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New Caledonia Travel Guide

Music and Dance

Traditional Kanak musical culture is divided into household music (lullabies, vocal games, healing and religious songs, flute tunes) and that of public ceremonies (rhythmical speeches, mimic dances, male songs, Protestant hymns). The ceremonial music is performed during funerals or mourning, at the feast of the first yam, during Christian religious services, and at modern cultural events. Despite the linguistic diversity, Kanak music and dance are remarkably uniform across Grande Terre, though there are differences with the Loyalty Islands.

The closing ceremony of the yearlong period of mourning for an important chief involves a great ceremonial exchange between members of the paternal and maternal lines. A male orator standing on a wooden platform delivers a rhythmical speech as men around him utter hushing sounds and the gifts are exchanged. In the Loyalties such speakers stand on the ground, and rhythm is not employed.

The climax of many ceremonies is a round dance, which lasts an entire night. A dozen musicians pounding bamboo tubes on the ground, shaking and scraping beaters, urge on two male singers as the dancers circulate counterclockwise around the group stamping their feet. The relays of singers relate historical events and claim magical inspiration. Hundreds of people may participate in a round dance at a major ceremony, and there must be no pause in the music or dancing until dawn.

Mimic dance tells a story through gestures and often imitates nature, such as the hopping or strutting of birds. The dancers stand in two lines, with lead dancers weaving between them as bamboo tubes are pounded or struck. On Grande Terre male mimic dancers, dressed in coconut leaves or grass, their bodies painted black, act out legends, history, or important cycles such as yam growing. Only in the Loyalties are such dances accompanied by a mixed choir. Mimic dancers in the Loyalties wear coconut rattle garters and strike bundles of hand-held leaves as they perform mimic dances of events such as the hauling of a canoe onto a beach.

Polyphony (music with several independent but harmonious melodic parts) comes naturally to most Pacific peoples, and the four-part mixed choirs of New Caledonia demonstrate how strongly Kanak vocal music has been influenced by 19th-century Protestant hymns. For contemporary urban Kanaks, reggae is all the rage.