Palongi's in Paradise
09 October 2009 | Vava'u
Rina and I are wrapping up more than seven weeks in Tonga and heading to New Zealand tomorrow. Our time in Vava'u has been very special. The comfort of company from the states, many good cruising friends, and the ability of music to bridge cultures has created opportunities to hang with the locals in what is otherwise a pretty closed society. I don't pretend that we've gotten inside the culture, but just hanging with Tongans and playing music for seven weeks with them has opened doors that I don't think get opened much.
For most of the time here, I have been lucky to play Djembe with the Ano Beach Band. Ano Beach puts on a Tongan Feast every Saturday night and I brought my drum one night and got invited back to play every week. The music is mostly Tongan folk style, requiring a steady bass beat and not much else. Luckily, the band also backs up a father/son fire dance, so we get to rock the house with fast Polynesian rhythms and it has been a challenge for both my chops and learning the beat. Straight 4/4 it is not. Eventually I learned the chants that preceded breaks in the beat and how to anticipate what was next... It's something I always wanted to learn...and it was very cool when I eventually got tight with the rest of the rhythm section.
This last week I got a call on the VHF from Maka, the patriarch of the Ano Beach village, asking me if I wanted to join the village at a festival, where they would compete with all the other villages in Vava'u. We ran across the same thing in Bora Bora. (See Drum Corps in Paradise, in the blog archives) I told him I was honored to be invited and he said he would pick me up Friday night. Luckily I was able to play a gig with Hipnautical at the Vava'u Yacht club earlier in the night, before Rina and I headed over for the festival.
In Tonga, a Palongi is a foreigner or white person. In some cultures it is a racial slur, but here it is simply how the Tongans identify the many foreigners that live amongst them. When we arrived at the festival, Rina and I were the only palongis among the 2000 or so gathered to watch. It was very much a family affair. While each village put its best dancers on the basketball court stage, it was clear that the closed Tongan culture revolves very much around family. A quick read of "Making Sense of Tonga" helps visitors gain some insight into the Tongan ways and gives an appreciation of how strong family ties bind the culture. As I first entered the stage area, it was clear that it was way out of the ordinary to have a palongi participate... Rina, sitting along the periphery of the crowd, noted that the chatter going on around her included the word palongi many times.
In all, the Ano Beach band played 3 different times, supporting their own plus another village's dancers. Throughout the festivities, people from the crowd would come up and slip 1 Panga (Tongan dollar) notes in the collar of the various performers. It seems that family and friends do so to recognize the efforts of the performers. In our last performance, I was surprised by a tug on my collar, and as I looked up, an elderly gentleman in a tie, who was one of the master of ceremonies, slipped a 1 Panga note in my collar and smiled, thanking me for performing. Afterwards, Maka explained that it was quite special to be recognized by somebody high up in the hierarchy, recognizing that not very many palongis make the effort, or if they do, don't always feel comfortable within the culture. I very much did.... Music kinda does that for me.
The night was certainly special, and a great way to make our exit from the tropics... Now it's on to New Zealand, where we will be hanging out in Opua and the Bay of Islands for several weeks before heading home for the holidays in December for 6 weeks. We've been in the warm South Pacific for seven months now, and we will be in for a shock as we head south of 30 degrees Latitude, where water and air temperatures are both in the 50's as Spring has just barely sprung down under. Cold weather clothes and foulies will be the order of the day...
We will blog often during our passage to New Zealand, which has historically been one of the more challenging ones given the extreme weather that spins out of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand... We are in good hands, however, having hired a weather router to help watch our backs as we move South, giving us advice on how to best avoid the nasty stuff. Stay tuned....