Behind The Heiva i Bora 2014 – drums, music, costumes

The Heiva, is the Tahitian celebration of joy through dance, song & other cultural events offering an exceptional insight into Polynesian history & culture as well as into the life of Polynesians past & present. As mentioned in the coverage of the Heiva I Bora Bora 2103 it’s a mesmorising & unforgetable experience.

Such an experience inevitably leads all those who participate in this wonderful event to thirst for a greater understanding of what underlies these festivities, what’s behind the sensational music & dance performances that constitute such an integral & spectacular part of the celebration.

In covering the Heiva i Bora Bora 2014 we dig a little deeper behind the spectacle to provide readers with a more profound understanding of what lies behind the Heiva. On this occasion we look at:

  • the instruments of the orchestra – their history, their place in Tahiti’s culture, the very specific roles, some of paramount importance, that certain instruments play;
  • the music itself that is played;
  • the costumes of the dancers that produce this exceptional spectacle for which Tahiti is world renowned – their history, what they signify, how they fit the music, what they signify, how they are made & so on.

Years of practice go into becoming a competent musician or dancer, months of preparation each year to produce a work of the quality of the Heiva.

There’s so much more behind the Heiva than meets the eye!



The Traditional Tahitian Orchestra has a long & rich history dating back centuries. The orchestras are essentially percussion based utilising a series of drums developed over time & made by hand from local materials usually by those that play the instruments.

The major instruments are:


The most easily recognisable drum in the orchestra is the tamau, a large wooden drum with a membrane at each end & struck with a single mallet. The membranes were traditionally made from sharkskin but are nowadays more likely to come from cattle hides. The tamau makes the methodic deep base sound that underlies much of the music performed.



The fa’atete is smaller single membrane drum often made from coconut wood. As with the tamau the membrane was traditionally made from sharkskin but is now more likely to be cattle skin. The fa’atete is played with drumsticks & has a more complex, higher pitched range of notes than the tamau; it’s a sound akin to a snare drum.

As with all Tahitian drums, inevitably intricately carved with Tahitian emblems:


A battery of fa’atete is usually placed alongside the tamau in the second line of a traditional Tahitian Orchestra:



The to’ere is the traditional drum that is the most challenging to play &, as will be seen, the true ‘director of ceremonies’. Its role is of paramount importance in all Tahitian compositions explaining the placement of the instrument at the front of any orchestra.

It’s the to’ere which gives the distinctive hollowed wooden, high-pitched sound that most people associate with the Heiva, indeed with Traditional Tahitian Orchestras. The to’ere is most often made by the hands of its player, hollowed from a log of one of several native hard-wood trees – like the tou, the poro’ati or the highly regarded miro. Each toere has an open slit running the length of the drum on one side:


Making one’s own to’ere can save the player up to 85,000xpf (around $US1000) in not having to purchase one. Here’s one hand-made from miro & decorated especially for this year’s Heiva:


In the past the to’ere could reach lengths approaching 2m, but nowadays two sizes – a smaller, mounted to’ere around 40cm in length & a larger to’ere around 1m long – are the most commonly used. They are played with a single stick ‘as one’ by a single musician – the player sits on a small wooden stool with the smaller to’ere on a stand directly in front & the larger to’ere held by one hand as it stands end to end. To add to the complexity a third instrument, the ofe, a long piece of dried bamboo, is often added to the mix! All three being played can be seen in the following photo:


The to’ere requires great skill to play as the sound changes markedly depending on where the instrument is struck. The sound, not surprisingly is hollow & woody, yet crisp with a good range of higher pitches.

Pahu Tupa’e

A relative newcomer, the pahu tupa’e is a single membrane drum played normally with the hands much like the bongos. Increasingly women wishing to play in an orchestra are playing the pahu tupa’e, a battery of three painted in a colourful floral motif seen here behind the tamau:


As can be seen from the photos above:

  • the tamau demands a high level of physical strength & is therefore most often played by men;
  • the current day appeal of playing in an orchestra is demonstrated in the youthfulness of those playing the fa’atete;
  • expertise & experience is prevalent in those playing the to’ere.

Like the dancers, the orchestras are also judged in their own right. On the night of the judging of the best orchestra, the groups first play to accompany their best individual dancers – male & female – before taking centre stage to perform in front of the judges. Here a shot showing how the judges view matters:


And, of course, no report would be complete without a video of the celebrations – this video shot by leading Bora Bora photographer Setephan Debelle:

Ok, ok – how the judges saw the best female dancer:








With drums being the main instrument the focus is clearly on rhythm. Melody, albeit in limited doses, is provided via other instruments such as the vivo, a flute-like instrument played through the nose, & occasionally the pu (conch shell) – played through the hole in the base. Neither was played in the groups performing tis year but some photos, nonetheless:



Polynesian is an oral culture. This means that the music of Traditional Tahitian Orchestras has been, & continues to be, passed down from generation to generation by mouth & by ear – orally & aurally. A Tahitian musician learns both the instrument & the music as he progresses from drum to drum.



Pehe (literally ‘music’)

Tahitian drumming is composed of rhythmic patterns known as pehe. The pehe itself is made up of 3 patterns & each has a different purpose:

  • The first, a quick tempo introductory pattern announces which overall pehe will be played. It can also inform listeners & dancers of the order of the programme.
  • The second pattern constitutes the main rhythmic pattern of the piece being played.
  • The third pattern marks the end of the composition advising both the movements to be undertaken by the dancers & when & how the piece will end.

One can understand the importance of the to’ere, the instrument with the greatest range of tones, the instrument that produces the very tones that direct the rest of the orchestra &, most importantly, the dancers in their every move.

It makes one also appreciate more deeply the need for both drummers & dancers to have a profound knowledge not only of drumming or of dancing, as the case may be, but also of pehe before being able to undertake any live performance.



Captain Cook’s journals describe the dancers he saw in 1777 as follows:

  • The females wore tapa (bark cloth) & used feathers to cover their breasts & to hang from tassels around their waists; their hair was braided & implanted with flowers.
  • The males wore undecorated tapa around their waist but nothing on their heads.

Captain Cook remarked that the hair of the women was: “near a mile long…………………..(&) without a single knot”.

Not long after Cook the missionaries would arrive & subsequently ban all dancing as being too sensual, a form of ‘debauchery’, even an expression of paganism before France, on Bastille Day 1881, permitted a number of competitions for music, costumes and dance to be undertaken.

Tradition holds that one uses the maximum amount of natural material in the costumes being careful not to restrict the range of movement of the dancer through covering too much skin. The approach preserves the youthful nature of the dancers. Costumes convey elegance for the woman & virility for the men.

The following photos show the extensive use of auti in the dresses & heipo’o (headress) of the women &, in turn, the complete outfit of the men. The auti is preferred to the more rigid coconut fronds. The breasts are covered with tapea titi (bra) made from polished coconut. Let’s look, back to front:





The use of natural materials provides a way for all those participating to admire & to embrace the beauty of nature, a theme constantly evoked in the song & in the dance, & to reflect the musical composition being played – natural materials for drum based traditional compositions; a pareo for a composition featuring say the ukulele or guitar, the aparima, for example. The Role of Tattoos for both men & woman should not be overlooked.

The purau (a local hibiscus) remains the standard material for the more (‘grass’ skirt). The bark of the purau is cut so as to be removed in one piece then soaked in sea water for days to soften it. The outer darker bark is then removed before the lighter remaining bark is pounded to thin the fiber. Once dry, the thin strips are tied to the waist by a belt, also made from parau. The strips are naturally off-white in colour but are traditionally dyed using local materials – white using lime, seawater & sun, a bright yellow using re’a (tumeric) or a pronounced red using a variety of aute (red hibiscus) – red & yellow, by consequence of their being the only natural dyes in ancient times, became the colours of royalty.

Here are shots taken in full daylight of a dressed rehearsal for this year’s Heiva i Bora Bora to show the more material clearly – I also wanted a more of full length:



Accessories such as the heipo’o (headress), the hatua (belt), the i’i (hand held dance ‘whisks’) and tahiri (fan) are made more complex as required using parau fiber or strands of niau (coconut leaves):


A marquee in which dancers can change ‘quickly’ up to 3-4 times a performance is stocked with every imaginable piece necessary to ensure the dancers are fully attired:


The heipo’o is a much remarked upon accessory. It takes a certain dexterity & know how to formulate these beautiful creations. Heipo’o are normally made on the day on which they are worn. Here are some images of 3 different designs being prepared by one of Bora Bora’s leading exponents of the art:



Tiare Tahiti (the beautifully scented white flowers above) are not grown in great abundance in Bora Bora & are often imported from other islands, in particular Maupiti.

A heipo’o using local flowers:


A stunningly beautiful work of art ‘a la Cleopatra’!




We have mentioned the central role of nature in Tahitian song & dance, history & culture & one has to be impressed by the approach of Tahitian’s to ensure that nothing given by nature is taken for granted, nothing given by nature wasted. We spoke extensively of the purau above. When the bark is stripped from branches of the tree to make the more (grass skirts), the wood from which the bark is stripped is itself also soaked in the sea before being used to construct the fare that operate as restaurants throughout the Heiva. The leaves of the purau used in hima’a (traditional underground ovens), as plates, for diving masks so as to avoid fogging, even in ancient times as lavatory paper.

Here are a few shots of the fare restaurants under construction for the Heiva i Bora Bora 2014. In the first shot you can see the fare is built completely from – the off-white timber of a somewhat irregular form. In days gone by when nails were not common place & even today, the purau was bound using the trees bark (also used for making more (grass skirts as noted above) – I can assure you that it is far stronger than most cord! The roofing is made from niau the plaited dry leaves of the coconut tree – it will remain water resistant for around 5 years; pandanus – used for roofing in all of Bora Bora’s major hotels, will last around 15 years!


In the following images niau is attached to the purau roof frame by purau bark cord. The natural materials needed for construction laid out ready for use:



This is how it all looks at night when pumping as restaurants during the Heiva:


A little understanding makes the Heiva a hell of a lot more interesting!

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