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31. Rotuma

Alan Howard

[Published in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 9, Australia and the Pacific Islands, edited by Adrienne L. Kaeppler and J. W. Love. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998]

Near the intersection of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, Rotuma borrowed heavily from its neighbors--in music as in language. Rotumans have long claimed that all of their songs and dances but the class known as tautoga are imports (Gardiner 1898:488). By blending borrowed and indigenous traits, Rotumans have generated a unique musical repertory.

A volcanic island of approximately 43 square kilometers, Rotuma rises to about 215 meters. It lies 500 kilometers north of Viti Levu, from where, in the late 1990s, biweekly flights were scheduled; government and private shipping provided additional, though irregular, transportation between Fiji ports and Rotuma.

Mythology attributes the creation of the island, and the founding of the society, to Raho, supposedly a Samoan chief. Ma'afu, a Tongan chief from Niuafo'ou, reportedly conquered Rotuma (Churchward 1937:255). Legend portray his as an oppressor, killed by rebelling Rotumans; nevertheless the title Maraf, an obvious cognate, remains the premier title.

In 1791, H.M.S. Pandora became the first European ship to visit Rotuma. Christianity arrived in 1839, when John Williams assigned two Samoan teachers to the island; but they were unsuccessful, and in 1841, Tongan Wesleyans replaced them. In 1847, Roman Catholic missionaries arrived. Sectarian antagonisms mounted, culminating in 1878 in a war won by the numerically dominant side, the Methodists. Continuing unrest led the paramount chiefs of the seven districts to petition Britain for annexation. Since 1881, the year of cession, Rotuma became administratively part of Fiji. In the late 1990s, the population on the island was about twenty-six hundred; but three times as many Rotumans lived on Viti Levu, mainly in Suva.

Performative contexts

At special occasions, no major gathering occurs without performances for which groups compose (ha'i) celebratory songs and dances. Depending on the size of a festival (kato'aga), performances range from an hour of informal singing around a few guitars (kita) and ukuleles (ukalele), to daylong sessions in which a rehearsed groups formally sing and dance. At domestic ceremonies, such as weddings or the raising of gravestones (höt'ak hafu), songs honor featured persons. When a group from one village or district performs at another location, it presents songs to honor its hosts: texts reference local chiefs, pertinent events, and outstanding features of the community or landscape. Annual events (such as Cession Day, and the Methodist Church Conference), and specially scheduled events (a high dignitary's visit, the dedication of a new building), spur groups to polish their performances. In Suva in 1974, at the dedication of the Churchward Chapel, groups presented songs in praise of C. Maxwell Churchward (Methodist missionary), for whom the congregation named the building; songs also praised the architect, and likened the structure to a spaceship.

On some occasions (like the Methodist Church Conference), performances occur within a competitive framework. Judges rate presentations by unity, degree of difficulty, and appearance (costume, stance, expression). At these performances, audiences enthusiastically receive successful innovations.

During celebrations, public musical performances occur where convenient: for a religious occasion, in or next to a church; for a wedding, near the bride's home; for a feast, at the host's house. To receive guests, some villages maintain open public spaces (marä'e), where they erect sheds for protection from rain and sun. Informal singing or dancing may precede the serving of kava and food; but formal presentations routinely follow feasting, with performers facing the high chiefs and featured persons.

Music also forms an integral part of playtimes (av mane'a), periods set aside for socializing. Most notable is the four-to-six-week period during December and January, when few people work. On the grounds of selected houses, youths sing and dance to the accompaniment of guitars and ukuleles. In reward, residents sprinkle them with perfumed powders and spray them with cologne; if adequate supplies are on hand, the hosts also dispense soft drinks and food.

Figure 24 Rotuman women enjoy a sing-along. Photo by Alan Howard, 1960.

In premissionary times, nubile youths frequented houses set aside for dancing and played beach games (mane'a hune'ele) including singing and dancing, which provided culturally controlled frames for courtship. Missionaries, fearing immorality, curbed such gatherings. In the current version of beachgames, young people gather informally around a guitar, often under the auspices of the church, to perform hymns and other religious songs. In the 1980s, activity began to give way to passivity--listening to cassette recordings. Guitars, ukuleles, and cassette are not available for purchase on the island, but returning sojourners bring them home.

Composers are known as manatu; with lead singers, they are also known as purotu. Several persons have attained local reputations as composers. Some older people keep musical texts in notebooks, which, to consult while planning performances, they sometimes bring to meetings. A few Rotuman bands (päne) have composed and recorded songs in popular Polynesian styles.

No survey of indigenous musical instruments remains, though Rotumans said in 1932 they had once had a nose flute and a panpipe (MacGregor n.d.). By the mid-1900s, rhythmic beating on a pile of folded mats had become the only normative accompaniment to tautoga; it may have replaced striking a log idiophone (Eason 1951:23). Metallic idiophones, made from bicycle bells, bullet casings, or other hollow metal containers and struck with a nail or metal strip, accompany a new kind of hymn, mak pel from English bell).

Indigenous songs

At the time of European intrusion, Rotuman music included recitations, dances with paddles, and tautoga.


Mosese Kaurasi (1991) distinguishes three types of Rotuman recitation: texts composed for dances and songs with movements; texts intoned before battles or wrestling matches; and temo, performed during a chief's funeral, or at a reception for a visiting chief.

Songs with movements commemorate special events or occasions, including war-provoking incidents, the deaths of notable persons, successful seafaring ventures, and festivals involving two or more communities. Their sentiments vary circumstantially, in moods from solemn to exultant. In 1926, the Reverend Kitione, a Wesleyan minister, composed the following text to mark the end of a festive gathering involving groups from Faguta and Motusa (Kaurasi 1991:143).

Hanis 'e soro te Faguta
Hauen ava la a'u'ua
Fufui ne is Moitaua
Orsio ka hanua la malua
Pity the dance group from Faguta
The time to stop has come,
For the flock of Moitaua Point
To rest and yarn as the sun sets.

To mobilize sentiment and muster courage (mäeva), the songs and dances performed before battles were textually belligerent and kinetically aggressive. (Kaurasi 1991:147).

Kaf se' po'
Hula hula majei tato
'Apsi' la' kel hula
To' filo'ua la' herua
Clap your folded arm,
And wrestle in pairs till darkness falls
Stroll to watch the wrestling match
And witness the snapping off of wrestler's heads

Temo praise deceased individuals, respected chiefs, and special places. Before Christianization, mourners sang them at funerals. Leaders chose a tempo and started the singing; they sat close to a few others, facing inward, and the rest of the company sat around them. The leaders performed in sets of four: the first three temo were slow and subdued; the fourth, quick and bright, with clapping. The chorus accompanied by humming (verea'aki) a drone.

The melodies of temo usually have a range no larger than a perfect fourth, plus indefinitely-pitched notes wailed in high registers. By about a semitone, singers depress the pitches of notes, and then slide back up again. Temo end in a downward slide, with diminishing volume. To signal the end of a song, the leaders repeat the first line. In 1932, their volume was "so low that one feels that those outside the circle are not supposed to hear or understand the words. The clapping too is very soft. The best chanting of temos resembles the singing of toothless old men" (MacGregor n.d.). By 1960, temo had fallen out of use.

Dances with paddles

People performed dances with paddles (mak paki) within the ritual cycle associated with the offices of sau and mua, spiritual representatives of the unified polity. Because the dances originated in pagan worship, they fell into disuse after the 1870s, when Christianization had become complete.

In 1865, a missionary witnessed a paddle-dance of "mostly elderly men": each performer held a paddle, and

The sau and the mueta [mua] stood together, all the rest squatted down near them. Rising up, they commenced a song, raising the legs alternately, and brandishing the paddles. The song over, they rushed, one half one way, and one half the other way, and meeting in the centre of the square, stood in two lines, the sau and the mueta being in the centre of the front line. A man sat before a native drum to beat time, and lead the chanting. All joined, moving the legs, and gently brandishing the paddles, now giving them an oscillating movement on the front of the head, and again striking them gently with the tips of the fingers of the left hand. At intervals, the back line dividing into two went round and joined again in front of the line, where stood the sau and the mueta, which line in its turn divided, and passed to the front. In each song these evolutions were gone through five or six times. The whole may have lasted about half an hour (Fletcher 1866; letter, 4 November 1865).

Severed from their original context by the 1880s, dances with paddles continued in secular setting, where they highlighted special celebrations.


Reserved for large festivals, these songs and dances embody late-twentieth-century Rotuman taste. Men and women arrange themselves in rows, men on one side, women on the other (figure 25). Movements occur in synchrony: men's are vigorous and coarse; women's, restrained and delicate.

Costumes include lavalavas (ha'fali), usually of uniform color and design: women wear theirs down to their ankles; men to just below the knee. Over the lavalavas, from the waist, hang ti-leaf skirts (titi). Dancers adorn themselves with garlands (tefui) made from young coconut-palm leaves, supplemented by sweet-smelling flowers, tied together with colorful wool. Men's skirts and garlands are more elaborately decorated than women's. Women usually let their hair down as a "mark of respect and deference" (Hereniko 1991:133).

In form, a complete tautoga is a suite of pieces in three types: from one to three sua, one or two tiap hi, and two or more tiap forau; in a complete performance, at least one example of each type occurs. For sua and tiap forau, elders provide accompaniment: with wooden sticks, several people beat on a pile of folded mats; they begin each dance by introducing the song, and take responsibility for sustaining the rhythm and the tempo. In sua and the tiap hi'i, each of the first three rows of dancers takes its turn in front; after completing a set of verses, the dancers in the first row drop back, and the row behind them comes forward (Hereniko 1991:128-130).

Figure 25. Rotumans perform a tautoga.

Photo by Alan Howard, 1960.


For sua, dancers stand in place: men, with their feet apart; women, with their feet together. The basic movement involves lifting the hands from the sides, clasping them together in front of the waist, and releasing them to the sides. Dancers repeatedly bend and straighten their legs.

Sua normally consist of four-verse stanzas, whose texts allude to the occasion. The music consists of a single phrase in duple meter, repeated many times. One recorded performance figure 26a) ended during the twentieth statement of the phrase. The performers sing a melody in parallel fifths, with women on the upper part. Sometimes (as at the beginning of figure 26b), singers sound other notes, creating three- or four-note harmonies. 

Tiap hi'i

After sua come tiap hi, dances of two kinds. In one, hi tägtäg 'languid drone', women sing hi'ie, hi'ie, hi'ie, hi'ie, while the men grunt to the effect of hü'ü, hü'ü, hü'ü, hü'ü (figure 26c). The performers focus on a major triad: men sing the root, women the third and fifth. A subdominant triad serves as an auxiliary. The performers clap their hands on downbeats. The transcribed performance has thirty-seven statements of the indicated phrase; after the nineteenth, the tempo begins to increase sharply. In the other kind of tiap hi'i, the hi' sasap 'sustained drone', the men drag out their . In both subgenres, some of the singers breathe while others vocalize, so the performance spins a continuous thread of sound.

Performances of the tiap hi'i mark the contrast between feminine constraint and masculine freedom. Women stand in place, as in the sua; they confine their movements to graceful, subtle motions of the hands and arms. Men may jump from side to side, or in circles. In one version, men maintain a textless drone, while women sign four or eight verses, recounting legends.

Figures 26 a, b, c

Tiap forau

Unlike sua and tiap hi'i, which have a temperate character, tiap forau feature the exuberance of yelping and clowning; spectators may spontaneously join in. During the dance, the back row splits: the men come down one side of the group, the women down the other, until they meet in front, replacing the first row; the process continues until each row has had its turn in front. The texts usually acknowledge distinguished personages (especially the chiefs acting as hosts), and praise people whose labors have contributed to the event (Hereniko 1991:130-131). Many tiap forau are in duple meter, transcribable as 2/4 time; some are in a triply compound meter, transcribable as 6/8 time.

 Twentieth-century developments

Wesleyan and Roman Catholic missionaries introduced hymns, which are central in Rotuman sacred contexts, and even occur in secular ones. In 1927-28, C.M. Churchward prepared the Rotuman Wesleyan hymnal, Him Ne Rot Uesli; others revised it in 1986-89. It contains 405 Rotuman hymns in sol-fa notation.

Performances of hymns take two styles: one is based on four-part harmony; in the other, mak pel, a struck metal idiophone keeps time. Gatherings of the Methodist Youth Fellowship sing religious songs in English and Rotuman, sometimes between skits on biblical themes.

Rotumans have adopted foreign styles of singing and dancing as they have come to know them through travel, films, radio (mostly Fiji stations) and video. In the 1990s, many Rotumans knew of the Samoan ma'ulu'ulu (via its Tongan analog) and sasa, the Fijian vakamalolo, and dances from Tahiti, Kiribati, and elsewhere. Pan-Polynesian harmonized music is popular, with Rotuman words often substituted for the originals. The favorite foreign musical genre is Rarotongan, introduced by Rarotongans who in the late 1940s visited the island for months. Rotumans associate Rarotongan-style dances with playtimes.

References cited

Eason, William. 1951. A Short History of Rotuma. Suva: Government Printing Department.

Fatiaki, Anselmo, et. al. 1991. Rotuma: Hanue Pumue (Precious Land): Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

Fletcher, William. 1866. "Letter from Rotuma" The Wesleyan Missionary Notices, No. 37. Sydney: Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Conference.

Gardiner, J. Stanley. 1898. "Natives of Rotuma," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:396-435, 457-524.

Hereniko [Tausie], Vilsoni. 1991. "Dance as a Reflection of Rotuman Culture," in Anselmo Fatiaki, et. al. 1991. Rotuma: Hanue Pumue (Precious Land): Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

Kaurasi, Mosese. 1991. "Rotuman Chants, Sports and Pastimes," in Anselmo Fatiaki, et. al. 1991. Rotuma: Hanue Pumue (Precious Land): Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

MacGregor, Gordon. n.d. Field Notes on Rotuma. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, Ms. SC MacGregor, Box 2.11.

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