games with sticks in
which the performers strike their sticks amongst interweaving lines of players. The
tirere is a seated stick play in which performers strike their sticks directly opposite or
diagonally across the next row.
Conclusion
Kiribati songs and dances, while lacking much instrumental accompaniment, are quite
vibrant and exciting. They also have elements of gracefulness and an awe of magic
and ritual. The competitive factor is important in keeping this art form alive and for
the development of new songs and dances which are able to both retain their own
cultural identity and soak in other Pacific and western musical influences.
Dance competitions (kaunikai), as well as song text competitions (kaunimaneve),
today involve village and social groups rather than the previous emphasis on lineages.
These assist in retaining high standards as they are judged on the precision of singing,
dancing, choreographies, attractiveness, excitement and audience enthusiasm.
Interestingly, there is no formal announcement of any winner – comments in praise
are sufficient. These are assets of the community and acknowledgement from the
community appears to be sufficient incentive to keep Kiribati art forms alive. Despite
its lack of material wealth, richness is certainly found in Kiribati’s cultural wealth.
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