The Wayback Machine -
Kiribati Traditional Music

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Traditional Kiribati musical composition involves both ritualism and magic. It is undertaken using procedures that had been handed down from generation to generation.


On public occasions, traditional Kiribati music is
performed by a choir seated on the floor accompanied by guitars.

The people of Micronesia have a deep love of music from contemporary to traditional. Music can be heard in the early morning, while the toddy cutters are at work until late at night to the accompaniment of the traditional dance. Small children as young as two years of age will sing songs many of which are both difficult and traditional. Old people can often be heard sing to their young children as well as their small grand children while they are minding them.

The origins of traditional music are generally quite obscure and mostly they have been handed down in the manner indicated above by older folk to the younger children. Composing of traditional music follow a complicated process which is undertaken seriously and methodically and involves a considerable amount of ritualism and magic.

The interpretation of the traditional music in the form of dance
produces an exciting, intense and emotionally draining spectacle.

In Kiribati, traditional composers are known as te kainikamaen and they do not have to make the music as this is done by magic. The song or songs are given to the composers in a mythical setting. Their task is to follow the mythology that their predecessors had taught them in regard to composing traditional music. This knowledge is regarded as being quite sacred and is only passed on from father to son or possibly grandfather to grandson.

When this is done, the song is then sung to the composer by a selected group called rurubene. At this time the public is allowed to listen to the song and it becomes everyone's song. Most of the songs which are composed in this way are very popular with the Kiribati people because they have been magically blessed - this is referred to as mamiraki.

The knowledge of kainikamaen can never properly be revealed as it is a complex process and can be quite a dangerous one because magic is involved. Indeed, should the composer not follow the traditional instructions exactly as specified, the ramifications for him can be quite serious and he may even be killed during the process or afterwards.

The second method of composing songs is one which involves no magic and results from somebody wishing to have a song made for him. In this case, the person tells the story to be told to the composer who listens intently and full of concentration. At a later time, the composer may ask for further information and the person requesting the song must provide all the needed details.

At this time, the composer compiles the list of the important words that will be needed in the song and put it aside. The next step is the selection of the appropriate musical notes and a tune is developed which is refined by constant repetition until the composer is happy with the newly created song. Later, he would call upon his assisting group (rurubene) and they would listen to his song. In most cases, the members of this group do not give their opinion but just practise the song until they know it by heart. They will then sing the song to the composer who will polish it up by making whatever alterations to the lyrics and the tune that the composer considers necessary.

In many cases, songs composed in this manner, will not stand the test of time as no magic has been involved in the creation of the song. Some of the songs may be popular for a longer time due to the cleverness of the composer and his accompanying group. In some cases, the song is sung in public with such skill that it attains an enduring quality as if it had been magically composed.

Occasionally, a composer may wish to compose an original song and in doing so he will sit and think about it first. He will then hum away to himself possibly for many days until he feels satisfied with the notes that he had been humming. Then he will think about the words to go with the music. Using this process, the resulting composition is very original. Indeed the whole process is an example of the genius of the composer in creating music without the kainikamaen and only with the assistance of the rurubene.

The most commonly composed songs are love songs. These are often about love for someone you will never see again or a place that you have left behind. The most popular ones, however, are about love between a boy and a girl, a man and a woman or a husband and a wife. Most of these songs result from a person requesting a song from the composer. The same process is also used for wedding songs, competition songs, religious songs, war songs, dance music and children's songs. The composer has to know what song is required, and he must be provided with all the information to do it.

A range of traditional Kiribati music, particularly of the first type mentioned above, is featured on Jane's Pacific Islands Radio Stations along with a number of very expressive and beautiful contemporary interpretations of the traditional Kiribati musical style.

Micronesia Music Radio Station 33K
Kiribati Mwaie (Dance)
Kiribati Postcards and Picture Galleries
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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 11th January 2006)

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