Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

It’s time we faced the music about climate change

How current Polynesian music is coping with the effects that climate change has on their culture and their land
Photo from Olivia Foa’i ‘s Facebook page

Cerulean waters ripple outside of your plane window, the tide foamy against the sand. As you descend, lush palm fronds and flora-speckled mountains greet you, and the taste of salt on the breeze is palpable. The sun warms your face as you marvel at the paradise you have landed in.

Yet, this paradisiacal world is a living, ticking time bomb. Polynesia—which spans from New Zealand to Easter Island in the eastern Pacific—is sinking, and it’s time we faced the music.

Polynesia comprises a diverse group of islands that have their own traditions, history, language and music. Its people are descended from expert navigators who sailed across the Pacific around 1500 BC using the currents, stars and cloud formations. Polynesians call these islands home, and they have woven much of their surroundings’ physical beauty into their art, including their music.

Brimming with vivacity and warmth, traditional Polynesian music often contains lyrics that offer gratitude to nature and is sometimes accompanied by dance, which is a visual extension of the poetry. The motions that are performed to the music almost always complement the lyrics; for example, arm waves mirror the crashing of waves on the shore. Polynesians honor their homeland through recognizing their long maritime history in their music, where they express gratitude for the ocean’s natural resources and the coasts that have sustained them for generations.

The reality, however, is this rich culture is endangered. The Pacific islands region is one of the first places experiencing climate change’s effects: sea level rise hasn’t been seen for 5,000 years, and yet now it threatens low-lying island systems with flooding, coastal erosion and storm surges. To put this in perspective, in our lifetimes, research from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa suggests that climate change may triple the rate of sea level rise, cause groundwater sources to be permanently lost in the next few decades and destabilize islands in the second half of the century. While international committees negotiate and discuss climate change in meetings, Polynesia is experiencing it currently. The islands are  only responsible for 0.03 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet disproportionately face the direct erasure of its culture, history and sovereignty.

How do you face the fact that cultural heritage is at risk of going extinct—whole nations and people displaced?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in contemporary Polynesian music.

One such musician is Taimane Gardner, a virtuoso ukulele player whose name translates to diamond in Samoan. Although she gained recognition for her covers of popular songs, Taimane also produces her own music, which features the richness of rhythm and melodies from her homeland Hawaii. “Haiwaki,” her 2023 original song, mixes spoken poetry, Taimane’s signature ukulele playing and ethereal vocals in a piece that harkens to Polynesia’s past.

Taimane interprets Haiwaki—which refers to the ancestral Polynesian homeland—in a musical way. At first, the ukulele is quiet, melding with the hollow, distinctive sound of the pu, or large conch traditionally used in ancient Hawaiian ceremonies. Just as the hypnotic melody fades,  drumming and rattle shaking replace it, and the ukulele smolders as Gardner strums faster and harder. The use of traditional instruments highlights the musician’s pride in her homeland and how Polynesian culture is inexorably tied to the land islanders live on.

Another artist who channels her love for her Polynesian heritage into her work is singer-songwriter Olivia Foa’i, who has Tokelauan and Tuvalan roots. Foa’i, who grew up performing in her parents’ Polynesian band Te Vaka, gained recognition in her own right through the opening song “Tulou Tagaloa,” which she sang in the 2016 Disney film “Moana.”

A gem I stumbled across in my YouTube search was her 2020 release “Fai Pea.” The beauty of this song lies in its simplicity: “Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow/Maybe best forget it ‘cause nothing is promised,” Foa’I sings, “Or I could be patient and keep heading for the sun/Although it’s hard and toilsome.” The soft chords and acoustic guitar contrast the anxiety thrumming in the undercurrent of the lyrics, which suggest uncertainty about the future. Yet, Foa’i’s mellifluous voice also introduces a note of hope, which is expressed in the chorus when she switches from English to Gagana Tokelau. “Fai pea ki mua…Maua ai aho la,” she sings —“keep going forward…to reach your sunny days.” The drum’s steady repeated rhythm acts as the beat to which she is moving forward towards, and the sweetness in her vocal riffs reflects the kind of optimism needed to face the future.

Foa’i’s music highlights Pacific Islander’s resilience and the urgency of convincing international organizations to act before a future with no promises for Polynesia’s continued existence arrives at our doorstep.

Mai Anamua,” another Foa’i masterpiece in lyricism and musicality, highlights a similar bittersweet connection between Polynesia’s beauty and the pain of losing one’s ancestral home. “This song is so special to me for many reasons,” Foa’i said. “It’s my first song I’ve ever written fully in Gagana Tokelau and the meaning still floods me with so much emotion.” Foa’i’s voice penetrates your heart, causing you to ponder your own home, wherever it might be. While delicate singing and soft string accompaniment characterizes the pre verse, the chorus sweeps you up into a rising wave, where background vocals provide a melancholy, almost haunting contrast to Foa’i’s honey-tinged vocals.

When you read the translation of the lyrics, the meaning is clear. Polynesians’ close relationship with nature is evident in “Mai Anamua,” when Foa’i sings “Na mea uma/E manako koe/Te fenua/ka foki/toe meaalofa/ki a te koe,” or “Everything/You need/The land/Will give/Another gift/To you.” Once again, she alludes to the problems plaguing her ancestral homeland and so many others: “Te Tupulaga people/He iloa te lumanaki/E he mautinoa/E he ko iloa te lumanaki,” saying “A stressed out generation/Don’t know what the future holds/It’s uncertain/I don’t know the future.” A chorus joins her in this verse, reflecting how the problem of climate change is universal, and we must all address the ambiguity of the future.

Peer into the distance; do you see the crashing waves? They creep closer to the shore every year, swallowing childhood docks. Already, climate change has washed away infrastructure in nations like Tuvalu, which will become uninhabitable in the next twenty or thirty years. . Intense storms have devastated villages and fields. The climate refugee crisis is not distant: it has already begun. To see the light in the future, we must be willing to face the storm first.

Grace Chai can be reached at [email protected].

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