Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Music and Dance > Rapa Nui

The music of Rapa Nui can be divided into two periods—before European contact and after. From 1870 to 1950 the island maintained a strong connection with Tahiti, which led to the introduction of Polynesian music and the virtual disappearance of local music. Catholic missionaries also arrived during this time and had a dramatic impact on the music played on the island.

Prior to 1870, Rapa Nui music consisted primarily of vocal songs with no instrumental accompaniment. Most aku-aku, songs dedicated to the spirits, were performed with a nasal tone and accompanied by the rhythmic percussion of two hard stones banged together. There were also polyphonic songs performed by several people and ceremonial songs for important milestones and events, certain traditions, war and death.

The riu were very important songs that were performed with deep feeling, almost like free-form laments. These included funerary songs, songs to bring rain, ‘royal’ songs about the ancient arikis (leaders) and songs relating ancient history. The Rapa Nui people also had songs to liven up popular festivities and games, including the kai-kai, and songs that were sung during rope games.

In ancient times, the leading instrument was the keho or stone drum. This was made of a hole dug in the ground around 60 centimeters deep and the same width. The bottom of the hole was filled with sand and half a gourd was positioned there, to act as a sound box. A large stone slab was placed on top of the hole and someone danced upon it, marking the rhythm of the song and dance.

Around 1900, the Polynesian musical influence was felt on the island through the predominance of upbeat, lilting dance music, which displaced the native music almost completely. This music was not ritualistic like the ancient music, but was more suited to celebrations and recreational use. This music came from Samoa, Tahiti and Hawaii and was accompanied by the guitar.

The Polynesian music of Rapa Nui lacks the transcendent sense of the mystery of life and death that permeated the ancient songs of Rapa Nui. The themes are more commonly sex and love.

Catholic liturgical songs brought from French Oceania arrived in Latin and French, then were translated into Tahitian in the late 19th century. These songs became surprisingly popular on Rapa Nui.

Beginning in 1940, traffic with Tahiti became less frequent and the island began to have more regular contact with the Chilean mainland. Local Chilean music arrived, along with Mexican music (corridos and rancheras), and ultimately international music, including modern US music.