Performances of Aboriginal musical traditions have become widespread in various national and international contexts and are significant to the ways in which Aboriginal people from distinct regions project their specific identities to a broader world. In recent decades, Warlpiri people, from the remote settlement of Yuendumu in the Tanami desert of Australia, have increasingly attracted interest in the performances of their ceremonial songs and dances in intercultural spaces, often for audiences with little understanding of their religious significance.
Against a historical backdrop of settlement history and the shifts that have occurred to public ceremonial forms during this period, performances of purlapa at the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra have foregrounded issues of Aboriginal politics, systematized racism, contemporary social movements, and the basic difficulties of running a tent embassy on meager donations, especially during the Canberra winter when firewood supplies were low. Purlapa is a genre of Warlpiri public ceremony involving a high-stepped dance style performed in circular movement with participants shifting their dancing sticks from side to side in rhythm with sung verses. Once held frequently for community entertainment, the performance of purlapa has declined drastically in recent years. Shifts in these performance opportunities show how Warlpiri people engage with a broader world in specific aspects of their identities while maintaining important links to a specific cultural heritage.
Read more in “Performing purlapa: Projecting Warlpiri identity in a globalized world” by Georgia Curran and Otto Jungarrayi Sims (The Asia Pacific journal of anthropology. XXII/2–3 ).
Below is a 1978 performance of a purlapa ceremony recorded on 8 mm film.
The reign of King David Kālakaua holds special significance for Hawaiian traditions. After decades of missionary-led censure, Hawaiian customs became revitalized when Kalākaua encouraged their revival. Master teachers (kumu hula) were summoned to the court at Honolulu, where they enjoyed royal patronage. From the environment, hula ku‘i emerged as a new style of dancing.
The term ku‘i means “to join old and new”, and refers to the mix of old and new components of poetry, music, dance, and costume. Traditional conventions gained a new format: texts were strophic, and each strophe consisted of a couplet. Indigenous vocal styles and ornaments were added to melodies based on tempered tones and simple harmonies. Each couplet was uniform in length, most commonly eight or sixteen beats. The format mandated the repetition of the melody for each couplet, and each couplet was commonly performed twice. An instrumental interlude, popularly called a vamp, separated the stanzas. In dances by seated performers, this interlude is called ki’i pā. New sequences of movements joined preexisting, named, lower-body motifs.
The defining distinction of the hula ku‘i was accompaniment from guitars and ‘ukulele. For dances by standing performers, mele composed in the new format also had the accompaniment of ipuor other Indigenous percussive instruments. In the 20th century, performances of those mele came to be called either ancient hula or hula ‘ōlapa, referencing the division of labor between dancers (‘ōlapa) and musicians (ho’opa’a).
Read the entry on hula ku‘i by Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman in The Garland encyclopedia of world music. Australia and the Pacific Islands (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME).
The image above is of hula dancers and musicians, circa 1883. Photo courtesy of the Hawai’i State Archives. Below is a video of Hawaiian dance and music from the 2019 Merrie Monarch Festival held annually in Hilo, Hawaii.
Tongan lakalaka is an art form in which poetry, music, movement, scent, and dress coalesce into sociopolitical theatrical events.
Knowledge of Tongan politics, culture, history, and shared values is required for fully understanding lakalaka. This communicative competence makes it possible to decode and make sense of the processes and products of this cultural form, in which human bodies move in time and space according to cultural conventions and aesthetic systems of the Tongan people.
Individuals decode the discourses according to their backgrounds and understandings of particular performances as well as their own mental and emotional states at the time. For a viewer to respond, knowledge of movement conventions and dress is not sufficient; only through communicative competence can dance and dress reveal meaning as a sociopolitical discourse.
This according to “Dance and dress as sociopolitical discourse” by Adrienne L. Kaeppler, an essay included in Proceedings of the 17th symposium of the Study Group on Ethnochoreology (Nafplion: Peloponnīsiakó Laografikó Idryma, 1994 45-52; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1994-2706).
Below, a performance from 2009.
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Patten (above) has enabled anyone to participate in this tradition with his book/CD set How to play the gumleaf (Sydney: Currency, 1999; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-14755). Patten’s book includes practical tips on how to select a suitable leaf and develop proper lip technique, and his demonstrations include popular and old-time songs along with the calls of several indigenous Australian birds.
Below, Herb Patten holds forth.
BONUS: Now there’s no need to imagine hearing John Lennon’s Imagine on a gumleaf.
Hula performers began touring throughout the continental United States and Europe in the late 19th century. These hula circuits introduced hula and Hawaiians to U.S. audiences, establishing an imagined intimacy, a powerful fantasy that enabled Americans to possess their colony physically and symbolically.
At vaudeville theaters, international expositions, commercial nightclubs, and military bases, Hawaiian women acted as ambassadors of aloha, enabling Americans to imagine Hawai’i as feminine and benign, and the relation between colonizer and colonized as mutually desired. Meanwhile, in the early years of American imperialism in the Pacific, touring hula performers incorporated veiled critiques of U.S. expansionism into their productions.
By the 1930s Hawaiian culture, particularly its music and hula, had enormous promotional value. In the 1940s thousands of U.S. soldiers and military personnel in Hawai’i were entertained by hula performances, many of which were filmed by military photographers. Yet Hawaiians also used hula as a means of cultural survival and countercolonial political praxis.
This according to Aloha America: Hula circuits through the U.S. empire by Adria L. Imada (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-30915).
“The texts [of girls’ coming-of age songs] address topics broadly sorted in four sets: daily routine, recalling netted bags (made by all women), sores (irritated by flies), and pleasure over good food (grown or gathered); unusual events, like sighting a helicopter, European missionaries’ arrival, and death in a hospital; desires, including the romantic, with meanings often hidden in metaphor, but also the adventuresome, like wanting to ride in a vehicle; and the coming-of-age performance itself speaking of dancing together, laughing together, and becoming adults.”
To address this problem, the women and their grandchildren have composed a song that emphasizes connection to the ancestors, to country, to language, and to the elders. With lyrics in English, traditional Tiwi song language, and the contemporary spoken language, and with a hip-hop dance-mix sampling an ethnographic recording made in 1912, Ngariwanajirri (Strong kids song) is an example of new music helping to preserve tradition.
This according to “Ngariwanajirri, the Tiwi Strong kids song: Using repatriated song recordings in a contemporary music project” by Genevieve Campbell (Yearbook for traditional music XLIV  1–23).
Below, a music video of Ngariwanajirri; the song changes dramatically around 2:00.
The first meeting and interchange between Māori and Europeans was a musical one. As the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and his party sailed toward the coast of Aotearoa (now New Zealand) on a December evening in 1642, they saw canoes approaching them and heard the men in the prows singing and blowing on a trumpet-like instrument. Two of the Dutch sailors were ordered to play welcoming tunes on their own trumpets; the exchange continued until darkness fell and the Māori paddled away.
A few days later the Dutch launched a small rowboat holding seven unarmed sailors. The Māori immediately sent canoes to attack it, and killed four of the sailors; the others swam to safety, and the canoes were driven away by Dutch gunfire.
This tragic turn of events was eventually explained: The first Māori party intended to challenge the strangers and invite them to fight. They had probably been performing a haka—a ritual war chant—and their horn was likely a pūtātara (above), a signaling device that may be used for hostile confrontations. The groups’ misinterpretations of each other’s music making led to a fatal misunderstanding.
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