I am not a regular church goer but twice in the last few weeks have found myself in God’s house surrounded by people a lot more devout than me. Why?
Grace and I went for the music. For the reverent and spirited singing found in all Cook Islands Christian Churches. Our first visit was to Titikaveka church on the south-east corner of the island. Built in 1841, only 20-years after the first members of the London Missionary School arrived, it is a handsome building. Constructed of hand-cut coral blocks with a pitched corrugated iron roof supported on long mast-like poles that are painted blue. The service was in Cook Island Maori and English. The congregation wore colourfully patterned local dresses and shirts and the women and girls finely woven ‘rito’ (coconut fibre) hats, many with beautiful floral surrounds. The choir were all in dazzling white suits and they swayed gently as they launched into glorious four-part harmony singing, some in Maori and some in English. The local congregation all joined in with full-throated accompaniment, the sound filling the large overhead space in layers of bass and treble harmonies.
In contrast to the church music I have also heard some more traditional Cook Island music accompanied by dances. The principal component is percussion, with five or six male drummers beating out complex rhythms on hollowed out logs called ‘Pate’. Dancers then take to the stage, sometimes all female, sometimes all male, often a mix of both. To many the mere mention of Polynesia summons up this very scene, beautiful native women in grass skirts dancing evocatively to music beneath swaying palm trees. That image does indeed have its origins firmly grounded in truth. However, contrary to popular belief the skirts are not grass but made of the bark of the wild Hibiscus which to my mind lends it an even more exotic tinge. The men wear shorter skirts with ‘mini-skirts’ held at the knee dropping to their ankles, along with ornamental headdresses, tribal tatoos and some jewellery. But it is the women who steal the show, their skirts held in place by mother of pearl belts with shell adornments, lavishly decorated halter-top bras and ornate feather, shell and bead headdresses. And inside all that costume, hips gyrating perfectly and provocatively in time to the drums’ beat, a Polynesian female form that would have had them mutinying by the ship full.
Yet bizarrely the members of the London Missionary Society found all this local music and dance a little too strong for their tastes and determined to rid the islands of these wicked ways. They imposed strict rules, ‘The Blue Laws’, that forbade dancing, ‘indecent’ songs, tattoos, nudity, indiscriminate sex, and even wearing flowers in the hair. And apart from Christianity what did they give the islanders? Whooping cough, measles, smallpox and influenza. All of which led to a very serious long-term decline in population.
Yet whilst the missionaries arrival did alter many aspects of the traditional way of life, somehow the Cook Islanders managed to preserve their proud Polynesian heritage and blended it with their Christian faith. Beautifully. Today both Christianity and traditional music and dance co-exist in a seemingly harmonious fashion. The islanders’ religious life is central to their modern cultural identity and it is practised in a wonderfully informal, upbeat manner and is very inclusive as we found out on both occasions. The dance and music continue as not only a huge tourist attraction but also as a way of preserving the old customs and traditions and are taken all over the Pacific region and beyond to showcase Cook Island culture.
Having sampled both and found them enjoyable in different ways I am loathe to choose a favourite. But if I happen to find myself comfortably ensconced beneath a swaying palm, all I have to do is begin to tap my fingers on the armrest, close my eyes and conjure up the swivel of wild hibiscus bark clad hips and I am away. They can call it what they like, but I’ll take the Devil’s music any old day.