≡ Menu

Tahitian percussion vocabulary

Back to one of my roots for a few minutes.

toere drumsThe toere (pronounced “toe-eddie”) is a Tahitian percussion instrument. It’s made from a hollowed-out log of milo wood, and is played one-handed with a heavy tapered stick made of very hard iron wood. A variety of tones can be pulled from a toere, depending on where you hit it, and and with which part of the stick.

You’ve no doubt heard the delicious woody sound of a toere before. Used in Polynesian shows, most American laypersons mistakingly assume the toere is a Hawaiian instrument, when it is in fact a part of Tahitian musicscape specifically. In the states, Polynesian shows typically mix numbers of Hawaiian (hula, ukulele, slack-key guitar), Maori (New Zealand), and Tahitian. The Tahitian stuff is sort of the speed metal of Polynesian music, with the gaudy headdresses, the fire dancers, the female hips that move like washing machines, and the lightning-fast tribal wood-on-wood rhythms. It’s the stuff that tickles the blood.

Like other cultures with an appetite for groove, the Tahitians have their own rhythmic vocabulary, consisting of mathematical patterns that are arguably closer to Morse code than Western music. These patterns, like words, are pieced together, like sentences, and arranged into pieces called oteas, which are sort of like short stories. These oteas then serve as a aural backdrop for the dancers to tell their own stories visually.

The music of the toere is largely contextual. Hearing one guy play a toere alone is probably not that special, as he’s really just a piece of the larger picture. The real magic happens when the toere players all play together in organized precision, backed by the rest of the drumline.

At our mainland reunion this weekend, I had my cousin take my toere and demonstrate a handful of the classic patterns. Included here, with likely spelling errors: Napoko, Toma, (second) Toma, Pahae, (second) Pahae, Paea, Puara-Ta, Takoto, Mati*, Bora Bora:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

One more called Hitoto:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

*To hear it all in context, here’s a recording of Mati with the full drumline. Along with the line of guys playing the skinned drums, there are typically about eight guys on toeres. A piece is usually arranged with with at least two variations (say, Part A and Part B, with occasional Parts C and D), with the beats displaced. With four guys locking down Part A, the other four guys will play Part B, essentially filling in the spaces of Part A. This achieves that thick river of notes that sounds like a woody drum roll. Upon hearing it, the layperson normally assumes that the toere is being played with two hands, when in fact it’s eight toeres played by eight guys, all one-handed.

6 comments… add one
  • jaced.com September 8, 2009, 9:57 am
  • keikilani garnett August 9, 2010, 1:38 pm

    Love the Tahitian drumming. Took me back to when I was a child performing in Hanalei Kauai Hawaii at the Tahiti Nui. Where can i get a cd on more smoking-hot Tahitian pieces? So i can teach my boys.

  • Eduardo August 18, 2010, 10:26 pm

    Hello, i’m from México. I play the toere and i love it. Thanx for sharing this knowledge

  • Tiare July 3, 2012, 4:39 am

    Nice uncle~~~taking me back, never fails whenever i hear toere, just want to dance, was with heretama nui for five years…thanks for sharing, trying to form a halau here in alabama, (verry hard)…lol

  • Lealofitaute January 18, 2016, 6:46 pm

    Maruru, The Toere is my passion. I am a proud Lead drumer for Toahere Tahitian Reveue. On the Big Island of Hilo. I just am blown away into a tropical fanticy of mqsounds that will knock you off yo

Leave a Comment