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Rutu pa'u (drumming)

Rutu pa'u means 'beating the drums' and can be called the 'backbone' of music and dance in the Cook Islands. It is an important part of the dance, particularly for setting the tempo. In kapa rima (action songs), ukuleles and guitars set the melody. Pa'u, percussion instruments, are important for keeping the beat. Light drumming (usually a tokere and the two-headed bass drum called pa'u or tari parau) accompanies an action song while full ensembles (of up to seven different pa'u) are used during drum dances and 'symphony of drums' demonstrations.

In the Tangi Ka'are competition, held around August each year, the focus is solely on drumming. Teams of students from the primary schools of Rarotonga participate. This is a good way to keep the art of drumming alive and it allows more young people, including more recently young girls, to participate. Traditionally, women were not drummers. The usual percussion ensemble consists of a pa'u or tari parau (a double-headed bass drum), a pa'u mango (a conga type drum with a tympanum which was traditionally made from sharksking and was hand-beaten, today it is made from goatskin and is usually beaten with two light sticks), and pate, tokere and korio (wooden slit gongs of varying sizes which provide a range of pitches). tini (empty cabin bread tin) is commonly used by Manihiki dance trouiipes. The use of ka'ara (a large log drum) was revived around 1970 by the CINAT. This instrument produces three different pitches. The ka'ara, believed to be one of the oldest instruments in the Cook Islands, played an important role in traditional society. It was used for signalling people to gather in one place for an important event such as an akauruuru'anga (chiefly investiture) or a funeral of an important member of society. Today, it is said that to hear a ghostly ka'ara play in the distant forest or hills (kua tae te arapo) is an omen of misfortune.

Often drummers with natural ability are recognised from an early age and are invited to join professional dance troupes, where they continue to develop their skill and pass it on to drummers in the team. A drummer with considerable skill was the late Sunai (also known as Terepa'i Matapo) who died aged 44 in 2000. Sunai, said to have had natural talent, is referred to by a number of professional musicians and tumu korero (cultural experts) as a master in his field. A collection of drum rhythms, invented and directed by him, are available on a CD called 'Sunai', which is a best-seller in the Cook Islands.

Cook Islands drumming is full and resonating. It is so highly regarded in other Pacific islands, such as French Polynesia, that they have emulated some of the techniques and drums used in the Cook Islands. The pate and tokere, which originated in the Cook Islands, in Rarotonga and Aitutaki respectively, were introduced into Tahiti in the early 1900s. Another export from the Cook Islands to Tahiti has been the two-stick playing technique for small and medium-sized slit gongs which the Tahitians call ta'iri pati to distinguish it from the one-stick technique for larger slit gongs. The fa'atete, now the most common type of drum in Tahiti, was developed in the 1960s to replace the punu (an empty kerosene or cabin-bread tin). Its raised or hollowed interior central portion (hune) is a feature of the Cook Islands Pa'u mango."

Drum legends

A legend upholds the superiority of Rarotongan drumming. Once, when Rarotonga and Ra'iatea were geographically positioned next to each other, a dance competition was held to ascertain which of the two islands had the best dancers and drummers. After a tough contest, the Rarotongans were deemed the best and were declared by the gods to be the winners. This infuriated the Ra'iateams. Although proud of their success, the Rarotongans felt sorry for the Ra'iateans and wondered whether they had an advantage because their drums had been invented in Rarogonga. So, they decided to make a drum especially for the Rai'iateans, and make a gift of it to them. A special delegation went to make the delivery of the gift, but they were set upon by the angry Ra'iateans and killed. The gods were angered by this, and moved Rarotonga away from Ra'iatea, 'down to the south' (which is what 'Rarotonga' means), where it remains to this day.'

Another legend confirms the importance of drums in the social life of Polynesians since ancient times. Pa'umotu, a group of islands in what is French Polynesia today, is said to have been named by a celebrated Polynesian ancestor, called Ka'ukura, is said to have led a large migration of people, e varu rau (1600), from 'Avaiki, stopping at islands which he named Iva-nuk, Iva-ra'i, Iva-te-pupenga, and others. When he had completed the ceremonies appointing chiefs and a high chief for the three main islands, he addressed the people telling them to always remember that they sprang from a common stock and were one people. This was when the drum beating ceased, and from this fact Ka'ukura called these islands Pa'umotu, meaning the ceasing of drum beating. From there he continued to Tubua'i, Rangivavae (Ra'i vavae), and 'Itinui - placing people on all these islands as he went. He returned to 'Avaiki and brought 300 more people. Returning to Pa'umotu, he collected a further 300 people whom he took on his colonising voyages to Tongareva, then to Ra'iatea, where tradition states he built the famous marae of Tapu-tapu-atea. From there he went to Taiti-nui (Tahiti) where he settled permanently.

'Imene (singing)

Cook Islanders of old did not sing the way we do today. Songs of the past were pe'e (chants).

'Imene include contemporary songs and music (including string bands and live bands), ute (celebratory song), 'imene reo metua and 'imene tuki (traditionall hyumns), and choral singing. Cook Islanders love to sing and compose songs. this is reflected in the huge body of work recorded on tape, records, and CDs. People still sing the old songs, and the established songwriters still continue to compose for musical pageants, festivals or recordings. New and upcoming composers and singers come to prominence particularly during the Song Quest, Akateni (String Bands) and Composers' competitions.

Ute (celebratory song)

Although school children sing ute in Schools Culture Festival competitions, the one style of singing is still largely the prerogative of older people. The traditional ute was a joyful love chant-song or 'imene akaepaepa (song of praise) performed by a group of men and women in a celebratory mood. Nowadays, ute are composed about a wider range of topics. Ute today is different from that of 30 to 40 years ago. According to older Rarotongan exponents of ute, the modern ute incorporates more of the elements commonly associated with 'imene tuki, such as tuki (grunts) and perepre (singing descant), than was considered acceptable years ago. This they blame on the loss of contact with the art for a period of over 20 years when a church ban was in place. Consequently, the new generation of composers that follow4ed, did not learn the techniques nor recognise the peculiarities, which made traditional ute different from 'imene tuki. Variations exist between the islands, however, the purpose of ute is the same on all islands - it is a celebratory song to be sung in a party atmosphere. It would be unseemly to perform ute in churches or at funerals. Mangaians have different names fro their different types of ute. Ko'e and tangi are two of the common styles. Ute today is performed mainly on stage during the Constitution Celebrations or at community functions.  

An ute usually begins with a tare (a short phrase introducing the note the group will follow) by an arataki (lead-in soloist), usually female. In Ma'uke, only males perform the tare. The singing is accompanied by musical instruments, with the pace emphasised by light drumming and some tuki (intermittent rhythmic grunting of the men). Great ute composers (tangata kite i te 'uri ute) of Rarogonga included the late Tearikiva'ine Goodwin, the late Akatu Karotaua and the late Vaerua Anguna. Composers of ute on Rarotonga today include Sir Apenera Short, 'Aka'iti Ama and Motu Kora.

Takitumu Te Vaka Ta'unga
Takitumu e, taku vaka ta'unga
Te vaka niania o nga ariki
E Pa Ariki e Kainuku Ariki
Korua e aku parekura
Ma nga mata'iapo o te Puara Nui
Tutara ki Takitumu nei
Mei Ta'akarua ki Toreaiva
'Oki mai toku i reira
Ko angiatea nei ko te upoko ia
O te ika nui a Tangi'ia
Ki te Itinga-ra,
Ko Ngati Tangi'ia,
Vairanga no aku parekura
'Uri ake taku aro Teimurimoti'a
Te 'iku i te ika a Tangi'ia


Tokitumu the district of priests
Takitumu is my district of priests
A special district for the paramount chiefs
Pa Ariki and Kainuku Ariki
Who are my red-plumed crowns
And all the mata'iapo of the Puara Nui
(Council of Chiefs)
The rulers of Takitumu
From Ta'akarua to Toreaiva (from the northern boundary to the southern boundary)
They are my boundaries
Rangiatea is the head of the fish
To the rising sun, is Ngati Tangi'ia
The residence of my paramount chiefs
To Teimurimoti'a I will turn my face.
To the tail of the fish of Tangi'ia.
Ka oki taku tino ki te po kerekere
Ka ui au e no 'ea mai au te ngai kapua ia ai
Mei 'Avaiki mai taku ui tupuna
Tere mai na raro i te tonga
Tangi'ia Nui e, o te varurau e
Tapa'ia te ingoa Rarotonga
Ko te Avarau e ko te Vai-kokopu
Uru mai taku vaka ki reira
Ko Vaerota 'oki ko te tapa'e'anga
E marae no aku tupuna
Ka vai te reira ei akaara'anga
Naa te uki a muri atu
Ka vai te reira ei akara'anga
E tuatau uatu.

(Words and translation

My heart goes back to the beginnings of time
Here I will ask
Where did I come from?
My ancestors came from 'Avaiki
They sailed down to the south
Tangi'ia Nui, with 8 times 200 people (1600)
Bestowed the name Rarotonga
At Avarau and Vai-kokopu
My canoe landed
Vaerota was also a port of call
And a marae (sacred ground) for any ancestors
This will remain an example
For the generations in the future
This will remain an example
Forever and ever.

by 'Aka'iti Ama)

In the past ute was a part of every social gathering, formal and informal, except for a period during the 1950s to the 1960s when the Reverend Murphy, President of the CICC, banned its use at church social functions and forbade the participation of church deacons and parishioners in it. His main reason for this was the ute's association with pangekava (homebrew or 'bush-beer' parties) and the nature of the dancing which accompanied the singing some of which was considered lewd. It appears the lure of the ute (or the homebrew?) was difficult to suppress for a deacon was suspended from church services during he 1950s. It was to avoid the scrutiny of village elders and church authorities that homebrew was brewed and drunk in the bush from the 1850s, and hence the parties were known as bush-beer parties. According to Motu Kora, a well-known Rarotongan song composer, Ma'ukeans traditionally excelled at ute, and Ma'uke women, in particular, excelled at the dance style associated with this type of singing.

'Imene pure (church songs)

'Imene too metua and 'imene tuki emerged out of Cook Islands Protestantism established in the 1820s. both styles of hymn singing continue to play an important part in the predominant denomination of the Cook Islands, the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC), formerly London Missionary Society (LMS). The term 'imene reo metua is believed to have come from the reputed age of this Maori hymn (thought to be older than 'imene tuki), or the age of the singers who love to sing this type of hymn. 'Imene reo metua feature in the hymnal that is still used, which was introduced from Britain in the early 1800s by LMS missionaries. Most were translations of English evangelical Moody and Sankey hymns which were themselves based on the music of German barroom ballads. The composers took the tunes and put gospel words to them. English missionaries then translated these into Maori. Many more Maori hymns were composed over the years by the local orometua (ministers). Nowadays, hymns may be composed by anyone in the ekalesia (congregation). 'Imene reo metua do not feature excessive tuki (rhythmic grunts of the men) near the ends of phrases of stanzas, as 'imene tuki does. A popular 'imene reo metua is 'Kua tangi 'aka'ou te pu evangelia'. 'Imene reo metua play an integral part in worship, where it is sung in the church at all services.

'Imene tuki are unique to the Cook Islands. these are hymns that include elements of traditional Cook Islands style pe'e (chanting) such as the guttural grunts and hanging movements of the male singers 'Imene tuki plays an integral part at uapu (Bible study meetings). Special occasions such as Christmas, New Year and teretere (exchanges of hospitality between villages) may prompt new composition. 'Imene tuki competitions during the Constitution Celebrations are based on a Bible verse chosen by the Constitution Celebrations Organising committee. All competing groups are given the same verse for which they are expected to develop their own tune and rhythm.

There are seven vocal parts in an 'imene tuki:

a tumu 'imene (usually a woman soloist) who starts the singing and sets the note and tempo to be followed;
perepere (an alternating high-pithed decorative part) - sung by one or two women in the group;
pere na raro (a pitch below the lead) sung by one or two women;
pere na runga (a pitch above the lead) sung by one or two women;
reo tamou is the level at which the majority of female singers will stay;
pere tane is a high pitch for a male voice - a difficult skill to master as it is outside the natural scale for men; Manoa Pirake is one of the few men who sing this part today;
maru (harmony) is the part men perform generally. 

The people of French Polynesia emulate the Cook Islands style of 'imene tuki in a type they call himene Raroto'a or himene Atua.

Choral singing was a competition item during he Constitution Celebrations up until the early 1990s. It still occurs on a Sunday during Constitution Celebrations week but it is no longer a competitive item. The Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church choir, with its professional presentation - choir robes near-perfect harmonisation - scooped the honours for many years when choral singing was first included in the programme of the celebrations. SDA choirs are well trained in the art of harmony and for many years the SDA church had the only property trained teachers of music to whom people sent their children to learn musical instruments.

Au 'Imene 'ou (contemporary songs)

Many new songs continue to be recorded every year. Many of them become hit songs in the Cook Islands and in the Cook Islands communities overseas, as well as in Tahiti and among New Zealand Maori communities. These hit songs are played repeatedly at parties, nightclubs, and on the radio. An example of this was the song 'Akakino' in the early 1990s that was a hit in the Cook Islands and in Tahiti, as well as in Cook Islands communities abroad. 'Akakino' was re-recorded by many Tahitian artists following the initial release by the Cook Islands artist, Kutia Tuteru.  

Many Cook Islands songs have been recorded by Tahitian artists who, with their more powerful public relations machines and the larger population, have been able to promote the songs, and make themselves more money than the original artist did. Often no acknowledgement is made of the songwriters in the Cook Islands who miss out on royalties because of inadequate copyright laws and the lack of copyright-treaty arrangements with other countries, including French Polynesia.

Vaimutu Records, owned by Cook Islanders in Auckland, New Zealand, appears to be chieving its aim of taking Cook Islands music to the world. They have produced a string of hit songs in recent years, including 'Ruketekete' by Brother Love (also known as Rahu Vaka), which debuted in the late 1990s and became the most requested Cook Islands Maori song on New Zealand Maori's national network of iwi radio stations.' 'Ruketekete' also continues to dominate the airwaves in the Cook Islands. Other hit songs by Vaimutu Records, include 'Johah Lomu' by Tyson (also known as Elia Elia), a song celebrating the famous rugby player, and a best-selling CD by T'Angelo (also known as Angelo Tunopopo), with a song called 'Sukerukeru', which became a number one Maori hit song in the Cook Islands in early 2001.

Contemporary songs, which include samplings of songs written or sung by other artists up to 50 years ago, and ones composed recently may be sung in annual contests such as the Composers Competition (which was until recently part of the constitution Celebrations), the Song Quest and 'Akateni (String Bands) competition. An important aspect of contemporary music is 'atu imene (song composition) where high value is given to originality and complexity. Only occasionally are themes chosen which are not related to the Cook Islands or to Cook Islanders abroad. Such a song is 'Osama Bin Laden', composed in 2001.

A Cook Islands composer of renown was Turepu Turepu who died aged 56 in 1990. A prolific composer , he is reputed to have written over 1000 songs in his lifetime, some of which he recorded in Tahiti in the 1970s. A number of these, which were hits in both Tahiti and the Cook Islands, because signature hits for his dance troupe, Ta'akoka. An often-repeated story illustrates his skill at composition. While attending a gathering of choreographers and composers from around the Pacific, he was challenged to demonstrate his ability. this he did by pointing to a bird flying overhead. He sang a song describing its colours, its shapes the way its wings flapped and the direction it was flying. When the bird vanished from view, Tureu finished his song. He was challenged again to repeat the song. This he did word for word.

Recording artists

Cook Islands contemporary songs produced on CD and audiotape enjoy a good following in Cook Islands communities everywhere. In New Zealand and Australia, where Cook Islanders live in large numbers, Cook Islands dance and music is one way they are reminded of their ties to their homeland and culture. Not only do they attend the frequent Cook Islands socials in their adopted countries, they commonly emulate the song and dance pageants of their home country. Family members in the Cook Islands keep them in touch with their roots through a regular supply of the latest in Constitution Celebrations, Song Quest, Tiare Festival and Miss Cook Islands video tapes, and the latest in popular Cook Islands music.

The first famous Cook Islands recording artists were Will Crummer, and Pepe and the Rarotongans, who produced a string of hits in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1960s, two singers, Te'ana Makirere and Jake Numanga, came to the fore and dominated the airwaves until well into the 1970s. Other popular recording artists of the 1970s included Ta'unganui and 'Akaerepere, Nitika, and Philomena. The early 1980s saw the brief rise of 12 year old Anna Makirere's musical career, but it was tragically cut short by her death from a misdiagnosed illness. Te'ata Makirere went into semi-retirement from public performances in the early 1980s. Jake Numanga remained a prominent singer for decades, and still sings and strums his ukulele as he greets passengers at the international airport.

The songs of these early Cook Islands recording artists were island-style ballads based around themes of love, heartache and loss. The singing tradition of Will Crummer, who migrated to New Zealand in the mid-1960s, has continued with his daughter, Annie Crummer, who has become a well-known singer there and in Australia. A number of other Cook Islanders have become well-known singers or members of well-known bands in New Zealand: cabaret singer Tony Williams in the 1960s, members of Herbs, arguably New Zealand's most famous reggae band; Teremoana Rapley (in Moana and the Moa-hunters), and members of the Monga family in the band, Ardijah. The next generation of young Cook Islands musicians and singers in New Zealand will no doubt emerge in hip-hop, the preferred music type of the twenty-somethings or younger age group.

Even though in the early 1970s, a number of studios operated in Rarotonga (among them Wade Swoboda's and Peter Story's) until 1995 it was a 'necessary evil' for a Cook Islands artist to travel to Tahiti to record in a studio there. Local recording artists Nia Heather, John Lindsay, and Andre Tapena have all made recordings there with TAVT. Kutia Tuteru, Sunset Special and Tauraki superstars recorded with Studio Alphonse, while Tangee (also known as Tangi Kokaua), Apiti Nicholas, the late Tommy PIerre, and Mere Darling recorded with Studio Arevareva. It was not uncommon for the songs of Cook Islands artists to be re-released shortly afterward by a Tahitian artist who earned greater benefits from the song than did the original artist. With the advent of easier-to-operate and cheaper recording equipment as well as access to technical training to operate digital recording equipment, it has become possible for studios to become established in Rarotonga, thus reducing the need for artists to travel abroad. Today, local recording studios, such as Te'ura Music, Paradise Studio, and Raro Records, produce on CD the music and songs of Cook Islands artists and market them locally and overseas. New Zealand-based Cook Islands artists find creative outlets in a number of recording studios in Auckland, which are owned and operated by Cook Islanders, such as Log Drums Studio, Te 'Onu, Hereone, and Vaimutu Records.

Contemporary Cook Islands music is becoming increasingly popular in the Pacific. This is due largely to the marketing efforts of Vaimutu Records which organises annual tours, promoting their stable of artists all over the Pacific. In 2001, Vaimutu's recordings were a sell-out at the 8th Festival of Pacific Arts in New Caledonia. According to its manager Noo Vaevae Pare, VAimutu Records' crowning achievement since the business started in 1986, has been the securing of a contract in 2001 to supply Cook Islands and Pacific music to The Warehouse, the largest chain of department stores and the biggest music retailer in New Zealand.

String bands and modern bands

Contemporary songs include those performed by solo performers and live bands, as well as songs produced on music CDs and audiotape. The first formal bands appeared either as back-up for dance troupes or as bands at socials or 'ura piani'. The back-up band would consist of selected musicians and singers of up to 20 people in order to achieve the volume of sound necessary for public performances in the days before the microphone and electrical amplification became commonplace. It is thought that string bands emerged out of pangekava ("bush-beer' parties), but stringed instruments are unlikely to have been used in the early years, as they were introduced somewhat later. The first pangekava parties centred on the consumption of the non-alcoholic kava Maori (Piper methysticum), and from the 1850s 'bush beer' made from fermented fruits yielded a high alcohol content. Both were condemned by the missionaries but remained popular. Villagers retreated to the valleys to participate in these parties, out of the eye of church elders. It was there that new songs were aired and ute, in particular, continued to be sung.

The sole purpose of the formal string band is to entertain at social events. A typical string band consists of 10 to 20 men and women who sit in a group singing. Their musical instruments consist of a limited percussion ensemble (a two-headed pa'u bass drum) and guitars and ukuleles. In the early days, a performance repertoire included European as well as Maori numbers to which people danced the waltz, the quickstep, the foxtrot and later, the jitterbug (titapaka). The best known string band was one of the first - the Pokata Band, formed in the 1940s by Tupe Short with his wife and others. The revival of this band in the 1970s by descendants of the original members of the band, coincided with the renewed interest in string bands generally. Other members from the original Pokata band, Teariki and Lafala Turepu formed the Moa Band in the 1950s. They played at the Blue Lagoon, a popular dance hall in Ngatangi'ia owned by Jim Price, an American, and his Rarogongan wife, Rere. Another entertainment venue was the Royal Hall (later called the Victory Theatre), owned by Willie Browne. A number of other bands to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s included the Everest band, Ada's Band, Tupapaku Band and Manurere Band.

For a while it was fashionable to have trumpeters in the music ensemble. This was probably influenced by the big band orchestras in the movies, which came out of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s (cinema-going being the other favourite past-time of Cook Islanders at the time.) It was probably also influenced by the widespread learning and popularity of trumpets in the cook Islands Boys Brigade - then the largest single organised youth activity. The use of an accordion by some string bands is said to be an influence from Tahiti. From the late 1970s some of the bands acquired permanent entertainment spots of hotels and restaurants until recently, but they seem to have become less significant in the entertainment arena, partly owing to lack of availability of the numbers needed to keep them going. String bands still come together for the annual Akateni competition.

String bands remained popular until the introduction of the microphone, electric guitar and electric bass guitar and other instruments allowing easier amplification of sound in the mid-1960s. In the outer islands, where electrical power arrived later than in Rarotonga, string bands continued out of necessity until the 1980s. Such large bands, in Rarotonga at least, were no longer necessary. In the early 1970s about 15 'electric' or modern bands (consisting of no fewer than four or five members) operated on Rarotonga. Many of these modern bands played at weekends in the packing sheds and the clubhouses in the villages. A popular venue for entertainment throughout these years was the Marua'ia'i in Tupapa. Modern hands that played there over the years included the Volcanoes (with George Browne), Kon Tiki (with Papa Takai Ngatipa), the Nagabonds (with the Vakapora brothers and Apiti Nicholas), Jake Numanga and his band (with Andre Tapena), and the Pearly Stars (formed by Pat Peyroux, later joined by Nia Heather and Rere Kaiaruna). today, the demand for live bands is not great, as contract rates are much higher, so many bars find it cheaper to play recorded music.

The Pearly Stars, who have been around for 35 years, is the longest-surviving professional band in the cook Islands. They continue to play at hotels and at private functions such as weddings and parties. The hotels and bars, as well as the nightclubs which emerged with the growth of tourism, supplanted the Marua'ia'i. Thereafter, the Banana Copurt, a nightspot that operated out of an historic hotel, the former Otera Rarotongs (built in 1906 and for decades the only hotel in the cook Islands) became the premier nightspot from the 1970s through to the 1980s.

A popular new band on Rarotonga in recent years is the teenaged all-girl group called Always. Always is the invention of Eddie Wichman of Arorangi, who is related to the four young artists. The girls sing as well as dance to English and Maori songs, some of which they composed themselves, as well as songs composed for them by talented family members such as Mike Tavioni. Always have sometimes been called the Rarotongan version of the popular British all-girl group, the Spice Girls. Always has been performing since 1998 and they have produced popular music videos and a couple of CDs and hit songs, 'Tiare o 'Ikurangi', 'Rarotonga (Rakahanga)', and 'Destiny'. They perform frequently at the Punanga Nui Market, sometimes in conjunction with E. Matike! (St. Mary's) dance troupe (to which the members of Always also belong). Always also performs every Friday night at the Rarotongan Beach Resort.

Akateni (string instruments)

The most commonly used string instruments in the Cook Islands are ukarere (ukulele) and kita (guitar). Ukulele and guitar are believed to have travelled in tandem from Hawai'i via Tahiti in the late 1800s. Here were two instruments that were unlike anything cook Islanders had had before, but which appealed to their natural sense of rhythm and music and they took to both with gusto. Ukulele (meaning 'jumping flea' in Hawai'ian) is a small guitar derived from the machada, a small four-stringed guitar introduced into Hawai'i by Portuguese from the Madeira Islands of Portugal in 1879. Many changes have taken place in the shape and size of the humble ukulele. At first, the ukulele resembled a miniature guitar in shape, but Cook Islanders improvised and developed their own with coconut shell bodies using one, two and sometimes three coconut shells. The instrument was never more than 60cm long. Today, ukuleles, particularly those imported from Tahiti and kamaka ukuleles from Hawai'i, are 80cm or more in length. Tahitian ukuleles may be banjo-shaped or oblong, while kamaka are guitar-shaped. both are heavier than the traditional ukulele, with double strings (eight in all, instead of the usual 4). Most performers in the cook Islands today favour the larger imported ukuleles because they are easier to play (they have more space for fingering) and produce a more powerful sound. Ukuleles are sometimes electrically amplified to increase their sound.  Tahitian ukuleles are carved out of solid wood, and their ornate fingerboards are sometimes inlaid with pearl-shell, or carved with traditional designs by expert craftsman. Coconut shells are no longer used in the body, and the hole normally found on the front of the instrument is now at the back. The preferred ukulele in the Cook Islands today is the Tahitian, which came into vogue in the Cook Islands about 1995, after Te Ava Piti, a popular Tahitian band, aired them in a music video. Ukuleles are always used in tandem with guitars during performances.

Arorangi prison inmates have for decades made ukuleles as part of their rehabilitation. These instruments are popular with tourists and holidaying Cook Islanders from overseas. The signature of the maker usually accompanies idyllic island scenes and island names (most likely his lace of birth) painted on the face of the ukulele. Locally made ukulele were well crafted but by the 1980s it became harder to get them, save from a few people in the outer islands who still made them. Punua Taura'a of Atiu continues to  make ukuleles but it is in the preferred Tahitian style. The late Turakina, a well-known craftsman on Rarotonga, lived in Takuva'ine. Matapo Tamaka of Ma'uke is another well-known ukulele craftsman in the old style. Most ukuleles used in dance team and string band performances today are imported from Tahiti.

The guitar, which has a longer history than ukuleles, having originated in Spain early in the 16th century, derives from the guitarra latina, a late medieval instrument. today, the waisted instrument with sometimes six or twelve strings, is widely played in the folk and popular music of many countries, including the Cook Islands. The guitar was a highly valued item in households when it first arrived in the Cook Islands. For a long time it was costly and therefore difficult for most people to obtain. What few there were well looked after especially when they became essential equipment in every band and dance troupe. Some people on Rarotonga attempted to make their own guitars in the 1960s, but they did not sound as good as the professionally crafted, imported ones.

Cook Islanders learn to play musical instruments by observation and 'playing by ear'. Few Cook Islanders take formal lessons on these instruments. Like dancing, they pick up the skills from watching and listening to older players, including older siblings and friends. Outside of cinema and dance halls there was not much formal entertainment so it was natural for Cook Islanders to use these instruments in their leisure time. by the 1920s the guitar was so popular in the cook Islands that Reverend Hutchin in 1924 lamented its influence."... the young men and women will be found strumming them at all times ... rather playing guitars than come to services'. For several generations after the first introduction of these two string instruments it was a favourite pass-time for people to sit under trees in the evening shade and sing while a ukulele and guitar played. Children mimicked their elders with musical gatherings of their own to school playgrounds. this was good grounding for dance teams or bands which some of them would join later. Today it is less common to gather informally to sing for there is much more to keep young people occupied, such as soccer, touch-rugby, television, video and electronic games. However, it is not uncommon to see small puna kava (drinking groups, also referred to facetiously by some as 'Sunday schools') under trees in the back yards of homes, with the ever-present ukulele and guitar being strummed and sung to by intoxicated participants.

Pe'e (chants)

Pe'e are ancient historical chants which commemorate particular events, including brave deeds of ancestors or legendary warriors. Pe'e were formulaic in structure and ritualised in presentation. Their very nature is the reason few traditional pe'e survive. Because they were ritualised and could only be chanted by certain people at certain times - al rites which were considered heathen by the missionaries - many ancient pe'e fell into disuse and were consequently lost. Pe'e has also come to mean any chant - old or new. Pe'e were once the mainstay of 'eva, the entertainment festivals which appear to have predominated in Rarotonga a the time of the arrival of the missionaries. Many pe'e still used today are tribal in nature and are reserved for va'a tuatua (orators, family spokesperson, or talking chiefs) of a particular tribe. some pe'e have been composed for special ceremonial occasions or in recent times are usually performed by a group. Two pe'e which became popular were entered at different times by the Tereora College Dance Troupe in the Secondary Schools Culture Festival competition in the late 1970s. these two, composed by teacher and composer, Maeva Karati, told the stories of heroic ancestors. 'Uke Ariki, from Ma'uke and Mariri-tu-tu-a-manu from Atiu. Pe'e composition of this nature is not so popular anymore, either because the exponents of the art are dying out, or interest in this art form has been superseded by other art-forms such as singing and dancing. This probably the reason pe'e has been combined with peu tupuna presentations at the Constitution Celebrations of recent years.

Pe'e tuoro or welcome chants are still commonly used today, usually at the start of formal functions. A pe'e tuoro is short and is usually executed by one person, usually male. However, a couple of women in recent years have taken up the challenge. While this has not gone down well with some of the menfolk, this change is reflective of a general transition to a less patriarchal society. A pe'e tuoro that is performed today may be ancient, or it may be composed specially for the occasion, or it may be impromptu - composed on the spot by the person making the delivery. There is a pe'e to suit every occasion. Two Rarotongan practitioners of the art of pe'e tuoro today are Tepoave Ra'itia and Tere Ngapare (Pua-ti Mata'iapo). A typical pe'e tuoro is executed with the person carrying a spear, although women practitioners will use leaves or their bare hands. Pe'e tuoto probably derived from a challenge made by warriors in ancient times, to approaching strangers. A challenge entailed asking the stranger to present his credentials: where he was from, what his tribal connections were, and his achievements. Any person delivering a pe'e tuoro on a ceremonial occasion will be dressed in traditional costume of either tapa or kaka or rauti, sometimes a combination of all three. He may complete his costume with a feathered headdress similar to that of an ariki's investiture headdress, or a coronet of leaves, or helmet of coconut husk, or hat made from tapa. Costuming depends on the individual's preference.

Karakia is similar to pe'e in its presentation but it is only recited on a marae. Its subject matter and purpose differs from ordinary pe'e in that it is an invocation or prayer to the gods. Some karakia are secret and not meant to be taught to people outside of the tribe. An example of this is the karakia used at the investiture of an ariki. A senior mata-iapo (sub-chief), who is a descendant of a long line of mata'iapo, or a family spokesperson who is specially selected to perform the function, learns the karakia and recites it on the day of the investiture of the ariki. If the mata'iapo or spokesperson commits an error, or forgets some of the karakia during recitation, it is believed to be on omen of misfortune. It means the ariki is likely to have a short reign either because he will die soon or his title will be usurped.

Tako is a special karakia recited by the high priest Potiki Taua of Rarotonga at the investiture of his ariki.

Peu tupuna (legends)

Peu tupuna may be translated as 'ancestral customs', but it has also come to mean the re=enactment of old stories and legends. These are usually performed during the Constitution Celebrations. A peu tupuna performance tries to represent, as fully as possible, a tale that is well known. Legends are performed complete with the traditional pe'e and dances that belong to that story. Sometimes the legend being acted out has several versions and the 'wrong' version is likely to arouse the anger of the party being portrayed negatively in the story.

A striking example of this occurred in the 1970s between Ma'uke and Atiu, over the legend of Aka'ina, an Atiu warrior who tried to take the wife of a Ma'uke chief. Atiuans portray Aka'ina as killed and eaten by the Ma'ukeans. The Ma'ukeans refute this - cannibalism is repugnant to modern day Christians. Besides, they argue, Ak'aina's'inu (bodily essences) were retrieved and returned to Atiu and for that to happen his body would have had to remain intact after death. In a situation like this, the dissenting group will not have the opportunity to refute the story, if they so choose, until the following year's Constitution Celebrations. Two popularity re-enacted legends of Rarotonga are Katikatia (the cannibal witch who ate children) and the Momoke of Arorangi (the albino water fairies of Arorangi). Tepoave Ra'itia turned both legends into successful musicals. A legendary character recognised to most of Polynesia as the mischief-making demi-god Maui, is also a popular subject of many peu tupuna. In Manihiki, Maui appears in many different fables. The best known is Mauti-potiki e te Ra (Maui and the Sun - where Maui slows down the sun by using magic rope made from his sister's hair). Tepoave Ra'itia recently adapted this legend for a musical called 'Maui and the Sun of the New Millennium', emphasising the need for environmental protection.

The most common theme for peu tupuna appears to be discovery or origin of the people on their island. for Rarotongans it is the story of Tangi'ia Nui from Tahiti and Karika from Samoa, who met at sea and combined forces to overthrow the original inhabitants; for Mangaians it is the emergence of their island and people from the underworld; for Atiuans it is their island by Uke Ariki from 'Avaiki; and for Aitutakians it is the arrival of their ancestor Ru from Tupu'aki (possibly tubua'i in French Polynesia).

Nuku (gospel day)

Nuku, meaning 'a company of people' or 'people banded together', is the name originally given for the pageants performed on Gospel Day (26 October) each year by members of the CICC churches to re-enact biblical stories. Nuku now also refers to Gospel Day. Nuku are performed by large groups from the different CICC churches who gather in one of the church grounds to compete against one another. All performers dress appropriate to the character they are playing, be they king, queen, slave, soldier, angel and even God, who might be represented by a man dressed in white standing atop the church roof, or as an omnipresent voice on loudspeakers. Much time and expense is spent on preparation of costumes, props and rehearsals in advance of Nuku day.

Nuku commemorates the arrival of Christianity in the Cook Islands. Evangelisation began at Aitutaki in 1821 and, with some setbacks, spread through the Cook Islands, guided in the early stages by Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society (which became the CICC in the 1960s). Nuku may also include the re-enactment of the arrival of Christianity to these islands. this is done with characteristic humorous portrayal of the ignorant savage (usually a chief with many wives) and the first sighting of the arriving ship of missionaries, to disbelief in the power of this unseen God (and reluctance of the chief to choose only one wife from his harem), and finally, acceptance of the new religion and its Christian precepts - with some momentary lapses. All Nuku are accompanied by music, singing and dancing - dancing that is seen as appropriate for telling a Biblical tale - of the kind Salome performed the King Herod.


Dance has remained, since time immemorial, the pre-eminent performing art in the Cook Islands. It is only in dance that all the performing arts come together and there have been added to with the passage of time. Since the arrival of the first Europeans, many art forms have thrived and evolved. Chants survive but their significance has diminished to parallel with an oral tradition that has been replaced by a written language. Singing, which was probably introduced, and string instruments, which were definitely introduced, were both embraced by Cook Islanders with the enthusiasm of converts.

These performing arts are readily adapted for the benefit of tourists as they have been molded as an expression of faith. But their future remains unclear, for it is not just the performing arts that are evolving in the Cook Islands. The nation has evolved rapidly in recent years. Particularly in Rarotonga, the standard of consumption is rising and a once homogeneous society is becoming increasingly mixed. The cultural foundation for its performing arts has become fluid so that while the demand for shows is on the rise, particularly with the growth of tourism, the numbers versed in these traditional arts may well be on the wane. It is probable that the trend will be towards a small club of professional performers catering to a mass audience through concerts, radio, television, video, CD and other forms of sight and sound mass communication. The hope is that this is not so but the signs suggest that Cook Islands performing arts will become the preserve of the few dedicated to its preservation and keen to ensure that its vibrancy is not lost to the generations to come.

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