The “Taurua Varua” (Fete of the Spirit) is a celebratory competition of himene (formal Tahitian religious choral songs) & of Orero (ancient artistic forms of oral declaration) which takes place on Bora Bora in January each year. It is without doubt Bora Bora’s most important religious cultural event; as important a cultural event as the Heiva i Bora Bora.
Originally called the “Faa’ao Rua” (Together As One) the origins of the celebration trace back to the beginnings of Christianity in Bora Bora in early 1800’s from whence the event grew to be celebrated throughout much of French Polynesia. Today the ceremony is a celebration unique to Bora Bora.
To consider the Taurua Varua in an historical context one needs to trace back to the battle of Fei-Pi in Tahiti in 1815 where “the King’s Christians with guns triumphed over the traditionally armed followers of the Tahitian god Oro”. Mai, a warrior chief from Bora Bora who could read & write & had heard the Gospel preached, returned from the battle to Bora Bora. Although a certain Teaarefau was already proclaiming the gospel, the efforts of Mai & another chief, Tefaaora, who both set about preaching the Gospel widely from 1816, provided the catalyst for the island’s conversion to Christianity.
By 1818 Bora Bora had their first pastor, Pastor Orsmand. 1820 saw the arrival of Pastor Platt & the construction of Bora Bora’s first church, the Protestant Temple at Vaitape, well under-way. The missionaries were quick to see in the Tahitian’s love for & propensity to sing an effective opportunity through the inclusion of certain biblical references in the himene to build their number of adherents on the islands.
Mai & Tefaaora:
Derived from the English word ‘hymn’, the himene are strongly influenced in both verse & harmony by Protestant hymns. Himene are contrapuntal compositions in as many as six voices producing a powerful, pumping, unique & quite mesmorising sound sung with great gusto. In 1911, during a visit to Tahiti, Henri Lebeau reflected on the himene in these terms:
“Words have never succeeded in conveying the impression made by this music. Some have said that it was like an ocean wave coming in with growing strength as the voices increased in intensity, breaking and rolling and bounding and then the dying down and disappearing in a long, sustained note. The women’s voices carried the melody while the men provided a deep, rhythmic counterpoint, one of them with a great voice sometimes throwing out cries and appeals. All the people rocked back and forth as they sang, many with their eyes shut, entirely lost in the music.”
Orero is a very powerful medium. Polynesian is an oral culture & the Polynesians have refined public speaking to an art-form. Bora Bora Insider describes it this way:
The Orero is an ancient artistic form of oral declaration once reserved for the few initiated into the art or for those for whom the art was considered an hereditary right most often taking into account Polynesian history & culture. As Polynesian is an oral culture the Orero played a fundamental role in Polynesian life over the centuries.
The form of orero used is the aito for a discourse which covers certain Biblical passages chosen to follow the theme of each himene.
Arriving at the Temple gives one a sense of the grandeur of what lies ahead:
The women are dressed in traditional muumuu, the men in colourful Tahitian shirts, all participants in colours unique to their district – 6 districts of Bora Bora’s compete individually – giving a sense of unity to what is being undertaken. Their heads are adorned with intricately designed hand-made floral couronnes in a kaleidoscope of colour, their shoulders draped in colourful floral leis many of them tiare Tahiti, the Tahitian symbol of love & which sees a seductive perfume permeate throughout the surroundings. It’s a magnificent reflection on the abundance of nature.
Some members of certain groups await the start of the ceremony from the area where the spectacle will take place facing the jury behind which sit the commune’s dignitaries:
Once there’s movement – it’s an ocean of colour, a sea of joy, a river of celebration:
Taurua Varou is conducted over 3 consecutive Sunday nights at the Protestant Tempe in each of the 3 principle parishes of Bora Bora – Faanui, Anau & Nunue (Vaitape).
The Himene can involve over 700 performers with 4 groups from Vaitape & a single group from each of Faanui & Anau – the later 2 can be up to 200 strong. Each group perform for around ½ hour singing 5 songs each a different himene art-form – a ‘ruau’ (ancient song), a ‘nota’ (adaptation of a song other than of a Tahitian origin, often French or English), a ‘tarava raromatai’ (song derived from the Leeward Islands), a ‘tarava rurutu’ (from the Australs’) & a ‘tarava rarotua’ (from Raratonga) – on each of the 3 nights. The Aito involves 4 participants from Vaitape, 3 from Faanui & 2 from Anau. They perform their orero uniquely in the ceremonies held in their own parish; each orero running for just under 30 minutes.
Tonight’s hosts – Faanui – in mauve & blue, followed by the other groups participating:
Did you miss the little girl peering from the dresses of those singing in the 5th photo above??? Wonderful moment for her.
Below, Himene Ierutalemia from Vaitape, 110 strong & the evening’s winners performing a ‘himene rarotua’. The children participating with the group were as young as 6 years of age; the oldest participant that evening, 80 years of age!
Members of different groups watching the performance of others:
As can be seen from the photos, the himene is a vocal performance with only very limited use of any ‘instrument’ & then usually a ‘traditional’ Tahitian aid – eg, the hue (calabash) , or the pu (conch shell).
Look closely at the following photo to see a pu being played:
The orero performance offers exponents of this ancient art the opportunity to advance their skills. Open to both men & women their varied & powerful intonation is something to hear; their hand & body gesticulations something to behold.
Three Aito were selected from Faanui for tonight’s festivities, each surrounded by family & supporters who sing with great force for their champion in advance & following his performance:
The night’s 3 champions:
With well over 1000 in attendance the evening is a ‘marathon’ with a light snack available before the himene starts at 8pm. The himene continue to around mid-night & at their conclusion dinner is served before the orero starts. On occasion the orero is followed by a friendly conga dance with all present participating before a final snack at 6am on Monday morning marks the end of ceremonies.
This is an exceptional evening, an exceptional event – an evening of history & of culture, of fervour & passion, of tradition & artistry.