Tuesday, June 11, 2013

From Fakatava to Swingman


In his 1924 book Tongan Society the scholar EW Gifford described a duel between two poets, or punake, from the island of Tongatapu. Tupou II, the profligate, pleasure-loving king of early twentieth century Tonga, had been so delighted by the composition of a punake named Fakatava that he gifted the young man Kalau, an islet that sits just south of 'Eua, Tonga's southernmost inhabited island.

Excited by this reward, Fakatava wrote a boastful challenge to Malukava, a much older and more famous poet. Fakatava's poem dismissed the ancient capital of Mu'a, where Malukava and many other punake lived and worked, as passé, and announced that tiny, rocky Kalau was about to become 'the performing ground for all things traditional' in Tonga. Malukava replied with a poem mocking Fakatava's pretensions. Fakatava failed to make Kalau the new hub of Tongan culture, but his descendants still own the island today.

The confrontation between Fakatava and Malukava was not an unusual event. Tongan poets liked lobbing challenges at each other, challenges which were given extra piquancy by the fact that their poems were always performed in public by dancers and singers, rather than distributed between the covers of books or magazines.

Futa Helu, the legendary founder of the 'Atenisi Institute, frowned at hip hop, and indeed all forms of contemporary popular music. It is hard, though, to read accounts of the duels between traditional Tongan poets without thinking of modern-day rappers, with their spicy put-downs and confrontational live performances.

Twenty-first century Tongatapu teems with talented rappers, the most prominent of whom is probably Jimmy the Great. Jimmy's track 'Pacific Conqueror' has been played repeatedly on state television over recent weeks, and can be heard shaking the walls of tattoo parlours and fried chicken diners in Nuku'alofa.

The sound of 'Island Conqueror' is generic, but the lyrics, with their celebration of the maritime empire Tonga built in the western and central Pacific five hundred or so years ago, are more original, and potentially more controversial. My students insist that Jimmy is not some Tongan ultra-nationalist, bent on reconquering renegade imperial provinces like 'Uvea, Niue, and Samoa, but an opportunist trading on the vague but fierce affection Tongans feel for their country's glorious past. 'Pacific Conqueror', they say, is the aural equivalent of the Tongan Empire clothing label established recently in Auckland.

Two of my students are beginning work on a documentary film about another Tongan rapper, Siua Ongosia, who often records under the name Swingman. Siua's tracks (you can find one here) are a strange mixture of twitchy electronics, spaced-out rapping and soaring choruses.

Ongosia always had a reputation as an eccentric - during one notorious performance in a hall somewhere in the Tongatapu bush he decided against either singing or rapping, and instead made a series of enigmatic hand signals as his DJ laid down beats. In recent years his eccentricity has been exacerbated by heavy drug use, and he now often makes the streets of central Nuku'alofa his home. I hope that Miko and Ulu's film project will be a catalyst for a new and happier chapter in the career of this talented artist. One Syd Barrett is enough.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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