Andrew Faleatua1

Rationales in flux:

Charting transcultural Polynesian music-making processes


This article explores how Pacific artists’ notions of cultural authenticity, identity and perceived audience expectation play out in the composition of new transcultural music (i.e. music displaying an amalgamation of both traditional Pacific and contemporary popular music influences). It is grounded in ethnographic fieldwork undertaken in Sydney, Australia over a period of two years. Its central aim is to balance a field of inquiry in which transcultural Pacific music is frequently interpreted as an expression of identity via retrospective musical analysis and reflection. In contrast to these prevailing trends, this article builds a case for real-time investigation into how artists engage and negotiate ideas about cultural authenticity, identity and perceived audience expectation when generating new transcultural works.

Keywords: Pacific music; composition; participant observation


Over the past decade, the fusion of Polynesian musical traditions with contemporary popular musical influences has been perceived by some Polynesian community members as a form of cultural abandonment.2 The fusion of traditional Cook Island musical elements with global popular styles has, for instance, been considered by some local Cook Island musicians the ‘bastardisation of traditional expressive forms’ (Alexeyeff 2004: 155). Furthermore, hip hop—a popular form of expression among Samoan diaspora in New Zealand, Australia and the US—has been particularly contentious with Samoan elders who view the genre’s cultural values as antithetical to those in the Fa’aSamoa (Samoan culture) (Henderson 2010). Similarly, Jennifer Cattermole has noted that Māori elders in Aotearoa New Zealand held hui (social gatherings) to address reggae’s worrisome influence on Māori youth. In particular, these elders believed that the Rastafarian belief system inherent in the genre posed a threat to Māoritanga (Māori traditions) and Tikanga (customs) (2011: 55). The sentiment underpinning each of these criticisms is that some ‘outside’ artistic influences should simply be off-limits for artists creating new forms of Polynesian musical expression.

In response to such criticism, scholars such as Tony Mitchell, Kirsten Zemke, April Henderson and Jennifer Cattermole have devised counterarguments about the nature of musical tradition itself. It is precisely here that inauthenticity claims are teased out and addressed through the use of historical analyses and a consideration of multi-faceted expressions of identity. Mitchell’s work, for instance, reveals the implausibility of entertaining musical cultural preservation regimes in the face of ‘outside’ influences. He achieves this by referencing historical instances in which syncretic cultural practices gradually became accepted as ‘traditional’ in the eyes of Polynesian community members (see, for example, Mitchell’s [1998] reference to European brass band influences on Māori waiata).3 Another strong response to cultural abandonment has been to refute the notion that genres such as reggae, hip hop and R&B serve as expressive tools only for the cultural groups from which they originate (Cattermole 2013; Henderson 2010; Zemke 2011). It is along these lines that both Mitchell (1998) and Cattermole (2011) defend Māori reggae and Polynesian reggae respectively by framing it as an ‘indigenized’ music harnessed for its oppositional vernacular and deployed to voice Māori specific political concerns. Mitchell and Cattermole point out that such appropriation is capable of forging a transcultural identity alliance—a sense of belonging to other cultural minorities in similar states of politicization (Mitchell 1998; Cattermole 2013). Zemke (2011) picks up the concept of transnationalism in her defence of hip hop and its suitability in allowing Polynesian peoples to ‘re-present’ their transnational place-based identity connections ranging from their ‘hoods’ to their islands. At the core of each of these works lies the argument that authentically expressing one’s identity and commenting on one’s cultural situation does not preclude the use of non-traditional influences.

While this body of scholarship provides good insight into the fact that Polynesian artists bring together both traditional and contemporary influences to express themselves, the details of these negotiations are often invisible. That is, artists’ compositional processes for integrating traditional material into new songs, and particularly their rationales for such decision making, have not been unpacked and examined. Some research in this area has been conducted by Geoffroy Colson (2016) who detailed his own compositional process for creating transcultural works that sustain Tahitian musical heritage. In my case, I examine similar collaborative compositional processes but place the focus on participants’ actions and philosophies at play within these.

There is certainly some precedent for documenting the emergence of transcultural music in this way.4 Karl Neuenfeldt and Lyn Costigan’s (2004) work, for instance, investigates Torres Strait Island composers’ processes for incorporating traditional dance chants into contemporary songs. This entailed complex negotiations between the artist’s musical tastes and the cultural, social and aesthetic dictates of their communities. For example, chant ‘danceability’ was something composers felt they needed to maintain through the various stages of musical fusion in order to be seen to be making culturally ‘authentic’ music. They achieved this by dancing to musical drafts, generating musical ideas around chant rhythms, and in some cases, re-recording parts that caused rhythmic obscuration.

Another study by Katelyn Barney (2010) shows similar negotiations performed by Indigenous Australian female composers. For instance, composer Emma Donovan’s recordings of Koori Time at first sought to meet expectations for a recognizable ‘Aboriginal’ sound but later rejected them. In the first release, she incorporated the ‘diji’ to represent her culture but only to match her collaborator’s contribution of ‘traditional’ Māori elements. Yet later, when re-working the same song into a solo piece, she resisted incorporating any typical ‘Aboriginal markers’. Instead she preferred to let the piece ‘speak for itself’ and have people appreciate her music ‘without the feathers’ (meaning without stereotypical Indigenous markers) (Barney 2010: 12). Both accounts highlight the fact that decision-making processes around the use of traditional material are not static—they in fact fluctuate throughout the artistic act. At the core of such an argument is the idea that decision making is an emergent process, that decisions are made in unique contexts and that outcomes vary depending as much on what material is engaged with as to who is in the room.

In this article, I present findings from a series of compositional collaborations that demonstrate ways in which differing opinions about culturally appropriate or respectful borrowing are worked out in the creation of transcultural Polynesian music. I begin by showing that the approach often taken by scholars to study this phenomenon—i.e. working primarily with fixed recordings and static texts—has meant they have not been able to tease out the complexities of musical expression, reflection and construction of identity that arise during music making. The work of Simon Frith (1996), Jeff Warren (2014) and Christopher Small (1999) are drawn on to show that expressions of identity are constantly in flux and that a real-time examination of collaboration allows us to observe the various mindsets/identities that practitioners slip into when negotiating a final musical product. This approach has allowed for the documentation of a constant re-constellation effect throughout the creative process. That is, I examine how sometimes perceived community expectations and certain ‘tradition’ ideologies are foregrounded in discussions about appropriate expression, and at other times production goals and audience engagement rise to the top of musical negotiations. Such an approach provides a useful window into the cultural politics underpinning the emergence of transcultural works.

Theoretical stance: product vs process

Placing analytical focus on finished transcultural Polynesian musical products inevitably leads scholars to interpret them as expressions of fully formed identity. Take for instance the way in which Zemke-White (2002) argues that traditional Pacific musical elements combined with contemporary popular musical influences reflect Pacific identities. When analysing the music of Te Vaka, Zemke identified the use of traditional Pacific instrumentation, the presence of historical Pacific themes, the use of lyrics in Pacific languages and a reliance on pop technology and production as evidence of a purposeful assertion of identity. This analysis was supported by an interview with Te Vaka’s leader Opetaia Foa’i on the American musical role models who had influenced his songwriting. Such an approach reasonably generated the conclusion that ‘the Pacific personae and imagery of the music, as well as its community presence, demonstrate that it can be used to reflect and perpetuate modern Pacific identities, acknowledging a Pacific past, a New Zealand present, and a globally connected future’ (2002: 120). This is a powerful reading of Te Vaka and provides deep insight into their recorded artefacts.

Yet the belief that identity may not be easily fixed to a specific place and time (i.e. a recorded artefact)—indeed, that identity may be a phenomenon in constant flux, has become an established concept in popular music studies. Frith, for example, has argued that music does not inherently hold and reflect identity (1996: 109). Instead, he posits that we interpret music as an expression of identity because musical works are seen to echo the experience of making music (1996: 109–10). More specifically, we construct an ‘echoed experience’ entirely through a unique experience of our own listening. More recent work by Warren (2014) puts forward the idea that perceptions of musical meaning are vice versa intrinsically linked to the personal histories of those doing the listening. Such notions of musical meaning being shaped and reshaped over time by both practitioners and listeners link into Christopher Small’s belief that meaning in music is ‘found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity’ (1999: 13). My point is simply to emphasize the fact that the experience of making music and the way music is heard are not always in alignment. Reflecting on music-making processes is therefore required if we are to develop a thorough understanding of the cultural negotiations embedded within transcultural works. That is to say, there is potentially much to uncover about the aims of transcultural music if we can bring ourselves to step inside the frame of collaborative music making.

Participant observations and interviews

As a way of investigating music-making processes, participant observations and interviews were conducted with five Sydney-based Pacific cultural dance group leaders.5 These were held in collaborative music-making rehearsals over a period of eighteen months. Each participant was selected for their wealth of knowledge on traditional forms of Polynesian music and professional experience working in the Australian Pacific arts community. Contact with the first three participants was made via a community consultation officer. In order to recruit them, I sat in on several of their rehearsals before taking up the offer to participate in part of their music making for shows, which lasted six months. I then invited them to collaborate with me as research participants, which resulted in eighteen months of data collection. Through this group, I was connected to two other participants who agreed to participate in this study. Research with them was conducted for six and nine months respectively. This style of recruitment is supported by Timote Vaioleti (2006) and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) who encourage researchers to gain the respect and trust of potential participants before inviting them to take part in a study.

Two open-ended interviews were conducted with each participant, one prior to our collaboration and one afterwards. Discussions were based on the topic of musical appropriation. The open-ended nature of these interviews provided space for storytelling—a common Pacific cultural practice for conveying a point (Vaioleti 2006; Tuhiwai Smith 2012). It also allowed participants to steer the conversation, which was vital given the sensitive and controversial nature of the topic. Participant observations took place in two rehearsals per month with each participant group. In these we experimented with, and discussed, the fusion of traditional and non-traditional musics. Both interviews and rehearsals were audio recorded. Rehearsals were audio recorded to capture discussions on appropriation because I could not take notes on these whilst actively engaging in making music. I did, however, take field notes immediately after rehearsals to document details relating to dance practices since participants felt uncomfortable being filmed. All interview and rehearsal discussions were transcribed verbatim. These, along with my field notes, were coded and analysed using what is commonly referred to as the general inductive approach (Thomas 2006). This involved several readings of the text before identifying emergent themes that were then labelled as categories. These were revisited and refined until they reflected key findings relevant to my research area of inquiry (Thomas 2006: 242).

The nature of this research was not foreign to me as I have a wealth of experience working with Pacific musicians in New Zealand and Australia. Prior to these research collaborations, I performed original jazz compositions that encompassed a range of traditional Samoan drum rhythms for the Samoan Jazz Festival in both Samoa and American Samoa. I also composed the soundtracks for two Pacific feature films, which were made up of compositions featuring traditional Samoan dance rhythms in pop-style works. This experience with transcultural Polynesian music, along with my own upbringing in Pacific circles, helped me interact with my participants in culturally appropriate ways. The first collaborator discussed in this article is Alex, a professional Cook Island dancer and drummer of traditional Cook Island dance rhythms. Together we created an album comprising a fusion of traditional Cook Island log drumming with jazz piano. My second participant Tai is of Samoan descent and has over a decade of experience leading traditional Samoan dance groups at one of New Zealand’s largest Polynesian cultural arts festivals, Polyfest, and has been playing traditional Samoan rhythms from a young age. Our collaboration was aimed at generating material for an album that featured traditional Samoan rhythms in pop-style compositions. The next group of participants, Maryjane and Fred, are well-known Samoan dancers in Australia who oversee a Sydney-based Pacific cultural arts academy specializing in all Pacific styles. They are also adept performers of traditional Pacific musics. David is one of the Samoan group leaders from this academy who is skilled in both dancing and drumming in traditional Samoan music. Together we composed a piece for a Pacific dance performance at a National Rugby League semi-final match. This song incorporated a number of traditional Polynesian rhythms and chants.

Danceability authentication

I use the phrase danceability authentication in this article to denote the process of physically dancing to a piece of transcultural music in order to ensure an appropriated traditional rhythm has not lost its original rhythmic feel. It is a concept borrowed from the work of Neuenfeldt and Costigan (2004) in which this strategy was shown to guide Torres Strait Islanders as they incorporated traditional dance chants into new compositions. In the following analysis, I focus on moments during my fieldwork wherein this phenomenon emerged as a way of addressing issues concerning the appropriation of traditional Polynesian dance rhythms into new musical works. I begin with Alex’s collaboration to illuminate the first instance where danceability authentication emerged as a solution to his concern about the reception of our music by the Cook Island community. Subsequently, my collaboration with Tai is discussed to demonstrate shifts in his thinking over whether rhythmic danceability should be maintained to meet perceived audience expectations or rejected for the sake of cultural change and preservation. My collaboration with Maryjane, Fred and David then demonstrates a process of integrating traditional dance rhythms into a production context and the resultant changes to these rhythms that ensue. All three sections propose possible implications that real-time studies of music development hold for the field of transcultural Polynesian music.

Avoiding perceived community criticism

My collaboration with Alex moved from initial keenness to synthesize traditional Cook Island dance rhythms with jazz piano to subsequent disapproval based on a perceived audience expectation. In response to his collaboration invitation, Alex stated his rationale for being involved was to ‘boost the reputation of the Cook Islands and put them on the map’. Yet despite his enthusiasm for collaboration, Alex felt that the piano parts I composed to complement his traditional Cook Island rhythms clashed sonically. He elaborated on what he meant by this, stating that the music was ‘cool because it is different but I feel like everyone would be going “you know this is not changing where it should be”’. From this, I gathered that the piano melodic phrasing and chord changes did not align with the dance rhythms the way Alex had envisaged. While this concern seemed to be one of sonic preference, it was voiced as a perceived audience expectation—that other Cook Islanders familiar with traditional Cook Island rhythms would make the same judgement. Thus what appeared at first to be mere aesthetic preference eventually emerged as a community dictate.

Danceability authentication arose as a solution to this problem. I asked Alex to count out the traditional Cook Island dance rhythms as a way of identifying where he perceived the beginning and ending of rhythmic phrases. Instead of counting, Alex decided to perform the dance originally choreographed to his rhythms to illuminate how they interacted with action. This pinpointed where piano parts did not align with action phrasing. That is, the melodic phrases of the piano rhythmically contrasted with those emphasized by dance actions. It also revealed periodic shifts in tempo to a half-time pace that would arguably be undetectable without seeing the dance. As seen in Figure 1 below, the boxes with solid lines designate key emphasis points delineated by dance actions. The boxes with dotted lines outline accented sections that conflicted with these. By juxtaposing both types of boxes, we can pinpoint precise moments where the piano aligned or clashed with the rhythmic dance phrasing outlined by Alex.


Figure 1: Key dance rhythms.

With this new insight, I modified all the piano parts so that they aligned with this action phrasing. As displayed in Figure 2, the rhythmic structure of the new piano parts in both the treble and bass clef have been simplified dramatically to fit into the boxes with solid lines. After hearing this version, Alex enthusiastically stated that this was ‘on track and blending. You actually sat there and, like, made little melodies that blend in exactly right.’


Figure 2: Realignment with key dance rhythms.

My collaboration with Alex evinces an alternate manifestation of the danceability authentication phenomenon discussed by Neuenfeldt and Costigan (2004). In their work, the composer sought to maintain danceability in order to enable others to perform the marap dance along with his song. Coordinating with dancers was never the goal of my collaboration with Alex. For us, danceability authentication informed the process for generating piano lines. Such findings reveal the central importance of the audibility of traditional rhythmic structures for Alex during the pursuit of musical material not explicitly linked to dance.

Changing rationales

At the beginning of my collaboration with Tai, he also emphasized the importance of maintaining the danceability of traditional Samoan dance rhythms for identifiability purposes. For example, after recording three traditional Samoan rhythms, Tai stated that:

As long as you’ve got the core of it, you know that beat, try not to stray from it too much … obviously you know that’s what makes it Samoan is that particular pattern … that rhythm is really unique to Samoa, the sasa beat, the ailoa beat, the fa’ataupati beat. It’s very unique to Samoa and I guess if you change that up too much and you lose that sort of sound or that sort of feel, that’s when it’s not Samoan anymore or that’s what I feel personally. I try not to stray away from it too much, I mean you can add stuff to it, you can blend it but you go home to Samoa and you play whatever you want with it and if you can hear the lali or the pake played like that then they’ll go oh that’s the ailoa.

To further highlight how traditional dance rhythms had come to be known as such, Tai referred to his own personal link with the history of the traditional Samoan sasa dance rhythm:

I know for a fact that that’s been tradition because my father played it, my father’s father played it … it’s never been changed since and you know it because when you play it to another Samoan who is alive today, whether he is eighteen or eighty, he’ll listen to it and go, oh that’s the sasa.

Taken together, these two quotes indicate that Tai’s suggestion to leave the sasa dance rhythm in its traditional form for Samoan identifiability was fundamentally an audience dictate.

When it came to appropriating one of these rhythms—the fa’ataupati—into a pop-style composition, Tai displayed reluctance over combining it with an electronic beat. This is interesting given that he initially said ‘you can add stuff to it, you can blend it’ and that this would not necessarily result in a loss of the rhythm’s Samoan nature. After adding an electronic kick in alignment with the pa’u (bass drum) hits of his fa’ataupati rhythm and a snare where I felt it naturally complemented the accented parts of his rhythm, Tai provided feedback on the resultant sound:

You are trying to go for more of a poppy sound so I would expect that there you will get your detractors but I like that. It still has a Pacific element with pake in the background … but dare to be different man, I guess culture is always changing and we need to be the ones to change it.

Despite possible criticism, Tai did not mind presenting this music to the Samoan community as an experiment:

It’s an interesting journey aye, part of the reason I like experimenting with you is because I want to see people’s reactions you know, whether it’s an ugly one or whether it’s a good one. The only way you are going to know is if you give it a go, and obviously if you get a lot of detractors then, and your detractors … outweigh your pros, then, by all means, you know you’re never going to do that again, but you know the only way you are going to know is if you try.

While Tai was enthusiastic about releasing this composition to the community, the process of its creation revealed that he would not repeat this sort of syncretism if Samoan audiences did not approve of it.

When creating the next composition with Tai, he was open to rejecting rhythmic danceability. After I requested an odd-time traditional rhythm, Tai decided to combine two different traditional rhythms together to create a new one. He noted that the new rhythm did not depart from tradition entirely, stating that ‘it is not in the original time but the beat is still there if you listen to it, if you listen carefully’. By this he meant that the traditional rhythms were still embedded in the new rhythmic phrase albeit in a non-traditional form. Figure 3 below displays the ailao, sasa and new fusion rhythm separately. The brackets outline which parts of the traditional rhythms have been joined to construct an entirely new one.


Figure 3: Fusion rhythm.

In light of the importance Tai had previously placed on maintaining the danceability of traditional Samoan rhythms, I asked him why he did not adhere to this ideology in this case and his response was:

If you were to take any old Samoan chant or music in its original form, and you were to give it to the kids, they would get disinterested so fast. I mean they might be interested for a bit in the history and stuff but they wouldn’t be into learning it like a Justin Bieber song, I kid you not … like if they hear Justin Bieber blasting on a radio they’re going to learn it because it’s the in thing. I’m all for embedding culture into our kids, and if it means that I have to make it relevant for them so that it is something that they will listen to, then so be it because, like I said, culture changes. How kids are today are not how they were back in the day … In a way you are changing the culture but you are also preserving it too and making it relevant for them because they will only listen to it if you give it to them in a format you know, or in a way that they will understand it.

Such comments arguably demonstrate Tai’s willingness to reject traditional rhythmic danceability in the name of cultural preservation.

Such simultaneous ambivalence and enthusiasm for commercializing a cultural product is seen in the work of Alexeyeff (2004) on Cook Island composers in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. The point of difference in my collaboration with Tai is that Tai’s thinking around these concepts shifted over time. Such a phenomenon aligns with the logic underpinning Frith’s (1996) theory that identity is in constant flux and contingent on time and place. For instance, the stated aim for breaking tradition in the composition created with Tai was to reach younger audiences, which might be framed as an attempt to assert a particular sort of progressive identity. However, this expression of identity stood in tension with Tai’s philosophy stated earlier regarding the significance of keeping traditional Samoan rhythms untouched and only allowing musical parts to be added to them. Therefore, the idea that a transcultural Polynesian musical product reflects a fixed expression of identity is destabilized by the fact that, for Tai, multiple mindsets inform the shape of our musical collaboration.

Incorporating traditional dance rhythms into a production context

When recording rhythms with Fred, Maryjane and David for a National Rugby League commissioned composition, alterations were made to two traditional Samoan dance rhythms. After recording and listening back to a traditional lapalapa rhythm, Fred decided to reduce its rhythmic complexity by generating his own simplified version of it. He felt that performing it the traditional way would have ‘killed it a bit’ by cluttering the overall drum mix. In addition to this, he made changes to the traditional instrumentation layout for this rhythm by omitting its pate (log drum) part. He did this because he felt the pate ‘confuses it a bit’ as it obscured other drum parts. Similarly, when recording the traditional tu’i (bass drum) part for a fa’ataupati rhythm, he strengthened his original take by layering it with extra drum hits at different points to create more of a ‘build up’ effect. All three cases demonstrate changes to traditional drum rhythms on the basis of personal sonic preference when being integrated into a listening focused context.

These traditional rhythms were combined with additional musical elements to meet either a desired aesthetic or expression of identity. An example of the former came about when I offered to synthesize an electronic midi kick and snare with the recorded traditional fa’ataupati rhythm. After recording and playing back this build combination to Fred, he believed that it constituted a rhythmic fusion that ‘really builds up, you know what I mean!’ His approval of these non-traditional elements for their ‘additional hype’, as he put it, seemed based on sonic preference. In a subsequent section of the fa’ataupati, Fred requested additional ‘effects’ to emphasize dance cues and was open to the use of ‘anything’ to achieve this. To provide clarification on ‘anything’, he said ‘I mean anything that will bring it out more and makes it seem Pacific’. By this, he meant any musical elements that would simply enhance and not overshadow the Pacific instrumentation already present. This Pacific aesthetic criterion resembled a connection to the purpose of the song, which was later stated by David who noted that ‘all in all we are only there to show off the Pacific’. Fred concurred with this. To meet their expectations, I conducted a conch shell recording and inserted it at the beginning and end of the fa’ataupati rhythm to cue the dancers on and off stage. Both Fred and David felt that the sound of this instrument was culturally appropriate for this role. Both cases provide very different justifications for integrating non-traditional musical elements with traditional dance rhythms and for altering them during the creation of the same composition.

These findings shed light on the defences of syncretic music made by Mitchell (1998), Zemke-White (2005) and Cattermole (2011). These scholars argue that changes made to Pacific musical traditions or the fusion of them with global forms of music do not indicate cultural abandonment but rather an expression of modern Pacific identity. While the notion of expressing a group sonic identity—‘anything Pacifica sounding’—did play a role in determining what musical elements could be used for dance cues in a traditional fa’ataupati rhythm, most of Fred’s decisions to change parts of both this and the lapalapa rhythm were driven by personal sonic preference. That is, he voiced rationales based on what ‘sounded right’ sonically when transferring rhythms that were traditionally performed live into the context of a recorded piece. Moreover, the fact that he did assert a cultural concern in one instance arguably suggests that if he needed to, he would have been comfortable raising another concern when requesting changes at other points. Therefore, both identity- and sonic-based rationales can be seen to have effected Fred’s decision making at different points in the compositional process. I argue that such rationales would not be distinguishable from one another outside the music-making frame.


The outcomes of this process-oriented study have strong implications for the analysis of transcultural Polynesian music. By turning an eye toward our transcultural negotiations, we shed light on shifting rationales for altering or rejecting traditional Pacific musical material. Alex’s keenness to fuse traditional style Cook Island dance rhythms with jazz piano for cultural exposure was later met by reservations he had regarding the community reception of the resultant product. To address his perceived audience expectations, the practice of danceability authentication emerged as a solution. On the other hand, Tai’s initial adamance to keep traditional Samoan dance rhythms in their original form at all times was abandoned as part of an audience reception experimentation strategy. Later he displayed a similar ideological compromise for the sake of cultural preservation. In my collaboration with Fred, Maryjane and David, their decision to incorporate their traditional Pacific live drumming practices into a contemporary music production context compelled them to make significant changes to traditional Samoan dance rhythms. Their rationales for these changes ranged from wanting to ensure the audibility of a clear Pacific sonic identity to personal sonic preference. By presenting these findings, I do not wish to challenge the notion that expressions of identity underpin many Pacific artists’ rationales for integrating their Pacific musical traditions into contemporary songs. Instead I aim to simply highlight that the decision-making process is often much more complex than it may appear through retrospective analyses. These behind-the-scenes insights show that fluid compositional negotiations play a significant role in shaping both the aims and sound of transcultural music and are therefore worth examining in order to gain a fuller understanding of what transcultural Pacific music means to those who make it.


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1. Andrew Faleatua is a PhD student in the Department of Composition and Music Technology, Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

2. Although the term Polynesian is contested (see a summary of critiques in McGavin 2014), I use it here, and at other points in this article, to simply confine the scope of my discussion to Polynesia rather than the Pacific as a whole. This boundary is necessary as the traditional musics engaged with in this project were defined by my participants as Polynesian, not Micronesian or Melanesian. Furthermore, while the term Pacific was used by my participants as a broad ethnic self-identifier, they frequently distinguished themselves from Melanesians and Micronesians. Margaret Jolly states that these ‘terms are deployed in the self-designations and claimed identities of Pacific peoples—“the Melanesian way”, “the Polynesian triangle”, “the Micronesian world”’ (2007: 521 in McGavin 2014: 133). When referring to the Pacific at large, I use the term Pacific.

3. I have used the term syncretic here to denote the ‘attempted union or reconciliation of diverse or opposite tenets or practices (Oxford English Dictionary)’ (Kartomi 1981: 244). Waiata can be translated as traditional Māori songs.

4. I use the term ‘musical transculturation’ and its derivative ‘transcultural’ to denote the process of musical fusion and transformation that occurs via the synthesis of musical elements from different genres. I also use the phrases ‘transcultural Polynesian music’ and ‘transcultural Pacific music’ to refer to music that has undergone this process but is promoted as either Polynesian or Pacific cultural products respectively. ‘Musical transculturation’ is borrowed from the work of Margaret Kartomi where this term is used to describe a process in which ‘a group of people select for adoption whole new organizing and conceptual or ideological principles—musical and extramusical—as opposed to small, discrete alien traits. The motivation to adopt new, broad music principles, such as equal temperament or harmony, may be (1) the halo of dominant culture prestige in colonial situations; (2) the need for artistic communication among groups lacking a common culture; or (3) material or political advantage, or the forces of commercialism. The initial and sustaining impulse and impetus for musical transculturation is normally extramusical’ (Kartomi 1981: 244).

5. The first three participants identified their group as Pasifika, meaning they encompass all the different cultural groups found in the Pacific Islands’ geographical region. The fourth participant described his cultural dance group as Samoan and the fifth participant as Cook Island.