It grew dark; the waiter who brought the beer became invisible except for his white shorts. After dusk some small creatures (birds?) began moving in fits and starts across the lawn. I got up to see what they were. They were frogs-strange frogs that did not jump but ran like sparrows.
Derek had arranged for Krishna to return after dinner and take us to the Nadi Travelodge, about four miles out of town, where there was to be a meke, a performance of Fijian songs and dance.
In North America the Travelodge is a chain of motels whose sign is a sleepy bear in a nightshirt. There was no sleepy bear in neon at the Nadi establishment. The place was opulent (especially by contrast with our modest hotel); it had hardwood floors, thatched walkways, and the waiters wore uniforms-green suIus (Fijian kilts) fastened with orange cummerbunds, and, above these, aloha shirts (often called bula shirts in Fiji) depicting palm trees and setting suns.
The meke had begun. Four rows of Fijian men and womenabout thirty people in all-sat on the lawn between the bar and the swimming pool. Floodlights lit their costumes: raffia skirts for the men, coloured raffia skirts and floral print bikini tops for the women. All wore wreaths of frangipani petals in their hair, and their black bodies glistened with coconut oil-perhaps the only authentic item in the entire rig. (In ancient times women and men respectively wore short tassel skirts, barkcloth breech clouts, and little else.
But these pseudo-Polynesian trappings did not detract from the burly Melanesian physiques; the natives made the whites look as pallid and shriveled as recently emerged occupants of a fallout shelter.We took seats near the bar. The singing was an arrangement of harmony parts with two lead voices followed closely by a choral block. Three kinds of percussion instruments, all traditional, accompanied the singers: long, fat bamboo tubes pounded in unison on the ground; small sticks struck together; and wooden gong drums, resembling short dugout canoes (but not tapered at the ends) whose “gunwales” were beaten with wooden drumsticks in a rapid syncopated rhythm.
The drumming sounded alien and impressive, but one could hear influence of Western music in the diatonic melodies.In pre-contact times mekes were vehicles for oral histories, epics, and legends. The early missionaries tried to purge them of “heathen” content by replacing the old words with Bible stories translated into Fijian. Gradually the meke became influenced by Christian hymns and, in recent years, by international pop music. But ancient singing styles do survive in the meke ni yaqona, songs performed only when yaqona (kava), the ceremonial drink of Fiji, is publicly presented to a high chief. These are sung in elaborate polyphony, with up to eight individual vocal lines, and a limited melodic range of no more than a fifth.
After some slow and rather syrupy songs there came a performance of spear-brandishing by the men. “Warriors” leaped towards . the unsuspecting audience, who screamed, then laughed as the dancers’ fierce expressions dissolved into grins. The spears were long sticks adorned with coloured streamers, mere toys compared to those of Thomas Williams’s day: “They are deadly weapons,” he wrote, “generally of heavy wood, and from ten to fifteen feet long. One variety is significantly called ‘The priest is too late.’ “
Later on the tourists were invited to take part in a dance.· The tipsier ones were ready enough. We recognized a familiar shrunken figure bobbing among the others like a chimpanzee at a ball. Gorky saw us. He hobbled to our table, then beckoned frantically to a bearded white man at the bar.
“Gentlemen, welcome to Fiji!” he said, draining his glass. “Let me introduce you to an Australian friend. This man’s name is Jerry. Jerry, meet-
Historian, novelist, and essayist Ronald Wright is the award-winning author of nine books of nonfiction and fiction published in 16 languages and more than 50 countries. Much of his work explores the relationships between past and present, peoples and power, other cultures and our own.
On Fiji Islands, was published in 1986 to critical acclaim. He has graciously allowed Fijiguide.com to serialize his work for your enjoyment. We welcome your comments.
©2018 Ronald Wright