Saturday’s Endangered Music Feature: Island Worlds in Jeopardy — Tuvalu

The world’s island nations are truly on the “front lines” of climate change, facing not just refugee crises and resource depletion but the very real possibility that their lands themselves will cease to exist as ocean levels continue to rise. One such nation is Tuvalu, six rock atolls and three reef islands midway between Hawaii and Australia, and home to fewer than eleven thousand people (by comparison, my hometown of Medford, Massachusetts currently holds around 57,000).

Since its most populous parts are only six feet above sea level—with its highest elevation reaching only 15 feet above sea level—most of the island is built on stilts. The most pressing problem for Tuvalu is the diminishing amount of fresh water on its ten square miles of land.


Tuvalu’s music is consistent with the overall pattern in Oceania: lots of choral singing, relatively little harmony that is not traceable as an import from Christian missionaries. “Participation in performance was essential to community cohesion and musical skills were regarded as valuable clan property.” (link)

Much social life on the island is organized around music and dance competitions, which take the place of fighting and contests of strength. Songs have historically understood as a means of interaction with a non-physical, supra-natural world of gods and spirits.

In the island nation’s community meetinghouses, the competitive song & dance genre known as fatele is very popular. Here is a description of how the fatele works on the Tuvalan island of Vaitupu:

…residents are ‘divided’ into two groups. Each group prepares for the fatele for months in advance. All ages gather to participate in the fatele. Each group crowds around their wooden box drum and biscuit tin drummers. The dancers move in synchrony to the joyful song, drum beats and laughter. The competitive nature of the fatele motivates participants to sing and dance at their best. However, the role of the fatele is not to create distinctions between good and bad dancers, but rather to create a space for socialization. In Tuvalu, communal participation is more important than individual virtuosity.

All fateles have a cyclical structure. A poetic line is repeated 3-5 times followed by a pause. During this pause, it is as if the whole group takes a breath before the song is repeated in a higher pitch with an accelerated tempo. The drumming pounds louder, voices are stronger, and the energy builds. This can go on for five to six cycles until the excitement refuses to be contained. The song concludes with a sudden stop, leaving performers flushed with ecstatic pleasure.

In Tuvalu, songs and dances have been orally passed down from generation to generation. New songs are being composed all the time, yet the names of composers are often forgotten. Children will memorize hundreds of songs by adulthood. The fatele is the perfect arena to teach history, reinforce community ties, and transmit values which contribute to the island’s evolving cultural identity.


The performing artists of Tuvalu are understandably very active in trying to educate the rest of the world about their situation. Here is a long video of a performance at UCLA featuring performers and genres from parts of Oceania, including many Tuvalan musicians.

Published on Dec 8, 2011

Performance and purpose collide in this performance that illuminates the plight of the Pacific Islands. Scientists report the vulnerable coral atolls of Kiribati Tokelau and Tuvalu are already experiencing rising sea levels as result of global warming and climate change. Thirty-six dancers and musicians express their deep connection to nature and their ancestral past through multi-part harmonies, poetry, and gracious movement cascading over dynamic rhythms inspiring us all to be better stewards of our shared planet. Water is Rising harnesses the power of performance art in an impassioned plea for global awareness and social change. Series: “World Festival of Sacred Music” [12/2011] [Arts and Music] [Show ID: 22792]

Link to a Tuvalu music page.

A Tuvalu song composed by Sosemea for Hemanaia in 1975

Moli atu te fakafetai lasi mote fakamalo kia koutou te ‘Punuagogo’ mo pese. Kooko loa te gali te fakalogologo kiei. Se taumate ka fiafia foki sose fanau Tuvalu telaa e avanoa o fakalogologo mai kiei.
Fakafetai lasi.

Uploaded on Dec 25, 2009

Fatele mai Nukulaelae ite fakamanatuga ote 25 tausaga ote tutokotasi o Tuvalu.

A traditional dance from the island of Nukulaelae in Tuvalu.

Fatele Niutao – Fakafetai ki Tona Alofa

A fatele/traditional dance from the island community of Niutao on Funafuti,Tuvalu in 2008

Se fatele mai te fenua o Niutao iluga i Funafuti ite tausaga 2008

A song in the fakaseasea style sung by Magalo & Ladies of the Nanumea Community

Wikipedia link on Tuvalan music.

The traditional music of Tuvalu consists of a number of dances, including fatele, fakanau and fakaseasea.[1] The fatele, in its modern form, is performed at community events and to celebrate leaders and other prominent individuals, such as the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in September 2012.[2] [3] [4] The modern Tuvaluan style has absorbed many influences and can be described “as a musical microcosm of Polynesia, where contemporary and older styles co-exist”.[5]


Other types were play songs (sung during counting game, games of skill and other games); work songs which the women performed, such as while preparing coconut fibre string; fishermen’s calling songs; songs of praise (viki or taugafatu); and laments for deceased members of the family.[8][10]

Traditional Tuvaluan songs are very short poems which are repeated. These songs have strong rhythm, which the performers would maintain by clapping or hitting their hands on the floor or a sound box; with the tempo increasing as the song was repeated.[8] While Tuvaluan songs convey a dramatic story the concentrated song structure often omitted reference to key events in the story. Gerd Koch describes traditional Tuvaluan songs:

“The distinctive, concentrated form of the grammatically shortened statement is characteristic of the old, original poetry of these Islanders. There is no metre, rhyme or verse. However the text of the song often appears to be rhythmical on account of the repetition of words and the fact that the individual lines have a similar number of syllables.”[11]

Dancing songs are the most common type of traditional Tuvaluan song. Older style dancing songs were performed while sitting, kneeling or standing. The two primary traditional dances of Tuvalu are the fakanau (for men) and oga (for women) and fakaseasea. Of these, the fakanau was a Niutao and Nukufetau dance performed primarily by the men, which was performed while sitting, or on Niutao while kneeling or standing, but without moving from the spot – the story of the song was illustrated by movements of the arms, hand and upper body. An elder could stand in the middle of a circle of performers keeping time.[8] The fakanau, oga and the fakaseasea were used for celebrations and for praising fellow islanders. The only instrument was the use of a small wooden slit drum or the time was beaten with a fan or small rolled mat or the use of the palm of the hand on the floor.[8]


The fakaseasea was mainly performed by young unmarried women, who were on their feet, dancing and moving their arms, hand and upper body; while men and women would sing and beat the time.[8] It is a slower song with very loose rules on how to dance to it, with variations on different islands with different names. The fakaseasea tradition continued although performed mainly by elders.


The modern fatele involves the young unmarried women on their feet, dancing in lines; with the men facing the dancers, sitting on the floor beating the time with their hands on the mats or on wooden boxes. The dancers enact the story being retold, and the music finally climaxes and ends abruptly.[6] The festivities, including church festivals and weddings, at which the fatele are performed can go on for hours.[8] The fatele tradition is shared with the music of Tokelau.[6]

Here is the translation of a contemporary song from Tuvalu which directly addresses the effect of climate change on this tiny island nation:

“This World of Ours”

Composed by Kelemene (2011)

This world of ours
Does not feel steady
We keep rotating
Oi! What will happen to us?

This world of ours
It is not steady, it keeps moving
We worry about climate change
Oi! My Tuvalu, what will happen?
Will we float into the ocean?

Listen to my tiny voice
Crying out for help
Hear our plea from Tuvalu
Our low and small Pacific home

Don’t panic
Always be alert
Look back to what God has said
Forever the rainbow stands


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