With the reversal of seasons in the southern hemisphere, summer is coming on. The past couple of weeks have been graduation ceremonies for the local middle and high schools. And of course, with my musical background, the best part has been the music. There have been a lot of awards given out, and a lot of good speeches, but the emotional communication of music is what has resounded in my heart.
I have listened to about 15 different songs and performances in the past week or two, not counting church meetings. And I am struck by the same comment that the first LDS missionaries made when listening to the Tongans: “Their voices are loud and clear, such harmony I have never heard. God is in it all.” The singing that is such an engrained part of the culture here is truly a little piece of heaven. Boys and girls, men and women, old and young – everyone sings, their voices strong and sure. And most of them are very good at creating their own harmonies – not necessarily those written in the music, but still wonderful, and sometimes even better than what’s on the printed page. I wish I had a way to share with you the sounds of these people. I’ll just have to refer you to a youtube film, with sound. This clip is one of the UNESCO cultural projects for preserving native cultures. You don’t have to watch all of it, but you’ll hear the kinds of harmonies I’ve been hearing: http://youtu.be/tF7KpvBl0tk
As with all cultures, a musical performance has its own protocols. But I think the one most new to me is the fact that a singer (and other performers as well) can be properly congratulated during the performance. Look at the picture of this teacher singing at a middle school graduation. She is wearing a traditional Polynesian-style lei of flowers, but she is also wearing a lei of plastic-wrapped treats. Those were given her during her song. One of her students came up and placed them around her neck and she simply continued singing. During the rest of the song, about seven more of her students came up and either placed a lei ( of one kind or another) around her neck, or tucked money under her collar (look carefully just inside the lei). Not a lot of money – usually one pa’anga bill, worth about 65 cents US. But these gifts are a sign of affection and respect for her, and for her performance. I congratulated her later for being able to concentrate on the song while she sang – I know I would have been extremely distracted by all the accolades while I was trying to sing a song!
Apparently that kind of congratulation is only offered if one is singing traditional Tongan music. This young man, finishing 8th grade this year, sang the western popular song “You Lift Me Up” at his graduation (did a bang-up performance, by the way – accompanied by his mother), and everyone listened attentively, but made no move to cover him in flowers and treats. Instead, they stood up and clapped their hands and whistled and hooted their congratulations. Pretty standard western middle school behavior!
Because these schools are church-run, (there are a few government-run middle and high schools on Tonga, but most of the secondary students attend schools run by the Mormons, Catholics and Wesleyan Methodists), each graduation ceremony began and ended with a congregational song and a prayer. To hear a thousand voices joining in song is marvelous anywhere in the world, but to hear these untrained, instinctive musicians open their mouths and their hearts to music is awe-inspiring. Because they are untrained, those who lead the singing must lead with their voices as well as their hands, and the audience responds more to a voice than to conducting. And the harmonies, both established and invented, are sure to haunt me for years to come.
There have been amusing musical moments, too. I listened as this music teacher played pop music and traditional Tongan music during a dinner at an awards banquet, and smiled to myself as he sang “Jingle Bells” when it was about 84 degrees Fahrenheit outside. With no Halloween or Thanksgiving to get in the way, it’s already the Christmas season here – there is a twenty-foot artificial tree already decorated across from our vegetable market, and icicle lights for sale at the open-air market.
The other musical moment that made me smile came from a wonderful mixing of cultures. Jim and I were invited to the “Welcome Home” party of a young sister missionary we met in the Auckland, New Zealand airport (she had served in the Phoenix, Arizona mission for 18 months). We sat and listened to the loud, happy music played and watched everyone, from age 2 to 82, get up and dance. (We chose to watch – my ankle’s not quite up to dancing yet, but I’m out of the boot and into an aircast, and even using just an Ace bandage for a few hours a day). And then came “La Bamba.” Even though it is sung in Spanish, it is very familiar to non-hispanics of my generation, because of its breakthrough popularity. Well, it’s popular here in Tonga, too. But the difference is that the Tongan version is performed by a Tongan singer, not Ritchie Valens. The refrain is in Spanish, and very true to the original, but the verses are in Tongan, and have a completely unique rhythm and pace, which threw me for a few minutes. But then I just accepted it and watched as the crowd enjoyed their version of an energetic song. Smiled through the whole song. And a little four-year old girl mixed traditional Tongan dance moves with pop dance moves - another reason to smile.
But the emotional high of the week was a performance by the entire Liahona Middle School, at the end of their graduation and awards ceremony. The principal had composed the words and the tune, and had choreographed movements for the children to perform while seated on the floor, in a chair, or standing behind a chair, in what's called a "ma'ulu'ulu." So imagine three hundred children arranged in a huge horseshoe in a school gym, all in traditional Tongan costume, performing a 10-minute long storysong with complex head, arm, hand, and upper body movements, all in unison. Oh, and some of the faculty and a few students played traditional drums over to the side – there were about 8 drums, the smallest of them desk-high and at least 4 feet across. The performance was given twice, once so that everyone could simply watch, and the second time parents and family members came forward and showered their children with more leis and treats. And their principal was also their punake - reviving their Tongan spirit through song, poetry and dance. Wow.
Music has played a large key role in my life. To find myself now surrounded by natural musicians is an education like no other. I just hope I can take it all in.