Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is seventh in a series. To see the other posts, click here.
Smithsonian curator Adrienne Kaeppler and Tongan official Albert Vaea introduced a Lakalaka program featuring a poetic and musical dance tradition designated a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage by UNESCO. The dancers did not disappoint—their voices soared, the dancers were graceful and our travelers most appreciative. We presented a Smithsonian publication on the Ocean to Albert and also Smithsonian books and recordings for the King and the Princess.
We were then off to a brief visit to the King’s palace, a modest but graceful Victorian style, and the royal burial grounds—also with Victorian style statues of departed leaders coupled with a Polynesian burial awning. The Tongan kingdom has lasted for centuries, and while never colonized, is nonetheless in the midst of democratization.
As we stood by the palace we spotted a mushroom-like cloud billowing up at the edge of the horizon. There had been an earthquake days before, and this looked like an eruption emerging from the sea, though given its white color, and cumulus shape, at least gave the appearance of something far-off and benign.
The National Cultural Center highlighted the island kingdom’s living heritage. We saw demonstrations of tapa, or bark-cloth, making, dyeing and painting, pandanus leaf weaving and mat making, coconut processing, and of course musical performance. It was visually stimulating, informative, and the youthful dancing hyper-energetic.
Living tradition was also evident in cemeteries we passed. Tongans mount embroidered cotton quilts on frames – almost like a signboard over graves of their departed loved ones. Some decay and are not replaced, but others are tended to over the years by family members. They give these cemeteries a unique look.
Adrienne of course was a great tutor in explaining things—she first did her work in Tonga in 1965, and subsequently earned her PhD from the University of Hawaii for a dissertation on Tongan dance. We saw one of her books at the airport and arranged a book-signing on the spot.
We had a special treat on the way back to the airport. As our busload of well-satisfied travelers were cruising down the road, the wind blowing the palms, the scent of flowers in the air, our guide Luiza broke out into a Tongan love song. It was a lovely, lilting song about a boy who found his love like a flower growing on the edge of a cliff—alluring and obtainable though dangerously so. It was also a magical moment for all of us.
This post is seventh in a series. To see the other posts, click here.