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  • Writer's pictureJoel Dwek

COOK ISLANDS (NEW ZEALAND): At Their Best - Tongareva Five

Perfectly pleasant Pacific tunes are the order of the day with these Cook Island music specialists

Though their name may suggest to outsiders and people unfamiliar with the myriad of different nations, territories and islands that comprise the Oceanic geographical regions of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, that they come from the small Pacific island nation of Tonga, the Tongareva Five are in fact actually from the Cook Islands, with Tongareva actually being one of the many atolls that make up this semi-independent country. In free association with New Zealand, the Cook Islands, like Niue, rely on New Zealand for security and foreign policy decisions, but otherwise are self-governing. They are, however citizens of New Zealand, and the Tongareva Five themselves are signed to a New Zealand-based record label specialising in Cook Islands music named Heimana Music, so the links to its larger associate state are strong and keenly felt, in this case allowing Cook Islands music to have a wider reach than it may otherwise have. Though the main exports of the Cook Islands are pearls, fruit, and fish, with large sectors in tourism and offshore banking, there is a music industry, as there is a large Cook Islander diaspora in New Zealand. This is especially pronounced when one considers the fact that the Cook Islands themselves only have around 17,000 inhabitants, while over 62,000 people in New Zealand are of Cook Islander descent. Furthermore, New Zealand Maori are closely related culturally to the Cook Islanders, all of which taken together explains why there is a demand for a record label dealing in exclusively Cook Islander music. The Tongareva Five, in this regard, are great ambassadors for traditional Cook Islands string music, with their album being emblematic of what many might imagine are Pacific island vibes.

“It is very easy to imagine the Tongareva Five lads playing at a beachside, while the ocean breeze rushes through your hair, with a drink at your side and the sun shining in the sky.”

Despite not being a compilation album, the name of the album is At Their Best, which I have to say I find to be a rather sweet album name. Sure, it may not be the greatest album of all time, but by God they’re giving it their best shot. When combined with the very 1990’s album art that simply depicts the Tongareva Five members in matching white shirts and black trousers, it does make me appreciate their enthusiasm and effort, even if the music itself does not blow me away with astounding skill or beauty. It is very easy to imagine the Tongareva Five lads playing at a beachside, while the ocean breeze rushes through your hair, with a drink at your side and the sun shining in the sky. It is certainly evocative of the place from which it comes. The album features one of their best-known songs, Island Girl, which google assures me was a hit for the group in the Cook Islands and across Polynesia. That said, without wanting to be harsh, I don’t quite see why. It’s a pleasant and enjoyable song, but not noticeably more so than the other 12 songs. One reason for its success could be that it is partially in English, which would help widen its appeal in the English-speaking communities of New Zealand. For what it’s worth, my favourite song is Hualala, which has a lovely rhythm and beat to it.

The music itself is very similar and repetitive on each song, and when listened to actively it can get a bit boring. Taken in passively, it works very nicely, as the similar sound of each song comes together into one whole piece, and it creates a pleasant atmosphere. When I listened to it all in one go, and also bear in mind I don’t speak Cook Island Maori so I can’t speak to how good it is in a lyrical level, I found it a bit too long. That said, as an album to stick on in the background, or to dip in and out of, I rather liked it. Aside from the reasons I’ve already mentioned, it’s just a very nice album. There’s nothing in it to really dislike, and while it won’t surprise and shock you with daring musical choices and artistic innovation, it really is rather nice, and I like the album for its chill vibes. So, I would say that it’s worth checking out. You’ll quickly work out whether you’ll get into the groove of the music, and if you do, you’ll find much to like.


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