Why music matters: cultural anchors in the Polynesian diaspora


To Ogden filmmaker Te Anu Tonga, music is more than a hobby.

“Music is a language to us, and maybe even a first language,” said Tonga, 37, who was born in New Zealand to a Maori mother and Tongan father. “It is our whakapapa.”

So when Tonga felt the need to reconnect with her whakapapa, a Maori concept of heritage, genealogy and identity, she returned to New Zealand to produce a documentary on kapa haka, an indigenous performance art based in music and dance. Kapa haka functions as a key source of cultural celebration and preservation for the Maori people and provided an ideal lens through which to view Tonga’s central questions of identity.

“At its core, kapa haka is, ‘Who are you?’ ‘What are you made of?’ ‘Where do you come from?’ And when you find that out, what are you going to do in the future?” Tonga said in an interview.

Tonga’s forthcoming documentary, “Keepers,” details kapa haka’s impact on the families, communities and identity development of three Maori teenagers from different Auckland high schools. The film follows each school’s kapa haka team through their competition season, a year of competitive performance that culminates in Ngā Kapa Haka Kura Tuarua o Aotearoa, or the National Secondary Schools Kapa Haka Competition.


Maori teenagers perform at a regional kapa haka competition. This is a still image taken from the trailer for “Keepers,” Te Anu Tonga’s upcoming documentary on “kapa haka, culture, and keepin’ it real.” Courtesy of Te Anu Tonga.

Tonga, who immigrated to Utah as a 5-year-old girl, says the art is a powerful tool in developing a sense of identification with one’s heritage. For her, it seems natural that such a tool would take the form of music.

“Singing is just so natural for them back home,” she said. “They’re all bottle-fed on music.”

Joel Kongaika, a Tongan American who lived in Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii before moving to Utah in 2009, said music is a key feature of cultures throughout the Pacific.

“It’s not as formal — there’s no opera house, there’s no musical theater, it’s not as first world or institutionalized — but you get way more music with it not being that way,” Kongaika said in a conversation in his Centerville home.

Children in Polynesia learn music from a very young age, Kongaika said, beginning with exposure through their parents and churches and later through formal musical instruction in elementary school. Singing is not reserved for the “talented,” “expressive” or “effeminate” — it is considered an activity for everyone.

“As a young person, it’s never something that you’re ashamed to participate in,” Kongaika said.

For first-generation Utahns like Tonga and Kongaika, Pacific music and dance are invaluable links to their home cultures. They foster community, preserve language and articulate cultural history and values.

Kongaika’s daughters Anna and Eryn, who were born in Hawaii, have each taken several years of Polynesian dance classes here in Utah.

“Our hope is that the girls have exposure to their roots,” Kongaika said. “I’d rather they take hula lessons than piano lessons.”

Kongaika also tries to introduce his children to indigenous music. Two of his daughters are taking ukulele lessons from their grandfather, and Anna keeps a playlist of her favorite Hawaiian music for family road trips.

Kongaika’s father, Isileli Kongaika, lives in South Jordan, where he attends a Tongan-speaking congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although Isileli speaks excellent English, he prefers to attend a Tongan-speaking assembly where he can worship in his native tongue and sing the hymns he grew up with in the islands.

Between Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties, the LDS Church has 42 designated Tongan congregations. But each meeting features a blend of English and Tongan language use, Isileli said – especially the musical numbers.

“One person will sing the English translation, the person next to him will sing the old Tongan language verse,” Isileli said in a phone call. “I find it difficult to do myself because I am used to the old one, so I just sing my own way.”

Isileli said the language chosen by each singer depends largely on their age, with the older congregation members typically opting for the Tongan originals and most second- and third-generation members singing in English. However, as their language skills improve, many young churchgoers find themselves drawn to the original Tongan versions of hymns they once sang in English.

“They’ll pick up some words, some language, and I do see some pick up the Tongan songs and hymns,” Isileli said.

Many second-generation church members cite a desire to learn their heritage language as their primary reason for attending a Tongan-speaking congregation or for joining a Tongan church choir, which typically performs traditional music or Tongan language hymns.

“Everyone who goes to church sings, so these choirs are basically the entire congregation,” Joel Kongaika said. “To see music still helping to care for Tongan language is a big deal.”

As in the islands, the choirs welcome each and every singer.

“With our culture, it’s not about who can sing really well,” Te Anu Tonga said. “You’ll get someone who’s singing and you can just tell they’re going home. It may not sound the best musically, but you can feel that he’s just missing home, and he’s going to go there and take us with him.”

From kapa haka to church choir, polished performances to impromptu a capella – for Polynesian Utahns, the music of the islands is a powerful cultural anchor.

“Wherever we are in the world, we are home,” Tonga said.

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