I was driving my son home from the Farmer’s Market this afternoon, when I heard the most amazing sound coming out of the radio. It was the sheer vocal power of the amassed male and female voices of the Tahitian Choir recorded live by Pascal Meyer. NPR’s All Things Considered was interviewing Meyer about his 1991 Tahitian Choir recording, Rapa Iti (hear the story here) which has just been reissued.
I was also amazed by what the interviewer called the Choir’s vocal “sliding” in which the voices elide downward from key to key in a way that is completely odd and otherwordly to a western ear. Meyer calls it “musical vertigo or freefall” and notes that the island’s elders told him that the microtonal singing portrays their canoes rising and falling as they sailed over the waves on their various Polynesian migrations. Their island, Rapa Iti, is 900 miles south of Tahiti and the last piece of land before Antarctica. For a musical sample, check out this short clip of the Tahitian Choir.
Here’s what Tad Hendrickson had to say about Rapa Iti:
At their best, field recordings document rare and unheard music from obscure corners of the globe where people have maintained centuries-old traditions. This is the case with Rapa Iti. Here we get the multi-layered quarter-tone singing of the Tahitian Choir, which, at 126 members, counted one-third of the island of Rapa as members. Now reissued with one new song, these traditionals, which were recorded in 1991, are so old that they can’t even be translated because the island’s ancient language is largely forgotten. Themes include the creation of the island, the afterlife, and the sun. To the untrained ear, the choir has the same otherworldly sound as Bulgarian and African choirs. Yet this stands out–there are strange shifts of the singers’ pitch on some songs that give the impression that the CD has slowed down and then sped up, which isn’t the case.
WBUR’s On Point (hear the show) broadcast an earlier and much more comprehensive interview with Meyer.
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