Cook Islands music


Rutu pa'u (drumming),   Drum legends,  'Imene (singing),   Ute (celebratory song)

'Imene pure (church songs),   Recording artists, String bands and modern bands

Akateni (string instruments), Pe'e (chants),  Nuku (gospel day)





Rutu pa'u (drumming)


Rutu pa'u means 'beating the drums' and can be called the 'backbone' of music and dance in the Cook Islands. It is an important part of the dance, particularly for setting the tempo. In kapa rima (action songs), ukuleles and guitars set the melody. Pa'u, percussion instruments, are important for keeping the beat. Light drumming (usually a tokere and the two-headed bass drum called pa'u or tari parau) accompanies an action song while full ensembles (of up to seven different pa'u) are used during drum dances and 'symphony of drums' demonstrations.

In the Tangi Ka'are competition, held around August each year, the focus is solely on drumming. Teams of students from the primary schools of Rarotonga participate. This is a good way to keep the art of drumming alive and it allows more young people, including more recently young girls, to participate. Traditionally, women were not drummers. The usual percussion ensemble consists of a pa'u or tari parau (a double-headed bass drum), a pa'u mango (a conga type drum with a tympanum which was traditionally made from sharksking and was hand-beaten, today it is made from goatskin and is usually beaten with two light sticks), and pate, tokere and korio (wooden slit gongs of varying sizes which provide a range of pitches). tini (empty cabin bread tin) is commonly used by Manihiki dance trouiipes.
The ka'ara, believed to be one of the oldest instruments in the Cook Islands, played an important role in traditional society. It was used for signalling people to gather in one place for an important event such as an akauruuru'anga (chiefly investiture) or a funeral of an important member of society. Today, it is said that to hear a ghostly ka'ara play in the distant forest or hills (kua tae te arapo) is an omen of misfortune.

Often drummers with natural ability are recognised from an early age and are invited to join professional dance troupes, where they continue to develop their skill and pass it on to drummers in the team. A drummer with considerable skill was the late Sunai (also known as Terepa'i Matapo) who died aged 44 in 2000. Sunai, said to have had natural talent, is referred to by a number of professional musicians and tumu korero (cultural experts) as a master in his field. A collection of drum rhythms, invented and directed by him, are available on a CD called 'Sunai', which is a best-seller in the Cook Islands. Cook Islands drumming is full and resonating. It is so highly regarded in other Pacific islands, such as French Polynesia, that they have emulated some of the techniques and drums used in the Cook Islands. The pate and tokere, which originated in the Cook Islands, in Rarotonga and Aitutaki respectively, were introduced into Tahiti in the early 1900s. Another export from the Cook Islands to Tahiti has been the two-stick playing technique for small and medium-sized slit gongs which the Tahitians call ta'iri pati to distinguish it from the one-stick technique for larger slit gongs. The fa'atete, now the most common type of drum in Tahiti, was developed in the 1960s to replace the punu (an empty kerosene or cabin-bread tin). Its raised or hollowed interior central portion (hune) is a feature of the Cook Islands Pa'u mango."

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Drum legends

A legend upholds the superiority of Rarotongan drumming. Once, when Rarotonga and Ra'iatea were geographically positioned next to each other, a dance competition was held to ascertain which of the two islands had the best dancers and drummers. After a tough contest, the Rarotongans were deemed the best and were declared by the gods to be the winners. This infuriated the Ra'iateams. Although proud of their success, the Rarotongans felt sorry for the Ra'iateans and wondered whether they had an advantage because their drums had been invented in Rarogonga. So, they decided to make a drum especially for the Rai'iateans, and make a gift of it to them. A special delegation went to make the delivery of the gift, but they were set upon by the angry Ra'iateans and killed. The gods were angered by this, and moved Rarotonga away from Ra'iatea, 'down to the south' (which is what 'Rarotonga' means), where it remains to this day.'

Another legend confirms the importance of drums in the social life of Polynesians since ancient times. Pa'umotu, a group of islands in what is French Polynesia today, is said to have been named by a celebrated Polynesian ancestor, called Ka'ukura, is said to have led a large migration of people, e varu rau (1600), from 'Avaiki, stopping at islands which he named Iva-nuk, Iva-ra'i, Iva-te-pupenga, and others. When he had completed the ceremonies appointing chiefs and a high chief for the three main islands, he addressed the people telling them to always remember that they sprang from a common stock and were one people. This was when the drum beating ceased, and from this fact Ka'ukura called these islands Pa'umotu, meaning the ceasing of drum beating. From there he continued to Tubua'i, Rangivavae (Ra'i vavae), and 'Itinui - placing people on all these islands as he went. He returned to 'Avaiki and brought 300 more people. Returning to Pa'umotu, he collected a further 300 people whom he took on his colonising voyages to Tongareva, then to Ra'iatea, where tradition states he built the famous marae of Tapu-tapu-atea. From there he went to Taiti-nui (Tahiti) where he settled permanently.

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'Imene (singing)

'Imene include contemporary songs and music (including string bands and live bands), ute (celebratory song), 'imene reo metua and 'imene tuki (traditionall hyumns), and choral singing. Cook Islanders love to sing and compose songs. this is reflected in the huge body of work recorded on tape, records, and CDs. People still sing the old songs, and the established songwriters still continue to compose for musical pageants, festivals or recordings. New and upcoming composers and singers come to prominence particularly during the Song Quest, Akateni (String Bands) and Composers' competitions.


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Ute (celebratory song)

Although school children sing ute in Schools Culture Festival competitions, the one style of singing is still largely the prerogative of older people. The traditional ute was a joyful love chant-song or 'imene akaepaepa (song of praise) performed by a group of men and women in a celebratory mood. Nowadays, ute are composed about a wider range of topics. Ute today is different from that of 30 to 40 years ago. According to older Rarotongan exponents of ute, the modern ute incorporates more of the elements commonly associated with 'imene tuki, such as tuki (grunts) and perepre (singing descant), than was considered acceptable years ago. This they blame on the loss of contact with the art for a period of over 20 years when a church ban was in place. Consequently, the new generation of composers that follow4ed, did not learn the techniques nor recognise the peculiarities, which made traditional ute different from 'imene tuki. Variations exist between the islands, however, the purpose of ute is the same on all islands - it is a celebratory song to be sung in a party atmosphere. It would be unseemly to perform ute in churches or at funerals. Mangaians have different names fro their different types of ute. Ko'e and tangi are two of the common styles. Ute today is performed mainly on stage during the Constitution Celebrations or at community functions.


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'Imene pure (church songs)

'Imene too metua and 'imene tuki emerged out of Cook Islands Protestantism established in the 1820s. both styles of hymn singing continue to play an important part in the predominant denomination of the Cook Islands, the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC), formerly London Missionary Society (LMS). The term 'imene reo metua is believed to have come from the reputed age of this Maori hymn (thought to be older than 'imene tuki), or the age of the singers who love to sing this type of hymn. 'Imene reo metua feature in the hymnal that is still used, which was introduced from Britain in the early 1800s by LMS missionaries. Most were translations of English evangelical Moody and Sankey hymns which were themselves based on the music of German barroom ballads. The composers took the tunes and put gospel words to them. English missionaries then translated these into Maori. Many more Maori hymns were composed over the years by the local orometua (ministers).

'Imene tuki are unique to the Cook Islands. these are hymns that include elements of traditional Cook Islands style pe'e (chanting) such as the guttural grunts and hanging movements of the male singers 'Imene tuki plays an integral part at uapu (Bible study meetings). Special occasions such as Christmas, New Year and teretere (exchanges of hospitality between villages) may prompt new composition. 'Imene tuki competitions during the Constitution Celebrations are based on a Bible verse chosen by the Constitution Celebrations Organising committee. All competing groups are given the same verse for which they are expected to develop their own tune and rhythm.There are seven vocal parts in an 'imene tuki:
a tumu 'imene (usually a woman soloist) who starts the singing and sets the note and tempo to be followed;
perepere (an alternating high-pithed decorative part) - sung by one or two women in the group;
pere na raro (a pitch below the lead) sung by one or two women;
pere na runga (a pitch above the lead) sung by one or two women;
reo tamou is the level at which the majority of female singers will stay;
pere tane is a high pitch for a male voice - a difficult skill to master as it is outside the natural scale for men; Manoa Pirake is one of the few men who sing this part today;
maru (harmony) is the part men perform generally.
The people of French Polynesia emulate the Cook Islands style of 'imene tuki in a type they call himene Raroto'a or himene Atua.
Many new songs continue to be recorded every year. Many of them become hit songs in the Cook Islands and in the Cook Islands communities overseas, as well as in Tahiti and among New Zealand Maori communities. These hit songs are played repeatedly at parties, nightclubs, and on the radio. An example of this was the song 'Akakino' in the early 1990s that was a hit in the Cook Islands and in Tahiti, as well as in Cook Islands communities abroad. 'Akakino' was re-recorded by many Tahitian artists following the initial release by the Cook Islands artist, Kutia Tuteru.

A Cook Islands composer of renown was Turepu Turepu who died aged 56 in 1990. A prolific composer , he is reputed to have written over 1000 songs in his lifetime, some of which he recorded in Tahiti in the 1970s. A number of these, which were hits in both Tahiti and the Cook Islands, because signature hits for his dance troupe, Ta'akoka. An often-repeated story illustrates his skill at composition. While attending a gathering of choreographers and composers from around the Pacific, he was challenged to demonstrate his ability. this he did by pointing to a bird flying overhead. He sang a song describing its colours, its shapes the way its wings flapped and the direction it was flying. When the bird vanished from view, Tureu finished his song. He was challenged again to repeat the song. This he did word for word.


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Recording artists

The first famous Cook Islands recording artists were Will Crummer, and Pepe and the Rarotongans, who produced a string of hits in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1960s, two singers, Te'ana Makirere and Jake Numanga, came to the fore and dominated the airwaves until well into the 1970s. Other popular recording artists of the 1970s included Ta'unganui and 'Akaerepere, Nitika, and Philomena. The early 1980s saw the brief rise of 12 year old Anna Makirere's musical career, but it was tragically cut short by her death from a misdiagnosed illness. Te'ata Makirere went into semi-retirement from public performances in the early 1980s. Jake Numanga remained a prominent singer for decades, and still sings and strums his ukulele as he greets passengers at the international airport.

The songs of these early Cook Islands recording artists were island-style ballads based around themes of love, heartache and loss. The singing tradition of Will Crummer, who migrated to New Zealand in the mid-1960s, has continued with his daughter, Annie Crummer, who has become a well-known singer there and in Australia. A number of other Cook Islanders have become well-known singers or members of well-known bands in New Zealand: cabaret singer Tony Williams in the 1960s, members of Herbs, arguably New Zealand's most famous reggae band; Teremoana Rapley (in Moana and the Moa-hunters), and members of the Monga family in the band, Ardijah. The next generation of young Cook Islands musicians and singers in New Zealand will no doubt emerge in hip-hop, the preferred music type of the twenty-somethings or younger age group.

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String bands and modern bands

Contemporary songs include those performed by solo performers and live bands, as well as songs produced on music CDs and audiotape. The first formal bands appeared either as back-up for dance troupes or as bands at socials or 'ura piani'. The back-up band would consist of selected musicians and singers of up to 20 people in order to achieve the volume of sound necessary for public performances in the days before the microphone and electrical amplification became commonplace. It is thought that string bands emerged out of pangekava ("bush-beer' parties), but stringed instruments are unlikely to have been used in the early years, as they were introduced somewhat later. The first pangekava parties centred on the consumption of the non-alcoholic kava Maori (Piper methysticum), and from the 1850s 'bush beer' made from fermented fruits yielded a high alcohol content. Both were condemned by the missionaries but remained popular. Villagers retreated to the valleys to participate in these parties, out of the eye of church elders. It was there that new songs were aired and ute, in particular, continued to be sung.

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Akateni (string instruments)

The most commonly used string instruments in the Cook Islands are ukarere (ukulele) and kita (guitar). Ukulele and guitar are believed to have travelled in tandem from Hawai'i via Tahiti in the late 1800s. Here were two instruments that were unlike anything cook Islanders had had before, but which appealed to their natural sense of rhythm and music and they took to both with gusto. Ukulele (meaning 'jumping flea' in Hawai'ian) is a small guitar derived from the machada, a small four-stringed guitar introduced into Hawai'i by Portuguese from the Madeira Islands of Portugal in 1879. Many changes have taken place in the shape and size of the humble ukulele. At first, the ukulele resembled a miniature guitar in shape, but Cook Islanders improvised and developed their own with coconut shell bodies using one, two and sometimes three coconut shells. The instrument was never more than 60cm long. Today, ukuleles, particularly those imported from Tahiti and kamaka ukuleles from Hawai'i, are 80cm or more in length. Tahitian ukuleles may be banjo-shaped or oblong, while kamaka are guitar-shaped. both are heavier than the traditional ukulele, with double strings (eight in all, instead of the usual 4).

The guitar, which has a longer history than ukuleles, having originated in Spain early in the 16th century, derives from the guitarra latina, a late medieval instrument. today, the waisted instrument with sometimes six or twelve strings, is widely played in the folk and popular music of many countries, including the Cook Islands. The guitar was a highly valued item in households when it first arrived in the Cook Islands. For a long time it was costly and therefore difficult for most people to obtain. What few there were well looked after especially when they became essential equipment in every band and dance troupe. Some people on Rarotonga attempted to make their own guitars in the 1960s, but they did not sound as good as the professionally crafted, imported ones.

Cook Islanders learn to play musical instruments by observation and 'playing by ear'. Few Cook Islanders take formal lessons on these instruments. Like dancing, they pick up the skills from watching and listening to older players, including older siblings and friends. Outside of cinema and dance halls there was not much formal entertainment so it was natural for Cook Islanders to use these instruments in their leisure time. by the 1920s the guitar was so popular in the cook Islands that Reverend Hutchin in 1924 lamented its influence."... the young men and women will be found strumming them at all times ... rather playing guitars than come to services'. For several generations after the first introduction of these two string instruments it was a favourite pass-time for people to sit under trees in the evening shade and sing while a ukulele and guitar played. Children mimicked their elders with musical gatherings of their own to school playgrounds. this was good grounding for dance teams or bands which some of them would join later. Today it is less common to gather informally to sing for there is much more to keep young people occupied, such as soccer, touch-rugby, television, video and electronic games. However, it is not uncommon to see small puna kava (drinking groups, also referred to facetiously by some as 'Sunday schools') under trees in the back yards of homes, with the ever-present ukulele and guitar being strummed and sung to by intoxicated participants.

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Pe'e (chants)

Pe'e are ancient historical chants which commemorate particular events, including brave deeds of ancestors or legendary warriors. Pe'e were formulaic in structure and ritualised in presentation. Their very nature is the reason few traditional pe'e survive. Because they were ritualised and could only be chanted by certain people at certain times - al rites which were considered heathen by the missionaries - many ancient pe'e fell into disuse and were consequently lost. Pe'e has also come to mean any chant - old or new. Pe'e were once the mainstay of 'eva, the entertainment festivals which appear to have predominated in Rarotonga a the time of the arrival of the missionaries. Many pe'e still used today are tribal in nature and are reserved for va'a tuatua (orators, family spokesperson, or talking chiefs) of a particular tribe. some pe'e have been composed for special ceremonial occasions or in recent times are usually performed by a group. Two pe'e which became popular were entered at different times by the Tereora College Dance Troupe in the Secondary Schools Culture Festival competition in the late 1970s. these two, composed by teacher and composer, Maeva Karati, told the stories of heroic ancestors. 'Uke Ariki, from Ma'uke and Mariri-tu-tu-a-manu from Atiu. Pe'e composition of this nature is not so popular anymore, either because the exponents of the art are dying out, or interest in this art form has been superseded by other art-forms such as singing and dancing. This probably the reason pe'e has been combined with peu tupuna presentations at the Constitution Celebrations of recent years.

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Nuku (gospel day)

Nuku, meaning 'a company of people' or 'people banded together', is the name originally given for the pageants performed on Gospel Day (26 October) each year by members of the CICC churches to re-enact biblical stories. Nuku now also refers to Gospel Day. Nuku are performed by large groups from the different CICC churches who gather in one of the church grounds to compete against one another. All performers dress appropriate to the character they are playing, be they king, queen, slave, soldier, angel and even God, who might be represented by a man dressed in white standing atop the church roof, or as an omnipresent voice on loudspeakers. Much time and expense is spent on preparation of costumes, props and rehearsals in advance of Nuku day.

Nuku commemorates the arrival of Christianity in the Cook Islands. Evangelisation began at Aitutaki in 1821 and, with some setbacks, spread through the Cook Islands, guided in the early stages by Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society (which became the CICC in the 1960s). Nuku may also include the re-enactment of the arrival of Christianity to these islands. this is done with characteristic humorous portrayal of the ignorant savage (usually a chief with many wives) and the first sighting of the arriving ship of missionaries, to disbelief in the power of this unseen God (and reluctance of the chief to choose only one wife from his harem), and finally, acceptance of the new religion and its Christian precepts - with some momentary lapses. All Nuku are accompanied by music, singing and dancing - dancing that is seen as appropriate for telling a Biblical tale - of the kind Salome performed the King Herod.


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