Lyrical Verse and Ritual in the Santa Cruz Islands

By: William H. Davenport

Originally Published in 1975

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In the translation of the lyrics, the material in brackets has been added by the author to clarify the meaning.

The men’s house of the single men,
Located at the village of Bumalu,
Many single girls come to sleep over [for the dance];

The men’s house…


The sacred dance baton draws them from
Mamini [a haunted reef],
A conch shell announces their arrival,
Tengaviti [a deity] awaits them, the sacred dancers, with money [to pay them for dancing];
The sacred dance.. .

These two freely translated triplets are from the lyric poetry of Santa Cruz Island, Melanesia, southwest Pacific. The verses refer to the periodic dances, which are also songfests, that are often held on the island and which are, at one and the same time, the most-enjoyed social occasions, a deeply mysterious and religious event, and an occasion for the display of the most distinctive Santa Cruz art forms. The two art forms which are merged at these celebrations are the lyric poetry and the elaborate costumery in which some of the featured performers are decked out.

To the museum goer, the southwest Pacific islands, Melanesia that is, usually conjure up images of one of the great sculp­tural regions of the tribal world. Melanesian artifacts and objet d’ art make superb gallery displays, not only in the University Museum but also in any ethnographic museum that is fortunate to have extensive collections from this region. However, not all Melanesian communities, and there are a very large number of distinct societies and cultures in Melanesia, use sculpture alone to convey their religious concepts. In many Melanesian societies various kinds of regalia. costumery or body decoration are an adjunct art form to sculpture, but representations of such human adornments are not often seen in museums. Santa Cruz Island has a distinctive sculptural style, but traditionally it is regarded as something less important than the costumes worn by some participants in the great ritual dances. Moreover, the elaborate costumes are donned only for performances involving the singing of songs such as those translated above.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lyrics of this kind. Most of them are in the triplet form. as above, but a few are doublets. The most distinctive stylistic device is tube found in the ordering of the lines. The meaning of the initial line alone stands ambiguous. something like a subject without predicate or predicate without subject. The second line either amplifies or compounds the ambiguity. In the third and final line the missing element of meaning is supplied. However. the verse is sung over and over again so that, in repetition, what was in the first instance the final line becomes the initial one.


Seizing the northeasterly wind at night.
The sun rises, iei
Nabeni [a man’s name] sails for Lura [islands to the north];


Lost in translation, of course, is the meter which. suffice to say here. is not limited to a fixed number of syllables, but the lines must conform to one of several possible length ratios. There is no rhyme; the syntax is quite different from ordinary speech. What is usually missing are the grammatical particles (such as our prepositions); word order and juxtaposition become all-important in convey­ing complex imagery with a minimum number of linguistic forms, and even some of these forms are contracted. In other words, the poetic form is achieved by economizing rather than by embellishment.


You cry, I [You and I cry in despair] It comes up, [The wind comes up] Toward the Sea of No Return, the confused seas: [From another direction, causing confused seas. we are headed for the Seas of No Return!]

Before going further into the thematics of the lyrics, let me explain more about the setting and context of the celebration in which the songs are featured. The dance, or songfest, takes place in a dancing ring which is specially constructed for these dances alone. The ring is always located near a men’s clubhouse, of which there may be several in a village, that always serves as a focal point for all rituals. Dwellings. which are considered to be primari­ly the domain of women and children, are some distance away.

The apparent leaders in the affair are costumed men, who are always handsome young adults. The young men must also have superb physical stamina, for a single celebra­tion always commences late in the afternoon and continues without pause until well into the next morning. If general enthusiasm endures, the singing and dancing may continue for a full twenty-four, even thirty-six hours; in any case until exhaustion finally takes over. The young men constitute a choir and a rhythm section that regulates the tempo and the beat of the singing and dancing. While the affair is always referred to as a dance, there are no real dancing steps. All participants merely stamp their feet in unison, or occasionally in offbeats, while taking small steps ahead. The choir leads the movement, behind follow the senior men also in some special garb, followed by women and children also festively gotten up. The entire crowd in the ring moves slowly in a counter-clockwise direction around and around. When the ring is filled with par­ticipants, as it usually is for most of the event, t he last of the women and children are, in effect, just ahead of the male choir. The beginning and the end of the crowd become merged, just as the last lines of the songs become the first through repetition. Movement and song are joined in circularity.

The choir sings in two-part harmony and half sings one line while the other half answers with the next line. Since nearly all songs are I h re e lines, with each repetition of the verse the two halves of the choir alternate singing lines. The participants divide also, following the Iwo halves of the choir. As tension and excitement mount, the tempo is accelerated and the choir introduces a syn­copated lag bet ween the boat of the feet and I he singing. Forward movement may stop while all participants bear down on their stamping. As t he climax is reached some participants introduce an offbeat stamp. Movement away from the tight climax is signalled by a lessening of tempo and force, as shouts. yells and grunts of enthusiasm and encouragement rise up. These may incite a movement back up to another climactic peak of excitement.

In the construction of dance rings special attention is paid to the quality of the earth floor of the ring. It must be pliable, not soft, but most of all it must respond to the stamping with a pronounced resonance. The stamping on a good dance floor can be heard for a mile or two away on a still night.

A single song lasts as long as there is enthusiasm for it, and this is quite variable. If a song does not arouse much excitement, it is quickly aborted after four or five minutes. But if enthusiasm for a song is awakened, it will be continued through several climaxes for as long as an hour or inure. The main objective is to keep spirits and enthusiasm as high as possible for as long as possible.

Although the costumed choir carries the beat and leads the singing, its members usually do not select the songs. After one song is brought to a conclusion, there is only a brief pause until one of the senior men leads out in solo voice with another. This is picked up by the choir as soon as it is recognized, which may be immediately for a favorite evergreen number or it may take more than one repetition if it is new or unfamiliar. New songs are introduced in this way, with great attention paid to timing of the introduction. A person who wishes to introduce a new song may have planned it secretly for months ahead. He may have composed it himself; or he may have gone to a person noted for his or her facility in composing songs and paid to have one com­posed on a given theme.

The entire population of Santa Cruz Island is less than 4000, yet there are more than a dozen distinguishable dialects which group into four languages (with a degree of difference as that between Dutch, English, German and Icelandic). However, with respect to the lyrics, which are known by speakers of all dialects, one of the four languages is dominant. All songs are usually sung in the language of the northern and western shores which has the most speakers.

The elaborate costumes worn by choir members consist of a dozen or more kinds of clothing, adornments, accessories and cosmetics. The principal one is the delicately carved nose pendant. The pendant is called nela, which is also the word for pearl shell out of which it is made as well as for the wearers of pendants. and in some contexts the entire dance-songfest is called by this name. Some of the accoutrements. such as the nose pendant, earrings. breast ornament (plus another smaller replica at the back of the neck), armbands, neck bag. belts and breech clout, are finely crafted versions of what a few years hack every senior man wore all of the time. Some accessories, such as the knee rattles and the bamboo tube carried in the right hand, are related to the music and dance. Some parts of the costume, such as the hair plumes, the hair coloring, upright nose skewers. face painting. shell necklaces, flags and decorations tucked beneath armbands, wristlets and anklets, are adornments worn only on this occasion. Every piece has deep symbolic significance over and above the fact that many are heirlooms and that in combina­tion their manufacture represents some of the most valued traditional crafts of the society. Over and above all of this is the firm belief that this costume, this singing and dancing event, even the form of the songs, are all inventions of the deities who control the destinies of living persons. There are numerous charter myths that explain just how knowledge about the costume and the event, just a few generations ago. was imparted to humans. For each object of the costume there is. or was until recently, a prototype somewhere on the island which is claimed to be the original received from the supernaturals and of which all others are copies. There are prototypic lyrics too, which were accidentally overheard by certain humans who chanced to stumble upon the deities singing and dancing in this fashion in remote haunts of the islands. Lyric II is one of these. Another is:


The fan palm tucked in my bell at my back
shakes [from my dancing]
I stand at Meenuni [a haunt of the deities] The sacred batons are raised [in the dance] at Cape of Death [the eastern point of the island. a place associated with deities].

The prototype lyrics mention deities by name or by place, because they were corn-posed by supernaturals who were celebrating their own lives and activities. They are especially sacred and are sung only at certain times. All other lyrics are concerned with the activities and personalities of humans, because they are composed by humans. They are not especially sacred and can be sung at any time, even in contexts totally removed from the ritual event for which they were composed.

Lyrics composed by humans are mostly about a limited number of cultural themes. A favorite one still is fighting. Feuding and warfare were rampant on Santa Cruz Island until the British established firm administra­tion of the island in the mid 1920’s.


My kinsmen fight, everyone is frightened.
I watch closely the how aimed at me,
I lake my body there [I must not run from the aimed bowl.


As I avenge the injustice [carry on the
Dopwe [leader of the enemy] defends firmly. Nendung [village defended] I want to burn it to the ground.


Give me a pillow,
I want to lie down, wish to sleep,
I am exhausted from fighting.


I want to run from the
Run away like the women do, but no,
I hold back.
Another favorite theme is wealth, ways of gaining wealth and status achieved by wealth. Here are the lyrics about currency, money that is, itself.


Many women ask from whence it comes. elan! Money comes from the men’s house [where economic plans and transactions are made. My brother has strong magic.


A men’s house with many single men [who can earn wealth]
They murmer behind their fathers’ backs. Who has sneered at them for their lack of


Exchanging feather currencies in the men’s
The two currencies are changed on the comparison bar [where currencies are compared for exchange: each men’s house has
The presence of great wealth awakes Mwakia a man who has been sleeping through
the transaction].

In this vein are some of the important ways of earning money. Noosing sharks, which is a very dangerous but lucrative skill is one.
The shark is attracted by Auei’s coconut shell rattle,
He lets the shark noose down [over the head of the passing shark]
He heaves the beast toward the canoe.

The shark club [for beating a noosed shark to death] falls into the sea.
As the shark pulls the canoe completely
under water,
Meinau [name of the shark catcher] cries out to his mother [in other words, he is
a coward].


Always wailing For sharks.
Making the coconut rattle [that attracts the
sharks] cry out
Tekala a man’s name, also the albatross] a bird that sleeps at sea [Tekala, the man, is always hunting sharks, he virtually sleeps
at sea].
Catching turtles is another way to earn money.


Letting down the net of Opla [a man’s name. name of a deity, also the word for currency] At the place of turtles. elan!
The conch shell blows at Point Luova [When turtle or shark are delivered to a customer by canoe, it is conventional to blow a conch shell off his men’s house and
announce the event. Here, it means the catcher got his turtles and delivered them
for payment].

Another profitable specialty is catching a species of red birds, the feathers of which are used to manufacture the currency used in all transactions.
XVII Swing across the flowing river, Holding his snaring perch. Menanga [a man’s name] searches for


A bird flies in,
It hangs from the adhesive on the perch by
one leg,
Meanga [a man’s name] fingers [to remove the bird] the bird lime of Opla [currency, deity
of that name].
A very romantic way toward wealth is by overseas trading by canoe. Wealthy traders had special large cargo-carrying canoes called lopuki. Lyric III is of this sort.


Hold it true by the steering paddle. The wind snaps tree branches ashore Bonagi [the steersman] is buffeted by the
strong gusts.


During the passage waves sweep the craft,
I feel sorry [possibly relieved!
As the topuki nears Nidu [Santa Cruz island].
Another strong theme is the praise of young men, the pride of the community, and these lyrics contain many love and sexual themes. Lyric I has this theme.


Single girls cry for their village,
A young man in a canoe appears [they want a ride home]
They watch him fade into the distance [he
pays no at tention to them].


You are a handsome single man,
But I must cover my head and avoid your
Soon I am to become your taboo relative. [This refers to the fact ilia! some relatives by marriage of opposite sex cannot speak or look at each other. in this case she really likes this one, not the one she is
to marry].
But not all are so flattering of the young men.


They say I am a handsome young man:
But when I stand in the dance ring of Luli,
One of my legs is gimpy [and I look
Al night your body looks beautiful, Single man of Nonia village.
But studying it now [in the morning] no!
There are songs about rivers.


Slowly paddling at sea,
Venus rises, coil
I wait for the woman’s canoe [Orlon, to rise].
Finally, there are many lyrics about the parts of the costumes worn by the members of the choir. The armbands are made of fiber that must he collected in the high uninhabited mountains. Some, even, comes from other islands.


I look for it in the mountains,
II grows with the nibu bush [which looks
much like the proper fiber] The fiber is hidden by it [my eyes are
confused by the nibu].


Walking along the mountain heights,
I look down on a strange sea [the opposite
side of the island!
The leaves of the armband fiber plant stand up from my hair [I placed the leaves there
to signify that I had found the fiber].
The lime used to powder the hair and paint the face markings:


Bringing it from the assemblage of single men [who are preparing their costumes for the
The lime dust which falls down [as my hair is powdered],
This young girl covers her cropped hair with her shawl [she is bashful as the young man tries to catch her eye and flirt with her!.
And about the dance event itself:

The rush carries away my skirt,
The tattoos on my thighs are all I wear. I walk down to the river,


You see my footprints there,
Stomping vigorously around the dance ring, I, the rooster of Temotu Noi [an islet off the


south coast or Santa Cruz Island] have


1 come at the time the insects sing [sunset]
To the headwaters of the River Obwe, place of
the supernaturals, XXXII
I keep an eye [out for them] on the path, eel! On the path to Temotu Nen [a village]
He stands not knowing which path to take,
The young man’s feet miss the correct way.

In the dance ring the lyrics are not selected for singing just by whim and personal preference. A theme is always followed. This may commence in a straightforward manner, say, by selecting fighting songs. Even here, there will develop a subtheme, such as fighting songs that stress place names or that convey only fear and bravado. Or the sequence might follow the general theme of single men, with a subtheme of activities of frustrated love. Themes can be shifted because many lyrics can be classified more than one way. A lyric may be sung because its subject is rivers, but a subtheme of traveling may be introduced by singing of rivers as though traveling from one place to another. Following a lyric about one river, someone may call out a song about catching sharks in the vicinity of that river, and this leads off in another thematic direction. Cleverness in this respect always heightens enjoyment.

There are only a few tunes and variations to which the lyrics are sung. These are classed into three types: the main one is termed “horizontal” or “prone” because of its chant-like melodic line; in contrast to this is a type termed “upright” or “vertical” because it has true melody; the third type might be called “lively,” because it is always sung in a fast tempo and it has a catchy melody. The horizontal form is used during the night only; the vertical is for day singing, and the lively type is used as relief of the other two whenever singing begins to drag and the occasion needs an infusion of new life.

Not all lyrics are considered to be appropriate for all three types of melodies, but the majority of the popular themes, such as fighting, money and wealth, single men, shark fishing, and sailing are suitable for any melody. More contemplative themes such as stars, paddling, bird catching and rivers are to be sung in the horizontal mode alone. Topics such as the fragrant leaves worn by men at the dances, mirrors [which have a mystical quality because a reflection is related to the soul] are suitable for either horizontal or vertical modes, but never put into the lively melodic frame.
The dancers do not just take place spontaneously, because each all-night event is a party that requires preparations. The host group, who own the dance ring, must provide gracious, sometimes lavish, hospitality to the participants in the dance, who are always from another village to come and celebrate or the hosts may give notice that anyone may come on a particular day for an open house, so to speak. It is also perfectly acceptable for a village to invite itself to come and dance and even specify what special foods they want to be served. These foods are usually a dish that the host village is noted for and is pleased to serve. Thus, maintaining a dance ring is an expensive and labor consuming affair.

Some prestige and social appreciation does accrue to the persons who organize and pay for the maintenance of a dance ring. It is also understood that social reciprocity prevails; that is, when a group is entertained by another, in due course the hospitality will be returned in kind. But the main-spring of the motivation for carrying the responsibility of a dance ring is more concerned with self interest than with promoting pleasure and entertainment for others. All dance rings are built anew, refurbished for reuse and maintained only after the sponsoring group has experienced a disaster ro calamity of some kind. When, after a series of untoward deaths, an epidemic, loss of livestock, bad crops. or even a narrow escape from disaster at sea, it is determined (through spirit mediums) that these events were caused by angered deities, then a ring and its cycle of entertainments is established. The entire affair is an atonement for some human transgression that caused deities to cause misfortunes. It is assumed that since these dances, lyrics and costumes were copied from the deities, their enactment by humans will please the supernatural.

The costumed men of the choir are impersonations of the deities themselves. As such, they are invitations to the deities to come and participate. While humans enjoy these events, and the human participants are treated as honored guests, the most honored guests are the deities who are supposed to be pleased by human imitations of their favorite pastime.

A group maintains its dance ring for a number of years until it appears that the transgressions which caused the deities to censure the community in the first place have been reestablishment, the ring is closed. The closing not only calls for a specially lavish and expensive celebration, it also calls for settling of many business accounts. During the life of a dance ring women had to grow extra staples in their gardens, feed livestock and spend hundreds of hours preparing feast dishes. They must be paid for this work and paid in local currency (nowadays augmented with cash). Men outside the group of sponsors who have provided fish or other services must also be compensated in the same way. But it is the women who have carried the main burden and who are specially honored with compensation. So, the final closing ceremony is both a celebration of the usual sort, but with more lavish food given out, and it is a public settling of accounts.

Returning once more to the lyrics, it will be recalled that some (II and V, for example) are believed to have been composed by deities for their own celebrations, while the hundreds of others are composed by humans for human celebrations. Only at the celebrations for opening and closing a ring, when the deities are being addressed directly, are the lyrics composed by the deities sung.

In summary, the lyric verse of Santa Cruz Island is embedded in an extensive ritual petition to the deities. The ritual events are at the same time the most enjoyed social celebration for humans. Taken together, all parts of the ritual portray a total picture of Santa Cruz Society. The participants are divided into three groups: the costumed imitators of the deities who lead and exert supernatural power over humans; the mature men who control secular power over the human sector; the women and children who support the men and the deities. The three are merged into a single body that performs the endless imitative round of social life. Some lyrics acknowledge the separate ways and powers of the deities, but the bulk of the lyric repertoire extolls the values of everyday human existence: the quest for wealth and prestige, defense of life and property, occupations and hazards, loves and frustrations, mysteries and banalities.

Cite This Article

Davenport, William H.. "Lyrical Verse and Ritual in the Santa Cruz Islands." Expedition Magazine 18, no. 1 (September, 1975): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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