Richard Moyle, honorary research professor at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Pacific Studies, has spent more than 50 years studying music and culture in the Pacific and Aboriginal Australia. His latest book, Ritual and Belief on Takū, explores the centrality of spiritual experience in the lives of some of the most isolated islanders in the Pacific.
Takū is arguably the last location where traditional Polynesian religion retains its fundamental importance in everyday life, writes Kennedy Warne. But how much longer can its distinctive belief system survive?
Picture a tiny island. An almost perfect triangle, 300 metres each side. Total area about the size of four rugby fields. Home to around 150 people.
Now imagine all those people singing in unison — singing song after song, some of them 20 minutes long, all from memory. Singing through the night, from sunset to sunrise. Singing not for their own entertainment but for the pleasure of ancestors and for the strengthening of cultural ties to land, ocean, and whānau.
This is Takū, an atoll that, from space, looks like an eyeball in the ocean. Takū lies 200 km northeast of Bougainville, and is politically and administratively part of Papua New Guinea. To the west lie the Cartaret Islands. To the east, Nukumanu and Ontong Java. These atolls all lie within Melanesia, but they are so-called “Polynesian outliers” — atolls that were settled from central Polynesia some 2000 years ago.
Although Takū atoll is large, with many motu scattered around its central lagoon, all the people live on a single wedge of land called Nukutoa. There is no airstrip. To get to Takū you book passage on the supply ship — if it’s sailing. Last year, not a single ship visit was made. Cut off from outside supplies, the islanders relied entirely on their traditional food sources: fish, coconut, and occasional taro.
Physically, their existence is basic. Culturally, it is not. Song and dance flow in and out of these people like the trade winds that cross the lagoon and bend the coconut palms. They sing about successful fishing, productive gardening, harmonious relationships — the things they hold dear and that represent a fulfilling life.
In their experience, the natural world and the spirit world are a single interwoven cloth. Ancestral spirits are called upon for succour and support, and in turn express their aroha for their former island home by gifting songs through spirit mediums. Takū life is guided and energised by these songs and the ritual and sacred knowledge they encode.
Much of what is known about the singing island of Takū — its language, songs, rituals, beliefs and traditions — comes from the work of one man, University of Auckland ethnomusicologist Richard Moyle. His relationship with Takū goes back 25 years, to 1994, when the island’s paramount chief invited him to record and document the island’s music and performing arts.
My own relationship with Richard and his wife Linden goes back even further. Linden was one of my teachers at intermediate school. We attended the same church, where Richard occasionally filled in as organist.
I caught up with them recently at their home in the Te Mata valley on Coromandel Peninsula. We sat and talked on a spacious verandah, gazing at hills cloaked with regenerating forest.
Richard began by explaining how the initial contact with Takū turned into a 17-year engagement, in which he would spend several months each year as the guest of the ariki — who adopted him as a member of his family — asking, as he puts it, interminable questions, and compiling the data into books.
“After the performing arts book, Songs from the Second Float, came a CD. I’d also recorded oral tradition, and they said, ‘How about some of those?’ So I wrote that — a book called Takū’s Musical Fables. Then they said, in the flattering way that Polynesians are so good at: ‘Now that you speak our language, could you write a dictionary?’ I boldly said yes, but it took eight years.”
Takū people speak a language with affinities to Sāmoan — a fact that Richard initially thought would give him a head start in his research, since he had spoken Sāmoan as his second language for 40 years before visiting the atoll. But as he writes in the preface to Ritual and Belief, that turned out not to be the case.
“I somewhat naively thought that acquiring proficiency would be relatively straightforward. A few minutes after getting out of the canoe and being introduced to people who would turn out to be long-term neighbours in the village, I realised my error: in addition to a relatively low percentage of words cognate with Sāmoan were grammatical differences which baffled me for some time. … It was several months before I could meet one of my own criteria for proficiency: namely, to be able to talk to children without having them laugh.”
After the dictionary, Richard started thinking about a book that delved into the deeper underpinnings of Takū life. “So many of the daily activities involve belief — the things you must do, the things you must not do,” he told me. “I looked at the data, and there was a lot of it. It looked like enough for a stand-alone book.”
I asked him if there had been any hesitation in sharing sacred knowledge with an outsider. If belief is crucial to identity and survival, you might not want to risk offence to an ancestor, or indeed the entire spiritual realm, by revealing secrets.
He said that the only hesitation was from people with incomplete knowledge. In those instances, people referred him to the elders of the various clans.
“All field work is a mutual process of sounding out the other,” Richard said. “It was more about being accepted as a fellow human who asked a lot of questions than as a rank outsider who came in for a short time and then left.”
Confidence is something that accrues gradually, he said. “In the first few years, I would say, ‘I’m coming back next year. Is there anything you’d like me to bring?’ At a public meeting I offered to take anyone’s old photographs, get them digitised, restored and enlarged, and bring back multiple prints. That helped.”
He was also able to help in more practical ways — sponsoring fishing competitions, buying materials for the island council office and, most dramatically, amateur surgery on the hand of a fisherman who had been bitten by a shark.
“I gave that man my week’s supply of antibiotics. On another occasion a person came down with malaria. I had brought a month’s worth of anti-malaria tablets in case I caught malaria, so I was able to give them to this person.”
During his time on the island he became the de facto recorder of events. “Men dropped by to mention an imminent canoe launching or house building they thought I should attend. Small children were told by their fathers to summon me, with camera, whenever a rare or large fish was caught. Women volunteered to show their weaving accomplishments or food preparation techniques. Children came to show off their skills in making string figures or the latest bird they had captured for sport.”
Songs — the cultural DNA
Over time, Richard came to understand that the songs of Takū function as cultural DNA, containing the essential and fundamental patterns of identity. He recorded 1000 different songs — a remarkable output from an adult population that numbered fewer than 200 during the period when he was visiting. More than 70 were composed in 1996 alone, when 13 Takū residents died.
Songs are considered to be the gifts of ancestors, and are not necessarily understood even by those uttering them. As one Takū man explained to him: “If you can understand the words of a song, it must be human-composed.”
The lyrics of spirit-composed songs, he writes in Ritual and Belief, are not intended to inform or explain. It is the act of uttering them that gives them meaning and social impact.
In times of former emergency, each elder in turn stood on the marae and shouted his clan’s invocation to the founding ancestors, asking for their help. To the assembled community, the act of utterance was more relevant than its linguistic content.
Richard told me that throughout Polynesia, this is the case: “The uttered word gives you access to that other world.”
The role of ancestors is so central in part because death is seen differently in Takū culture than in European cultures. It is not a terminal severance — a full stop at the end of a sentence — rather a “shift in the mode of existence” — more like a comma, or a dash.
“The dead in your family continue to want to care for you, but you have to request it. They have certain abilities which humans don’t, whether it’s to cure someone who’s sick, bring prestige fish up from the ocean to the side of your canoe, get rid of insect plagues in the taro gardens or bring rainfall to break a drought. That’s all managed successfully if you identify the correct ancestor and recite word-perfect an invocation.”
In the book, Richard respects the spiritual potency of invocations by not providing them in Takū, only in their English translation.
Heeding the ancestral earworm
I asked Richard if contact with ancestors could be casual and informal — something you would have in the course of everyday life and work — or if it was always formal, as part of rituals that used formulaic language.
He said it was a mix of both. He told me about a fisherman with a bad memory who wrote down the necessary invocation for attracting a particular type of fish on a piece of paper. “He was a schoolteacher who could read well, because the language is spoken very fast.”
But if the name or memory of an ancestor comes to a person while they are tapping a coconut palm to make toddy or digging in their taro garden, it’s assumed to be more than coincidence.
“If an ancestor comes into your mind, like an earworm, then they’re trying to make contact with you. If that happens to a young person, they might go to an elder and say, ‘I can’t stop thinking about this person. What should I do?’ Most often the answer would be to go back, wait quietly and see if there’s more information.
“The ancestors who make contact in this way are ones who knew you when they were alive. You could have been an infant, but the key is for the ancestor to have seen you. So you’d be encouraged to continue the conversation and see what happened.
“Contact with distant ancestors, the ones you never knew, is the prerogative of clan elders and the ariki. But that kind of contact is one-way: asking for something, like rain to fall. The songs that come the other way, they’re just there. They arrive like a meteor shower. Some of them last for 20 minutes. With only a couple of exceptions they’re women’s dance songs. The song is received only once. The medium sings it once. It is committed to memory as it is delivered. On rare occasions, if a song is received incomplete, it is never sung again.”
To an outsider, such regular, pervasive contact with ancestors may seem excessive, even unnatural. To Takū people it is a matter of survival. They live with the constant awareness of their vulnerability. Small and isolated, without the means to preserve and store food, they are always within a few weeks of famine. If a long spell of bad weather prevents canoes from putting to sea, the community is denied one of its staple foods.
This sense of vulnerability creates “a constant need for reassurance that the relationships binding people into a community still function in the here and now,” Richard writes. “People need to know they continue to be a recognised and working part of that community, and singing about their relationships is one way they, as a corporate group, can affirm what amounts to a secular creed.”
Awareness of vulnerability, however, does not create a culture of fear. Risk to the social fabric is neutralised by singing about secure and lasting social relationships — not just with the living but also with ancestors, whose powers of assistance are considered crucial.
“Takū express confidence in the indefinitely ongoing nature of the relationships because death merely substitutes one life form for another: spirits do more than merely exist — they live,” he writes.
“And because they live and were once resident on the atoll, they continue to share with their surviving families the same social values associated with close bonding with their children, the same cultural values in ensuring that men fish safely and successfully, and the same aesthetic values associated with the performing arts.”
Singing and dancing appeals to ancestors because they share the community’s aesthetic, which was once their own.
What becomes of a vulnerable atoll?
For decades now, the world has known how vulnerable low-lying atolls are to rising sea levels that result from a warming climate. Takū faces this reality, along with its neighbours, some of which (such as the Carterets) have been the subject of hyperbolic media reporting about mass evacuations which have not eventuated.
In 2010, the New Zealand-made documentary There Once Was an Island drew attention to Takū’s own vulnerability to rising seas.
Richard points to an even more imminent threat: that Takū’s population might decline to a tipping point at which both physical and ritual life become unsustainable.
There have already been ruptures in the cultural fabric. “In the 1970s, the island was thrown into consternation when the ariki got sick and chose to die and be buried on Bougainville,” he told me. “There was no precedent in living memory for that.”
The implications were direct and serious. Without the ariki’s corpse present on the island, the traditional means of transferring spiritual authority to the successor — by ritually crawling over the ariki’s corpse — could not be performed. Lacking this ratification, or the necessary prior training, the new ariki felt ill-equipped for his role. Seances stopped because he was afraid that his lack of knowledge could expose the community to adverse spiritual repercussions.
Takū has weathered catastrophes before. In the 1890s, a disease brought accidentally by drift canoes from Ontong Java reduced the population to 11. That devastation brought an end to the use of oceangoing sailing canoes, because there was no longer enough manpower to launch the vessels. It took decades for a new social order to emerge.
A similar problem exists today. Many experienced canoe carvers have either died or left the island. “Their absence, coupled with the relatively short lifetime of a canoe hull, has forced recourse to small fibreglass monohulls which are too small and unstable to use on the ocean,” writes Richard.
Lack of a clan canoe large enough to fish for tuna following a local death deprives the clan not just of a ritually important food but also of stories that can be turned into new songs praising a dead fisher. Both the activities themselves and the beliefs underpinning them suffer.
In the past, Takū relied on its bedrock principles of egalitarianism and reciprocity to sustain itself in hard times. Infants were adopted to spread the duties of childrearing, and castaways arriving from neighbouring outliers were allocated so that their skills benefitted families and clans with the greatest need.
“Egalitarianism, reciprocity and adoption,” writes Richard, “are essentially forms of social reaction to the fragilities of living less than one metre above high tide level and exposed to often adverse weather, depending heavily on rainwater for drinking and having only a few weeks supply of land-sourced food ripe on trees and in the gardens.”
Can these principles secure Takū’s future? Only if enough people remain to practise them. Yet the population trend is relentlessly downward. Ritual life is diminishing, even as the king tides rise higher each year.
The idea of abandoning the island is emotionally fraught for those that remain — “inherently undesirable culturally but increasingly necessary strategically,” writes Richard. But for many of the almost 1,000 Takū who live off-island, returning to Takū likewise has little attraction.
Expatriate Takū are ambivalent about the island. “Some say, ‘I’m sorry for my relatives who are stuck there. I’ll go back for holidays, but I won’t live there because I like the good life outside.’” The two communities seem to have irreconcilable ambitions.
In the last lines of Ritual and Belief, the author sound a grim note.
“Nothing in Takū’s communal experience has prepared them for a future physically and spiritually separated from the island whose material resources and ancestral presence have sustained and nurtured them for several centuries. They identify themselves as na tama te henua nei, ‘people of this island’. The unprecedented severance of those links in a precedent-focused culture renders such a future unimaginable in terms of that culture.”
“Unimaginable” is a frightening word. It is a word being used to describe our entire planet’s environmental crisis. Unimaginable climate disruption. Unimaginable loss of species. Unimaginable displacement of human populations.
Thinking about Takū, I find myself wondering if anything of this community’s experience of vulnerability as a tiny oceanic island might be helpful when thinking about the Earth — itself an island in the ocean of the universe, precious, unique, and under increasing threat.
Perhaps Takū’s commitment to egalitarianism and reciprocity is worth considering — though both seem impossible dreams given the present global politics of entitlement and fear.
But still: equality based on the Earth as our common home; reciprocity based on the inescapable reality that everything is connected — that the global economy is a “wholly owned subsidiary of the environment,” and not vice versa.
Could these principles guide us, even as they have guided Takū? Can humanity find a new song?
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