WHOEVER FOLLOWED WITH INTEREST THE MARQUESAS ISLANDS ART FESTIVAL COULD NOT FAIL TO BE IMPRESSED BY THOSE GREAT MARQUESAN DRUMS, THE PAHU, THEIR POWERFUL SOUND AND
THEIR SPELLBINDING ECHO. YET THIS INSTRUMENT ALMOST DISAPPEARED FROM THE ARCHIPELAGO’S MUSICAL CULTURE. ITS REBIRTH IS RECENT, AND STILL IN ITS EARLY STAGE.
In ancient times the pahu was the backbone of Marquesan music and prevailed over all other instruments. A local legend even recounts the death of the people of Mohotani islet, trapped in a cave that collapsed from the vibrations caused by great pahu drums at a nighttime celebration. A legend that makes sense after reading Herman MelvilIe’s account of a Nuku Hiva festival at which people had built temporary platforms to reach giant pahu that they played ceaselessly for several days.
The pahu held an important social role in pre-European times. It had a name, a story, and a power… “Its raison d’étre went beyond being a musical instrument.The wood it was made of was the link between heaven and earth, just as its ties represented the link between the visible and the invisible. As a matter of fact the Marquesan word kaha means both the coconut fiber tie and the life-and-death power held by certain priests,” emphasizes Jean-Paul Landé, an experienced musician and Polynesian dancer who is, with a few others, a prime mover in the revival of the Marquesan pahu. Thus, some tuhuna - both priests and warriors - specialized in tying the skin onto the drum, at the time using sharkskin.
A Sacred Object
More than their size, the number of drums displayed the power of tribes. On the one hand because a large number of drummers were required to play in shifts over several days, and on the other hand because many specialized tuhuna had built them; so many men who didn’t directly contribute to the tribe’s survival, a luxury only powerful communities could afford. The pahu was a sacred object and its assembly was a solemn undertaking in indigenous society. It was the result of intensive work from which clumsiness was banned as it was a bad omen from the god who was being called upon.
Yet the colonization and christianization of the natives of the “Land of Men” got the better of these great Marquesan drums. The art of their manufacture was abandoned and forgotten. Not until the creation of the Marquesas Islands Art Festival in 1985 were the great, old-time pahu reborn, timidly at first. At the 1991 festival, the delegation from Hiva Oa made a big impression with its seven pahu. Today, each island makes a point of honor to built and present several large pahu.
Research on Marquesan “Strike”
This revival of the great traditional drum had to coincide with research on Marquesa n “strike”.
Originally, the beat or kaputu he was regulan devoid of obvious modulations. “From 1995 the beat really evolved. Listening to Marquesan sounds, I tried to adapt variations that are peculiar to the rhythms of the archipe|ago. Today they had been adopted by all the drummers in the Marquesas”, points out Jean-Paul Landé who deplores the drift of some drummers towards Tahitian rhythms.
The Marquesas Islands still do not have craftsmen specialized in the manufacture of pahu. The number of sculptors in the archipelago recognized as masters in this particular art form can be counted on one hand. The pahu must be musical, and also richly carved with symbols; one doesn’t go without the other. But it is not impossible that the coming years will see the appearance of artistic and musical signature on instruments: the visual and sound qualities of each drum will be linked to an island, a valley, a sculptor.
Tuarai Peterano, Sculptor
Tuarai Peterano is a Hiva Oa Sculptor famous for the quality of his work, particularly for his marquesan drums. With time his Pahu have become a reference.. Interview :
When did you start making pahu?
TUARAI PETERANO : I carve pahu since the 1991 Marquesas Islands’ Art Festival. Jean-Paul Landé wanted to recreate an old-time pahu for that great event, but he couldn’t find a volunteer. I was interested in making an object that has such ancient roots. Together we went to the Museum of Tahiti and her Islands to take the measurements of the pahu conserved there. Jean-Paul even workedfrom photographs on the proportions. We realized that the same rule was used for all drums, whatever their size. This proved there was a genuine know-how.
Was it easy to recreate the technique of the ancients?
The difficulty lies in respecting the proportions. It“s all very precise. You think that the volume is the same at the top than at the bottom, or maybe bigger at the top, but in reality it’s much thinner at the top. In fact, it’s the skin that makes the top of the pahu larger. The inside is also very elaborate. It has a U shape. That’s why in ancient times hollow tree trunks were never used. Craftsmen used only solid trunks. It took a lot of time and many attempts with Jean-Paul to understand the technique we had to use. For instance, finding the tying system was very long. There were very few indications left about this. For the first pahu, we tied and un-tied and re-tied again until we found the right way, notably thanks to a Hawaiian man who showed us interesting details: how to calculate the number of holes in the skin, how they should coincide with the bracing points in the wood, etc… Hnally, we also had to rethink specific tools for the different tasks.
Is the choice of materials important ?
Of course! Each pahu is loaded with symboIs. That‘s why we never split in two the tree trunk from which we will carve the drum :we don’t open its stomach. The dignity of the raw material must be respected. We don’t just use any wood :the tumu me’i,or breadfruit tree, is the best wood for good pahu sound. It’s also a Iightvveight wood. A drum made from this wood can emit sounds from its sides as well. But we can also use other “noble” species for their mana - their power - such as temanu, tohu, miro. .. When you know you’re going to spend hours and hours working, you cannot afford to choose the wrong wood. In addition to the wood, to ma ke a good pahu you need good rope, good skin, and the right measurements for the proportions. It’s the choice of all the materials that makes a good pahu… and that will make it unique. Whereas nowadays we use cow or goat skin, undeniably sharkskin has better qualities in terms of sound and wear. But then youtl have to find the skin and the guy who can prepare it… The same goes for the ties : it’s better to work with coconut husk fiber. But unfortunately nowadays the quality is just not there :yet the choice of ties is fundamental for the sound.
Did the modern nature of tools slightly depreciate the object’s value, compared to the long and meticulous assembly of ancient times ?
Our forefathers worked with tools that were modem to them. If they could have had a chainsaw, they would have used it! It’s the work that matters, not the tools that are being used. A 1.6 meters pahu takes three to four months of regular work, from the log to the finished drum, with the skin perfectly adjusted and the symbolic carvings. And hollowing out a pahu is hard work… spIitting the trunk in two would be showing contempt for the raw material. If you’re going to disrespect the tree, you might as well use plywood, plastic, synthetic film to replace the skin… A good pahu often requires the intervention of several specialists to work on the wood, prepare the skin, weave the coconut fiber ties, etc. In ancient times a good pahu always was a rare and very precious thing. I don’t see why it should become a simple curio !