Polynesian islandArmchair travel can provide us with the opportunity to have a little insight into people’s lives across the world. We begin our travels the furthest East we can go - Oceania, and in each successive article, we will wind our way westwards across the globe. We shine the spotlight on the music of Oceania past, examine the music of Oceania present and focus in particular on three pianists who were born in this area of the world.

Music of Oceania Past

Oceania is the blanket term for the islands of the South Pacific. It encompasses the regions of Melanesia from the Greek for ‘black islands’, Polynesia, ‘many islands’, Micronesia, ‘little islands’, Australia and New Zealand.

Music was originally used by the various indigenous tribes for sacred religious rituals, dances, feasts, celebrations, courtships and announcing the onset of war. It represented the voices of supernatural beings or spirits, was an extension of poetry and allowed people to signal to each other across vast distances both on land and at sea.


In Melanesia, music was used for secret rituals and to produce the voices of supernatural beings. On the islands of Samoa, panpipes were widely used as were fala (rolled floor mats that were beaten like a drum) and tui’tui’ (rolled mats of bamboo beaten in the same way). Conch shells were used as trumpets, mouth flutes were played and drums called ‘slit gongs’ and larger ‘slit drums’ were used. These were made from hollowed-out tree trunks, played by several men at once, often elaborately carved with animals.



In Micronesia, music was traditionally vocal-based, with an emphasis on rehearsed songs. Basic percussion or stick beating was used to accompany traditional dances, along with conch shell trumpets, flutes and mouth harps.

conch shell


In Polynesia, music was an extension of poetry and was often played in praise of a chief or visitor. Traditionally kettle drums, musical bows and nose flutes were played.

With the arrival of Westerners to Oceania by way of the voyages of Captain James Cook (1768-80) music began to evolve. In particular, with the movement of Christian missionaries, Western music and stringed instruments were adopted and traditional chants evolved to create of fusion of relaxing sounds influenced by the rhythms of church hymns. The Hawaiian ukulele, which means ‘jumping flea’, began to be used in both traditional chanting and hulas (dances) and modern Hawaiian music still reflects this today.


In Australia the didgeridoo (the world’s oldest instrument as evidenced in rock art) was used as a signalling device for the onset of ceremonies, events, to drive away evil spirits, to announce the death of leaders and as an auditory signal to keep canoes together whilst at sea.


New Zealand

Much in the way of Maori music has been lost, but there are some chants from lullabies to laments, incantations to love songs, and war songs called Hakas, which have stood the test of time. A haka is still performed today before the start of any All Blacks rugby match and is used to intimidate the opposition.

Music of Oceania Present

The original chants, lullabies, laments, incantations, rhythms and accompanying dances have, with the movement of both people and goods, evolved showing us that music is a language that spans islands and oceans, time and space.

The government of Samoa has set up the National Orchestra of Samoa to encourage Samoans to expand their culture and reinvent traditional tribal music for the benefit of the whole society.

Australia was for many years a British colony and bush ballads like ‘Waltzing Matilda’, which was first published in 1895 by a poet called Banjo Patterson, remains the unofficial national anthem of the country.

Melbourne, Australia’s cultural capital, hosts the Melbourne International Jazz Festival every year in concert halls, art venues, jazz clubs, in the streets and has been celebrated for the past 20 years.

In Hawaii, singer-songwriter Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole, ‘The Fearless Eyed Man’ (1959-1997) achieved international fame with his medley of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World’ through his use of the ukulele, jazz and reggae rhythms.

Oceanic Pianists

Noteworthy pianists from Oceania include Betty Loo Taylor (1929 – 2016) who was known as Hawaii’s First Lady of Jazz. She was a child prodigy and naturally gifted. In 2003 she was the subject of a documentary ‘They Call Her Lady Fingers’.

Blind multi-instrumentalist native New Zealander Claude Papesch, played both piano and saxophone for influential singer-songwriter and rock musician Johnny Devlin (New Zealand’s answer to Elvis Presley). Claude Papesch died in 1987 at the age of 45.

Now, however, our focus shifts to three living pianists who in particular have made their mark on the world of music. These include Mahani Teave, David Helfgott and Alan Broadbent.

Mahani Teave

Mahani Teave is considered to be Easter Island’s only classical musician. As a native Easter Islander child, she learned to play classical piano but after only one year her teacher left and the only piano on the island fell into disrepair. Mahani’s mother realised her daughter's talent and "when the teacher left, my mum said it was just too cruel, to allow children to dream but then not be able to fulfil them. That's when we moved to mainland Chile", over 3,700km (2,300 miles) away.

For some years she toured globally as a concert pianist but she has since returned to Easter Island and started the island's first and only music school, called Toki Rapa Nui. In 2011 their first pianos arrived and in 2012, classes began for piano and violin. In January 2015 the music school held it’s official inauguration concert. Cello and ukulele lessons have since been added to the school’s repertoire of classes.

David Helfgott

For anyone looking for an example of how music can ‘set the individual free’ despite mental breakdown, David Helfgott is a shining light. David Helfgott is an Australian concert pianist and his life story was portrayed so beautifully by Geoffrey Rush in the 1996 movie Shine, that Rush was awarded an Academy Award for his performance. David Helfgott struggles with a mental illness called schizoaffective disorder. His musical genius is a joy to watch and in 2015 his European tour became the subject of a documentary called ‘Hello, I am David’.

Alan Broadbent

Alan Broadbent is a New Zealand born jazz pianist whose collaborations include working with artists such as Natalie Cole, Chet Baker, acting as a conductor for Diana Krall and as an arranger for Paul McCartney’s album ‘Kisses on the Bottom’. In 2008 Alan Broadbent was listed in the Queen’s birthday honours and he received a Member of New Zealand Order of Merit for his contributions to jazz. He is a double Grammy winner and his piano playing has been described by Dave Kelly in The Guardian as striking due to its clarity, his technique and his rhythmic suppleness.

Our armchair travels have taken us to the furthest reaches of Oceania and we have briefly examined the span of 40,000 – 60,000 years of indigenous music across its islands.

We have seen how the original percussion, string and wind instruments were designed to support various aspects of village life from lullabies to secret rituals, from warding off evil spirits to signalling long distances, from extensions of poetry to announcing the onset of war. With the movement of people over the centuries due to trade and religion, music in Oceania has evolved to create a present-day fusion of traditional and modern sounds. Modern day Oceanic pianists have been inspired by their heritage and culture to create inspiration and bring joy to all who hear them perform.