Music Tokelau

The music Tokelau used three types of percussion instruments for beating time and for their dances, and two wind instruments, a flageolet and the conch.

Tokelauan music

The Tongan wooden gong (lali), made from the hollowed out section of a tree trunk, is used in the Tokelau Islands. Most modern gongs were imported from Samoa, where the puapua trees from which the gongs are made grow in size. The gong is approximately 4.5 feet long, 1.5 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. 

The top surface is split lengthwise into the ends of the log and the interior is hollowed out, following the curvature of the circumference of the log. At the ends, the upper surface is hollowed out 3 or 4 inches deep, leaving a lip between this hollow and the interior opening.

The gongs were struck with two or three sticks held by two beaters which beat at different rhythms. Small wooden gongs were played with a fast rhythm to keep time in ancient dances. The ancient name for the wooden gong was kaulalo, but today it is referred to by the Tongan and Samoan term, lalo.

The Tokelau drum (pasu) was made from a section of a kanava tree trunk, one end of which was burned and cut to a depth measured from the fingertips to the elbow. Above the open end, a sharkskin was stretched and tied under the rim. The Wilkes group found one on the malae. 

The presence of the drum in Tokelau is unusual as it is an Eastern Polynesian instrument, remarkably absent from Western Polynesia. The name Tokelau pasu, pahu, is also found at Hawaii and in other islands of eastern Polynesia.

Long, thin planks (papa), used to stretch and scrape the bark to be transformed into fibre, were also employed as sound boxes struck with two sticks to tap the rhythm of dances. Mat-covered boxes or kerosene canisters supplanted planks due to their more resonant tones.

Music Tokelau: wind instruments

Flageolets (fangufangu) were once made from the fluffy stems of young kanava plants, but are now made from the recently introduced papaya tree, whose young branches are hollow and easy to cut. Modern flageolets, usually played by young girls, vary in the number of notches cut on the upper side from 1 to 6.

Whistles are made by children from strips of pandanus or coconut leaves rolled into a spiral or cone-shaped trumpet.

Large (fao) conch (Charonia tritonis) are collected by divers in Atafu Lagoon. A mouthpiece is formed by breaking off the tip of the shell and a hole is made in one of the whorls a few centimeters below the broken tip. Fishing captains use conches to round up the fleet. They were once used in the village to bring people together but have been supplanted by the wooden gong and the whistle penny.

Music Tokelau: songs

In ancient times, songs played an important role in community activities in Tokelau. Songs of adoration or propitiation were sung before any great undertaking and in connection with festivals, funerals and other rites. Hale says the Atafu natives sang constantly to their white visitors, probably to appease them. 

The numerous references in the literature and the legend to songs indicate that there was once great variety in singing. We remember some old songs to Atafu, but most of them were forgotten when the dance was banned by the missionaries.

Modern singing in Tokelau has been heavily influenced by foreign music. Samoan teachers introduced modern Samoan songs and Christian hymns, which the natives like to sing in the evenings. Sailors from the Ellice Islands and other parts of Polynesia taught songs from their islands. Many words written by local lyricists are based on reports of events and places in the outside world; The port of Auckland and the new wireless are the subject of current popular songs.

The following ancient songs, translated by Mika, were sung in accompaniment to the paddle dances performed in Atafu. Many lines refer to forgotten events and several words are no longer in the dialect. H and f were pronounced in the words and are reproduced here without transcribing them to the dialect f and s form used in other parts of the text. I couldn't get any translations for several songs.

Tokelau music: singing with Ta Hoe paddles

Huo nanaia
Ko te lepu mo kavea
Ko te hoe tua hamania
E tele ki nei
E hapinia eoea (eo ea) iã.

Dip and Wave (The Paddle)
The agitation (of the water)…?
The regular back paddle
Sail so far
Hit the fish that run away in fear.

Hiahia ai vao
Kou te tu ma kou te noho
Koh holoholo mulia.
At fakaheka fakatia
At the fakaheka fakatia.

?(Who) rejoices in the bush
I will stand up and sit down
I recoil (or slide) backwards.

Utupeepee, utupeepee,
Tangaloa talae fetokai.
E angina ki Fali ma Fana
Kanapa uila fati tili
E numia kai fakatau mai
Ko molia—Taku hoe nei
Apoapo taku hoe i lalo
Na tahea ite ngalutau
Ke mau mai ke mau mai.

Spin the paddle, spin the paddle,
Touch and hit (the paddle of) Tangaloa.
The force of the wind in Fali and Fana
The coming of lightning and thunder
The whirlwind of water…?
My paddle here below
I dip my paddle under (the canoe)
(He was swept away by) the flow of the backwash of the wave.
Hold (it) close to the body.

KB haha ke mau
Kuamaua kuapokia
Uhiu i te hoena
Ki okutua
Uhiu i te hoena
Ki okuluma
Uhiu i te hoena
Hakapato tia ia

Te fili tupua
Te fili momono
Na koe ia
Na koe ia
E na koe ia
E na koe ia
In na ulua
E na koe ia
Te fili tupua.

Tokelau music: singing with Ta Paki paddles

Te kanave tau kailove,
Te kanave tau kailove,
Te fia vaka vakai e.

Wiggle the paddle handle,
Wiggle the paddle handle,
Wishing to fetch the canoe.

Holiholia vaka heua
E uhu Tonga,
E voliao.
Manu afe
Ie e e lua.

Not in time, spinning the canoe (?)
To start a trip to Tonga,
To dance.
thousand birds
Indicate things (indicate the path).

Your paki ko you may.
Ko te paki na holitia
Kapuna kapunake lea
Ko te paki katele ki Uea.

The dance paddle stands nearby.
The dance paddle standing near
Is trampled.
Rising to the surface
The dance paddle sails to Uvea.

Tokelau music: chants without paddles

Catch the turtle song

Honu a levaleva,
E hala honu a levaleva.
Tulituli atu tamafanau.
Kai amutia ko Tinilau
Oi swallow my lualau.
Kae Tinilau e voliao.

deep sea turtle,
The deep-sea turtle is hunted.
Hunt young children.
Who congratulates Tinilau
Alas! There is nothing.
Tinilau continues to dance.

song of lovers

Hakauta atu you high,
Hakaakeake ke ahiaki,
Lihaki took your fault,
Hakaake afiake,
O tuku atu, O tuku kai,
O ponopono ke hoki ai.

Give and place the crown of tiale on (his) head, (to the man)
Wear it in the evening and take a walk, (to the girl)
Let (your) crown of tiale flowers give its fragrance, (to the girl)
Put it on and wear it in the evening, (to the man)
Oh, give and take (trade your crowns) (to both)
Fire again (anyone who enters).

old dance song

E tau te vaka i Luaniua,
E taha te vaka,
E taha te vaka i Laloata.
Hateu e teu mamao.
E neni aue tao.

The canoe drops anchor at Luaniua,
The canoe passes very close,
The canoe passes near Laloata.
Get ready to go (?) away.
The canoe suddenly moves and goes away.


Ka po te talinga pola
Kaha you may you may
Kaha you may you mailoa
Te ika taulia o ka taulia te akau
Ka taulia checks you out, e – e.
Langa mai la te aoao
Po knocked him down.