A preservation of Tonga's beautiful music culture never felt so apt...
There is nothing written about The Kingdom of Tonga Cultural Group online. No information about who they are or why this album was recorded. Attached to the album is only the year of release, 2009, and a seemingly spurious New Zealander record label named Video Pacific Communications Ltd of which there is also little information available. Being from Tonga, this is not all too surprising as it is a country that often keeps itself out of the limelight. However, all that changed earlier this week. The eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano and the tsunami that followed has put the spotlight on the small Polynesian nation for all the wrong reasons. The untold devastation by the events, does however, remind us of the fleeting nature of life and thus how important it is that our memories and history live on.
“...it is weeks like these in Tonga that remind us of the importance of recording and preserving each nation’s proud journey through history as best as we can.”
Kafaola, The Kingdom of Tonga Cultural Group’s album, does exactly that. It preserves the stories and traditions of a great past that are rarely performed today. Acting almost as a document dating the evolution of Tongan music traditions from the arrival of Captain James Cook to the islands, who noted the warm and amiable reception of the people, from which it gets its nickname, the Friendly Islands, until today where it serves as a tourist hotspot. Opening with the sound of the hauntingly beautiful fangufangu known as a Tongan nose flute, the first track initially tricks its listeners into thinking that the instrument might be a mainstay of the album.
The second track, however, Lakalaka is quite different, as it is over ten minutes of gorgeous acapella chanting. What impresses me is that the song is clearly recorded in one take and it is only after the eight minute mark that the group can be heard taking their first breath of air which they fill with a clap. The song is followed by another ten minute track Meʻetuʻupaki, which is a song that uses a largely unintelligible language and is played amidst the backdrop of a little slit drum known as a lali. This type of song has a customary dance that accompanies it, similar to a war dance that is performed with small symbolic paddles. Subsequent to this, and part of the traditional section of the album, is Otuhaka, a song with Samoan influences in which traditionally older female chiefs would perform it in order to wake the king. Listening to the track, it makes sense as the song sounds like a rather soothing but uplifting alarm clock to start the day in the right way. That said, the idea of a pack of Tongans bursting into my bedroom to wake me up in such a manner does seem a rather nerve-wracking prospect. What is interesting about the album is that it is reflective of the time it is recorded, in the sense that the 2009 album features male vocals alongside female ones on the song.
Keeping to tradition, in the ordering of the tracks, the album does, however, continue with ula which is the song that would ordinarily follow Otuhaka. Typically an ula would see a performance by younger girls in which the girls dancing split up and then merge back together. The dance, unlike the one that would traditionally accompany the aforementioned Otuhaka, is a display of female beauty in which the king would select which girls he would like to join him in bed. I suppose a helpful way to think of it is as a Polynesian version of a casting for a Harvey Weinstein movie. At this point it feels that the tone of the album changes from just displaying the types of song that would be played centuries ago, as Ma'ulu'ulu is more of a percussive piece that features epic clapping and hand drumming. At moments the song certainly lives up to its name as the title translates to "making a thundering sound", however it also has many minutes of respite and serenity to be enjoyed.
Moving into the modern era, the first time we hear a lute-like instrument that sounds rather like a ukelele is on Upe O Mele Siu'ilikutapu. Tracks like this Hiva Tau'olunga O Tiofilusi and Hiva Tau'olunga O Tepuiti Mailefihi remind us more of contemporary Polynesian music one might expect to hear at every day events, unlike the traditional songs that would be played at set piece events such as a royal wedding or funeral. Mako is a great party song that one can imagine dancing and sipping on kava to whilst the closer Kingdom of Tonga - Tonga E is sung in English and sounds like its lyrics were written by their tourist board. Though the album obviously feels like it overruns and is really quite long, it is weeks like these in Tonga that remind us of the importance of recording and preserving each nation’s proud journey through history as best as we can, as we never know what the future might have in store.