Tongan Musical Instruments


Although Tongan Music is predominantly vocal, several types of musical instruments do exist.

1. Idiophones

  1. Nafa


  2. LALI


  3. Tafua


  4. Stamping tubes and Split bamboos



2. Membranophones

There is no hard evidence that Tongan people had a skin drum prior to the 20th century. Skin drums are, however, in use throughout Tonga today, and are called nafa. The nafa skin drums are used exclusively in the dance called ma'ulu'ulu; Tongans state that this dance was introduced from Samoa around 1900 and it is assumed that the drum appeared at the same time and was of local invention. The modern nafa is made from a 44-gallon oil drum cut in half, with each end covered in cow hide; it is beaten with two soft-headed drumsticks.


3. Chordophones

Introduced chordophones, the guitar and ukulele are used individually, in groups and in combinations to accompany hiva kakala ( love songs ) as well as to play purely instrumental music ( ta me'a lea'ata'ata ). Although the standard Western guitar tuning ( E, A, D, G, B, E ) is used, the preferred arrangement is for a 5-stringed tuning ( G, D, G, B, D ) namely an open G tuning. Several ukulele tunings are used.


4. Aerophones

  1. Fangufangu

  2. The fangufangu, or bamboo nose flute, was a relatively common instrument in Tonga at the time of European contact, but at present is on the verge of disappearance.

  3. Kele'a

  4. Throughout Polynesia the Tritonis and Cassis cornuta shells are the favoured ones for use as a conch. Although both types are found in Tongan waters, only the Tritonis appears to be blown. After the marine creature is removed, a hole about 1.5 cm in diameter is knocked into the third or fourth whorl and the shell is then ready for blowing. The primary function of the conch in Tonga is as a signalling device. The conch however is used as a musical device prior to and during cricket matches to sustain general excitement.

  5. Mimiha

  6. The mimiha ( panpipes ) has been out of use in Tonga for more than a century. The mimiha consists of a single raft of bamboo pieces bound together by two or three horizontal rows of sennit. The upper ends of the bamboo form a straight line and are bevelled on front and back, one side lower than the other. This shorter bevel is likely to have been rested against the lips. The lower ends of the bamboos are sealed by a natural node in the wood and form an irregular line on account of the differing lengths. Alteration to tube length is the simplest method of effecting pitch changes.

  7. The Whistle

  8. The only child's aerophone in common use now is the me'a ifi lou niu (literally, a blown thing made from a coconut leaf) ; a coconut leaflet rolled into a cornucopia, the bell pierced with a midrib section to prevent unravelling. The other end vibrates to produce a strident tone; it is essentially a noise-maker.

  9. Aeolian Aerophones

  10. Three wind-activated instruments were noted; these fall into the following classes:

    1. the pa kofe (bamboo enclosure)

    2. This instrument was designed principally for non-musical use. A rectangular or round enclosure of tall bamboo was formerly built to act as a temporary store for vegetables. At intervals along their length, the bamboos were pierced with small holes so that in a breeze they would sound, the object being to scare away foraging birds and animals. This utilitarian purpose did not rule out appreciation by humans.

    3. the fo'i fangu

    4. A wind blown across the empty coconut shell.

    5. the fo'i puko

    6. A wind blown across the empty globular fruit of the puko tree.


  11. Free Aerophones

  12. Kokalu and Langumumuhu - bullroarers.

SOURCE: Moyle, R. 1987. Tongan Music Auckland University Press. Auckland.

Pan Pipes image

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