Tahiti

Interesting and varied selection of native music from isolated Polynesian islands recorded on location by a French explorer who married into local royalty.



When I first saw this record, I didn't actually know where Tahiti was. I mentally lumped it in with Hawaii and imagined it to be all grass skirts, and steel guitars. As I looked on the map, I saw it sitting in the South Pacific between South America and Australia and probably as close to being in the middle of nowhere as anywhere on earth. I can't imagine how it got to be a French territory but I'm sure an explanation can be found if you're interested.


I pulled it off the shelf and looked at the cover and I saw enough to satisfy myself that it wasn't a classic holiday souvenir or an easy listening simulation of native music, so took a chance on buying it.


It was recorded by Francis Mazière, a French archaeologist/ethnologist/sound recordist who had been active as early as the 1940s when he was part of an expedition to Africa. In his later years, he became a specialist in the Polynesian islands and married the daughter of the last King of Tahiti. The French text inside the gatefold sleeve seems to tell us it was recorded on the islands of Maupiti and Fatu-Hiva, the latter having a population numbering less than 600. Neither of these islands is Tahiti so the title might have been chosen just to make it easier to market, but I will stop considering the geographic intricacies at this point and move onto the music.

I realise that these songs weren't written with the intention of entertaining a record buying Englishman and, indeed, some of them probably weren't written to entertain anyone at all. Nevertheless, I am judging this record for its ability to provide interest, entertainment or some sort of effect on the emotions and, against that background, the opening few tracks are rather disappointing. Guitar/ukelele and voice, sounding like they are recorded in a studio with a quite flat production and singalong melodies that I just can't like.


Then, an instrumental with a rhythmic handclap adds interest and leads me towards the territory I had hoped to find, and a fast choral ensemble with solo refrain and handclaps really heats things up. Speaking as an ex-drummer, I find drum solos the most boring of musical events but the following percussion only song is short enough to remain effective. But next is where it gets really interesting. We have just female voice and guitar but this time either the recording conditions or the treatment result in a quite ghostly and ethereal beauty to the voice, and combine with a melodious song to give us an entrancing, emotional sounding piece. A similar piece ends side A and sandwiched in between is a choral number with male lead which has a tribal feel and reminds me of something I might have heard coming out of a South African township.

Side B starts off in a similar fashion to side A but we are led back on track with an interesting female led, vocal only chorus with multiple threads which give it a real density. This is followed by an ensemble of hushed vocals with a guitar which picks a melody during an extended break, and a similar but more upbeat song. Just as it started off similarly, side B ends in a similar fashion to side A with two of the 'ghostly' numbers again sandwiching a rhythmic, tribal number.



In summary, we have a record that spans several different styles and gives us a good flavour of what traditional Tahitian music is like whilst standing in its own right as an interesting and entertaining record although, personally, I will be dropping the needle on track 3 on both sides. This record can be found quite cheaply and would be an appreciated addition to the collection of anyone who has an interest in music from other lands.


Title: Tahiti

Artist: Francis Mazière

Label: BAM

Cat No: LD 5720



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