Centres of Polyphony

Pacific Islands and Australia

Covering about half of our planet (but only a fraction of the world’s population), the Pacific Ocean is the home of an amazing richness of vocal polyphonic traditions. Both Marius Schneider in his 1934-1935 “History of Polyphony” and later Alan Lomax in his 1968 “Folk Song Style and Culture” placed the Oceania islands (particularly Polynesia and Melanesia) among the three most polyphonic major regions of the world (the two others being sub-Saharan Africa and Europe).

Perhaps one of the most important historical lessons that Oceania (and particularly Polynesia) taught European musicology (in the 18th century) was the shock of the discovery that well-organized part-singing can exist far from European civilization. The very first encounters of European travelers with the Pacific Ocean Island communities brought to light their strong predilection towards vocal polyphonic singing. From 1773 records come the following descriptions: “This set most of the women in the circle singing their songs were musical and harmonious, noways harsh or disagreeable”, or: “Not their voices only but their music also was very harmonious & they have considerable compass in their notes” (Beaglehole, 1962:246). Some descriptions are even more precise: “They sing in parts, keeping the same time and varying the four notes without ever going beyond them. So many singers and so few notes you always hear the whole together. The difference of Words & Voices makes some variety. The singers (that I heard) were all women. One confined herself entirely to the Lower Note which acted as Drone” – this eloquent description comes from Cook’s second 1772-1775 voyage (Burney 1975:84. Cited from Kaeppler et al., 1998:14). Very clear information on the Oceanic people’s part-singing capability came from Cook’s third voyage as well: “Where there is a great number they divide into several parts each of whom sings on a different key which makes a very agreeable music (Beaglehole, 1967:2:944. Cited from Kaeppler et al., 1998:14). Early records even indicated the use of unusual chords as well: “We now and then remarked some discordant notes, with which, however, the ear of these people seemed very much gratified” (Labillardiere, 1802:133). These and many other travelers’ notes did not leave a place for any skepticism about the wide distribution of a polyphonic singing tradition in Oceania before their first contacts with Europeans.Quite amazingly, despite the overwhelming and clear information about the presence of part-singing traditions among Polynesians, some European professional musicians still doubted the ability of Polynesians to sing in different parts, as they believed it “a great improbability that any uncivilized people should, by accident, arrive at this degree of perfection in the art of music, which we imagine can only be attained by dint of study, and knowledge of the system and theory upon which musical composition is founded . . . It is, therefore, scarcely credible, that people semi-barbarous should naturally arrive at any perfection in that art which it is much doubted whether the Greeks and Romans, with all their refinements in music, ever attained, and which the Chinese, who have been longer civilized than any other people on the globe, have not yet found out.” (Cook and King, 1784:3:143-144. Cited from Kaeppler et al., 1998:15). It took more than a century and the discovery of many more vocal polyphonic traditions in different parts of the world untouched by European civilization (including the central African rainforests and Papua New Guinea) to subdue European arrogance and convince professional musicologists that at least not all polyphony was an invention of medieval monks. But let us leave this matter until the second and third parts of the book.
The great success of Christian hymns in Polynesia was the result of the natural closeness of European polyphonic traditions and the polyphonic traditions of the Oceanic peoples. According to Alan Lomax, “In one way, the singing of Oceania stands in marked contrast to that of other regions: many choral performances, though set in irregular or free rhythm, are nevertheless performed in excellent concert. The only other area in the world where choruses commonly sing in free rhythm, yet in good concert, is Old Europe. It seems likely that this peculiarity, along with a shared preference for text-heavy, polyphonic performances with drone chords, facilitated the adoption of the Central European hymn style, especially by the Polynesians” (Lomax, 1968:91).
Polyphonic traditions are spread on all three groups of the Pacific islands: Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. Although the late European polyphonic style became very popular in Oceania from the moment Christian hymns spread among them, more ancient, indigenous stylistic features of their traditional polyphony had been also documented. For example, despite their disagreement about several important issues, both Kaeppler and Moyle note the importance of drone polyphony among earlier layers of Tongan polyphonic traditions, one of the best preserved in Polynesia (Kaeppler, 1994:462-463; Moyle, 1987:149). Tongan Lakalaka, a symphony-long grand composition in four and five choral parts, divided into antiphonal groups, were specially composed by punake who created the skeleton of the new lakalaka. The skeleton mostly comprises the main melodies (fasi), and the harmonization of the melodies usually becomes a communal event. Kaeppler gives a fascinating detailed account of how one of the lakalakas was written: “On November 1975, Ve’ehala [name of a composer, or punake] explained to me his compositional process for his 1975 lakalaka: first he had the overall idea; then he composed the poetry; next, using melodies he could remember from previous songs, he ‘twisted them around to form something new,’ which for his 1975 composition took about two hours; the poetry was written on a blackboard; then he sang the melody and ‘the people harmonized it by themselves’” (Kaeppler, 1994:463). Traditional terminology also clearly distinguishes the functions of different parts, like fasi (main melody), laulalo (second part, lower than melody, often a drone, particularly in earlier-style singing), and several decorating parts (teuteu).
Fasi and laulalo were the most important ingredients of the polyphonic texture, and the number of decorating parts could vary and even reach six. Kaeppler gives a good description of six-part singing still being remembered by older singers in the 1960s: “According to a few knowledgeable musicians in 1960, indigenous singing had as many as six parts. The leading part or fasi (i.e., the mail melody of the poetry), was usually, but not always, sung by men. The two women’s parts, fakapakihi and tali, were described to me simply as high and low. Lalau was described as a high men’s part that was usually sung above the melody. Ekenaki, another men’s part, was sung lower than the melody, and finally, laulalo was a low men’s part, rather like a drone. According to the Tongan view, fasi (melody) and laulalo (drone) were the important parts, while the other parts were decorative… This traditional six-part singing is seldom heard today, having been replaced by more Western-sounding harmony with up to three parts each for men and women, who sing western diatonic pitch intervals” (Kaeppler, 1990:195).
Unfortunately, for different historical and political reasons polyphonic traditions did not survive in most of parts of Polynesia so well as on Tonga. “Traces of indigenous polyphony survive in the central areas of Polynesia, including Tonga and the Society Islands, but are apparently absent on the periphery, in Aotearoa [known as New Zealand], Hawaii, and Mangareva” (Stillman, from Love et al., 1998:308).
Tahitian himene tarava is possibly the best-known choral form from Polynesia. Influenced by the European harmonic language, himene tarava is based around triad harmonies of the supertonic (ii), which move to tonic and then alternate between the tonic (i) and dominant (v) harmonic functions. As in most cases in Polynesia, big mixed groups sing himene tarava with interesting dividing functions. “The primary functions of the vocal parts are textual declamation, rhythmic punctuation, and melodic decoration. The primary declamatory part, performed by most of the women in a choir, centres at or near the tonic; the men’s counterpart usually centres on the dominant below. Other texted parts are performed by pairs of soloists, usually men, centre on the third degree of a major scale. The rhythmic punctuation performed by the remainder of the men consists of a vocalized grunting pitched on the lower tonic” (Stillman, from Love et al., 1998:308).
Smaller islands. Interesting and unusual examples of polyphonic tradition when parts sing different texts were also documented in Polynesia. Suahongi from Bellona (a small, 11- kilometre-long coral island between the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu), as well as me’etu’upaki from Tonga represent this kind of polytextual polyphony (Stillman, from Love et al., 1998:308-309).
Polyphony (with long drones in the older layers) has been recorded in such far-flung regions of Polynesia as the easternmost Polynesian island Rapa Nui [known also as Easter Island] and the westernmost small islands laying deep within the Melanesian territory (Luangiua, Bellona, Tikopia, Anuta. See Besnier et al., 1998:843, 850, 852, 856). Community participation in choral singing is so intense that, for example, in a small Anuta atoll with only 200 residents, when a member of society dies, the population divides itself into “small’ choirs of about twenty members (thus, each choir has 10% of the total population of the island!) and they all sing at the deceased’s house one after another” (Feinberg, see in Besnier, et al., 1998:857).

Example of Lakalaka
Example of Himene Tarava

Example of Rapa Nuis traditional Song and Dance


According to the above-mentioned compilation works of Schneider and Lomax, drone polyphony has been the leading form of traditional polyphony not only in Polynesia, but in Melanesia as well. Interestingly, the dissonant nature of the indigenous polyphonic tradition of Oceania has been better preserved in Melanesia, where the stylistic parallels between some European polyphonic traditions and some Melanesian regions reach astonishing precision. Parallels between the singing in dissonant seconds of faraway Balkan mountaineers and Admiralty islanders are among the best known and most puzzling in ethnomusicology, involving polyphonic traditions of faraway regions of the world. Discussed at different times by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel, Jaap Kunst, and Florian Messner, this issue will be discussed, together with other comparative issues, in the next part of the book.
Polyphonic singing from Guadalcanal Island makes good representation of the Melanesian polyphony. “The vocal music of Guadalcanal also uses a drone, above which two solo parts interweave melodic lines. In the Nginia language, a person may say that the first voice opens (hihinda) the singing, the second follows (tumuri), and the drone growls (ngungulu). In women’s singing throughout the island, the growl is a continuous drone, like that of the panpipe ensemble … In three-part instrumental or vocal polyphony of Guadalcanal, the melodic parts at the end of stanzas and pieces join the tone of the drone, so all parts cadence in unison or at the octave. Besides this type of polyphony, the songs of Guadalcanal feature two solo vocal parts having wide ranges and frequent and rapid change of register, a kind of yodeling“ (Zemp, in Kaeppler et al 1998a:665). A similar tradition of drone three-part singing exists on the neighbouring small volcanic Island Savo with 1500 residents, who have the same kind of drone polyphonic singing tradition (ibid, 1998:666). Good examples of Polynesian and Melanesian polyphony are presented in the volume 9 of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, “Australia and Pacific Islands”.

Solomon Island. Pen Pipers

New Guinea
New Guinea is the biggest land area of the Melanesia. It is also an important region for the polyphonic traditions. For example, the Indonesian province of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) is home to several mountain peoples from the Central Irian Jaya regions, who widely use vocal polyphony: the Moni, Dani, and Yali.
The songs of another mountain people, the Moni ,“are famous for a thick harmonic texture, with melodies sung in parallel motion on chords using ninths and elevenths, transcribable as C-E-G-B-D-F, over a bass drone” (Chenoweth et al, 1998:584). Yali polyphony is more adventurous – their songs are based on two- four-part contrapuntal polyphony.

Micronesian group singing traditions are sometimes considered to be close to the Southeastern Asian polyphonic traditions of mountain Vietnam, Southern China, and other group singing traditions from this region (including Northeastern Indian polyphonic traditions). Generally, polyphonic traditions in Micronesia are not as strong as in Melanesia and particularly Polynesia, and are mostly based on unison and heterophonic forms of singing. We should not forget that group antiphon and responsorial singing (in unison and octaves) is widely spread between peoples with both monophonic and polyphonic singing traditions.

Despite the fact, that Australian traditional music is heavily based on group singing (mostly unison singing with some elements of heterophony), singing in parts is not characteristic for the indigenous populations of this continent. If we do not take into account the singing traditions of late migrants from different parts of the world, we may say that Australia is the most monophonic continent of our planet. The only tradition that contains polyphony is the vocal-instrumental forms, particularly in the northern tip of Australia, where the didgeridoo (drone) and singing voice creates drone two-part polyphony. According to available information, polyphony is not performed in a purely vocal form.

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