What is so distinctive about Polynesian harmony singing?
October 30, 2014 6:28 AM   Subscribe

The harmony singing of Pacific Islanders is very distinctive. It has a brightness to it, almost an artificial loudness. Why?

I went to Tonga sometime in the 1990s and went to a small island church that was in mourning. The congregation sung a lot and well. The hymns were traditional western hymns but the singing was not. The harmonising was somehow distinctively Polynesian - to my ears, "brighter" at the upper middle and top.

A few years later I visited Taiwan. I went to the middle of the island to see the sights along the cross-island highway. My bus stopped at a hotel and we went walking. But somewhere in the hotel there was a choir singing. And it was the same as in Tonga. Startlingly so.

It seems Polynesians came from Taiwan. I understand that. And I understand that a distinctive style of singing could well have survived the travel to distant lands and the adoption of new religions. But what I don't understand is what makes the style of singing so distinctive.

I've asked this elsewhere before - apparently it bugs me every seven years.
posted by hawthorne to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Great question. I think I first encountered this kind of music when I saw The Thin Red Line in theaters -- here's a clip with the singing, for those interested: The Thin Red Line - Melanesian Choirs - Compilation
posted by BurntHombre at 8:07 AM on October 30, 2014

As an amateur choral singer, here's what sticks out to me:

* The song seems to be pitched high, and I'd guess that most of the singers are the middle or higher part of their range.
* In the mostly western choral singing I've done, we've been encouraged to alter vowels, especially on high notes. So the word "sing" which in speech would be pronounced with a long E, "seeng," gets pronounced as "sihng" when ... singing.
* The singers are somewhat out of tune with each other which creates a texture that I visualize as bright pink, yellow and red together in a sunburst.

It also reminds me a bit of Sacred Harp singing.
posted by bunderful at 9:36 AM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Definitely Sacred Harp like, to my (western classical chorally-trained) ears. There are a couple things going on that are affecting the sound, I think; one is that they are singing with a very "bright" placement, with a lot of resonance in their forward sinus passages and less in their chest and soft palate, more 'hee' than 'ha.' Another is that every note is accented, a little -- there's not a lot of smooth arc-like phrasing, where each line rises and falls. (to hear that technique used to very great effect, check this out.) And the beginning of every note is kind of struck like a bell.

Also, from listening to their tone, it sounds like they're using a technique that is called "pushing" in my tradition, where it's deprecated and avoided. I wish I had a less loaded term to use for it. It involves getting a great deal of volume by using the muscles of the upper chest and throat to "push" the sound out, and it gives just exactly this kind of bright, forward sound.
posted by KathrynT at 10:16 AM on October 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh and also the harmonic language uses a lot of open fifths, which have a great deal of shiny power to them.
posted by KathrynT at 10:18 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

KathrynT has nailed it. I'll add, also, that the attack on the vowels has a slight pitch bend to it, a kind of swoop, which lends to the crisp phrasing and emphasis on the high harmonies. (This reminds me of the traditional Chinese and Taiwanese vocal style, come to think of it.)
posted by Specklet at 11:13 AM on October 30, 2014

Great stuff. There's indeed some of the quality in the Sacred Harp style (which I'd not heard of) and even more of it than what I heard in the Thin Red Line link - some of that must have been overwhelming in the room. And both the attack and push ideas make sense. The high end of the vocal range idea reminds me that The Mamas and the Papas used to push things to higher keys - and there's just a touch of this quality in some of their stuff too.
posted by hawthorne at 2:36 AM on October 31, 2014

Just wanted to add that to the extent there's any shared culture in church singing between Taiwan and Tonga, it's probably a modern influence brought by missionaries. The diaspora from the area including Taiwan that settled Polynesia is believed to have started some 5000 years ago.
posted by Nelson at 8:25 AM on October 31, 2014

Yup. Open voicings. Voices on the top, voices on the bottom, but not so many in the middle to distract from the highs and lows.
posted by carping demon at 11:35 PM on October 31, 2014

Just wanted to add that to the extent there's any shared culture in church singing between Taiwan and Tonga, it's probably a modern influence brought by missionaries.

Could well be so. The fact that I was in a part of Taiwan where there are lots of Taiwanese Aboriginal people does rather tempt one into positing a very old way of singing, but it certainly could be a modern influence.
posted by hawthorne at 2:49 AM on November 3, 2014

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