An indispensable resource, Alan Wells

Weavers of Song: Polynesian Music and Dance 
Mervyn McLean
Auckland University Press, $79.95,
ISBN 1 86940 212 X


A companion volume to the same author’s Maori Music 1996: reviewed in our March 1998 issue), Mervyn McLean’s Weavers of Song would appear similarly destined to become the standard text on its subject – in this case the music and dance of the Polynesian Pacific.

The distillation of a lifetime’s scholarship, the new work (like its predecessor) is divided into two sections, rather quaintly designated “books”.

Book I, after an introductory overview of Polynesia (noting its division into “Eastern” and “Western” cultural sectors), proceeds to examine the dance and music of each archipelago in detail. Beginning with Tahiti, McLean’s exposition follows – logically enough – the post-contact pattern of musical diffusion in Central (Eastern) Polynesia to the Cook, Austral and Tuamotu groups; it then shifts to Western Polynesia (Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue, Uvea and Futuna, and the Polynesian Outliers on the edge of Melanesia and Micronesia); and finally it returns to the Eastern region to consider the widely separated territories on the margins of Polynesia (the Marquesas, Mangareva, Easter Island, Hawaii, and New Zealand – treatment of the last, essentially a précis of Maori Music, being “purposefully short”).

Book II draws together threads and themes, comparing and contrasting differences with regard to musical structures, varieties of musical instruments, the social functions of song and dance, and the impact of European influence.

Throughout, the focus is on traditional styles, and on those genres (such as the Tahitian himene) in which a borrowed form has been profoundly altered by its absorption into a Polynesian context.

The distinctively contrapuntal himene completely displaced the older Tahitian idiom. Which is a pity, as this is one situation where McLean, sceptical of the systematic employment of microtones in Maori music, accepts the possibility of their use, on the evidence of both Georg Forster’s 18th-century account and the testing of nose flutes by Richard Moyle. In other, unindexed, references, microtones are reported – again by Moyle – in flutes from Niue (perhaps too in Tongan panpipes: the notation however is unclear); they are implied by Edwin G Burrows in the neutral 3rds of Tuamotuan drone polyphony; and they are imputed to occur in Rapa (Austral) singing by Pascal Nabet-Meyer. The latter’s hypothesis, though, is “specifically rejected” by McLean – regrettably without explanation.

Also dismissed without discussion (or even acknowledgement) is the extensive work by Richard Nunns on Maori instruments. Nunns’s contributions to the CD He Waiata Onamata are disparaged as being “not representative of past practice”. I hope the eventual publication of Nunns’s own monograph will induce McLean to accord this research the critique it deserves.

Overall, Weavers of Song is more scrupulously proofed than Maori Music. Nevertheless, several defects have slipped through. For instance, the Samoan ma‘ulu‘ulu is characterised as a seated dance, while the accompanying photograph shows the dancers standing. There are only three (not four) adjacent “intervals of a semitone, tone and semitone over a range of a major 3rd”. It is misleading, as well, to define a “minor interval” as “[an] interval (other than 4th or 5th) in the minor scale” – the minor scale contains major (not minor) 2nds and 7ths from the tonic. In addition, the italic typeface chosen is particularly irritating: the lower case “b” and “h” are virtually indistinguishable.

These are small quibbles. This book belongs in every university and public library, and will be an indispensable resource for students, besides being readily comprehensible to the non-specialist. Generously illustrated with black-and-white photographs, historical drawings and etchings, along with musical transcriptions, Weavers of Song includes, in addition, an audio CD of representative examples from most of the areas explored.

Among the highlights for me were the mellow sounds of the Tongan fangufangu nose flute and the cheerful minimalism of the ifi kele‘a conch band; the refreshing astringency of the choirs; the tantalising snatch of tagi from a Samoan narrative; the grunted rhythms of the Penrhyn ute and the Marquesan haka puaka “pig dance”; and the most famous of Maori oriori, “Popo” (itself displaying an intriguing family resemblance to the Marquesan “Rari no Koomahu”).


Alan Wells is a Wellington music critic, instrument designer, and composer of microtonal music, and also a poet. He has learned to play Maori instruments from Richard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne.


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Posted in Māori, Music, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
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