A voice calling

Tiny Takū can teach the West about perseverance and the potency of utterance

Richard Moyle with Takū friends and a pet red-footed booby

Today E-Tangata publishes a story about ethnomusicologist Richard Moyle’s work on Takū, an atoll near Bougainville, said to be the last location where traditional Polynesian religion continues as an integral part of daily life.

The story draws on a conversation I had with Richard several weeks ago at his home on the Coromandel Peninsula, and also my reading of his most recent book, Ritual and Belief on Takū, and an earlier book, Songs From the Second Float.

Takū’s story is a fascinating one—a story of great hardship and remarkable perseverance. After surviving an epidemic in the 1890s that reduced the population to 11, the beleaguered islanders unwittingly sold their atoll to a foreign woman, a copra grower, who exercised a virtual dictatorship over their lives. She shifted the entire population from the main island, Takū, to a small islet, Kapeiatu. She merged the five island clans, abolished the privileges of clan elders and deprived them of a marae. They were denied access to traditional forms of food gathering and could not perform ritual activities.

As Richard writes, “A generation of children grew to adulthood, married and had children of their own while on Kapeiatu without participating in, or even witnessing, the exercise of traditional authority by clan elders through the complexities of religious ritual.” By 1930 the people had been stripped of much the cultural agency that bound them together as a functioning society.

Despite this huge disruption to their cultural life, the Takū islanders held to their traditions, and continue to do so, using ritual “to manage and neutralise their isolated atoll’s many vulnerabilities, contacting the spirit world through invocations, dreams, trance, singing and gifting to marshall their benign counterforces to work for private benefit and public good.”

This ritual life is not just a matter of pride of heritage and identity, but something much deeper. Without their beliefs and practices, the Takū believe they could not continue to physically exist. Without the presence and support of ancestral spirits, life would not just be pointless, but impossible.

Fundamental to their culture is the power of the spoken word. I think it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us in cultures that prioritise the written word—as I am engaged in at this moment—to truly grasp what it is like to live in an oral culture, where utterance and invocation dominate.

Reading about Takū, I found myself thinking of something I read in the book Oceanian Journeys and Sojourns by Australian ethnogeographer Eric Waddell about the centrality of the spoken word in the Pacific. The right to speak, he writes, “belongs to all and to none at the same time. It comes from a long, a very long way away. It moves through people and generations; it changes shape, rhythm and speed, and accelerates or pauses, a little like a river flowing to the sea. It is suffused with rituals, lies on flowers, floats on the wind, hesitates a moment again, perching or alighting on the mouth of a human being. It changes and becomes the beating of drums, chants, sermons, conversations between panpipes. Both secret and shared, the ‘word’ stiffens and dries as soon as it is set down on paper, dying in footnotes, because it cannot survive as a fossilised body.”

In Takū, I hear a voice calling.