Deities, dreams and traditional dances
13 June, 2021, 9:30 pm
Before the arrival of Christian missionaries and their religion, traditional dances called meke were already been performed for centuries by indigenous Fijians as part of their social and religious activities.
Meke were traditional performing art for men and women, embracing traditional singing, dancing and music.
They often relay legends, historical events and prophecies of the islands, and varied widely — from fast blood-raising traditional spear dances to graceful fan dances.
This week, The Sunday Times sheds some light on traditional Fijian meke and their history.
In any meke, there are two groups — an orchestra of sorts (vakatara), who sit on the ground and sing and provide music, and a matana, who sits on the ground or stands and performs the dance moves.
The instruments used are either bamboo tubes called derua, small hardwood gongs (lali), and beating sticks. During a meke, performers wear garlands of flowers (salusalu) and leafy adornments on the wrist and ankles called vesa.
The men wear warrior costumes and the women, in traditional skirts and tops, glisten with scented coconut oil. Meke used to be an important feature of village life and ceremonies.
It appeared in various forms according to the locality and was usually made up of a series of repeated movements to the music of homemade instruments and chanting.
In the 1896 publication, The History of Mankind, German ethnographer, Friedrich Ratzel, wrote about the Fijian meke. Ratzel said the lyrics of a meke or qaqana and the dance were taught “in the spirit world” by “divine beings”.
Ratzel seemed to suggest a meke was a poem that was sung.
Deities worshipped in ancient Fiji were tutors of traditional dances and chants or provided mana to allow it to be performed.
These traditional performing arts were then passed down through the ages to tribesmen and women through specialist meke composers and choreographers called daunivucu.
The daunivucu were professional artists, revered in ancient times because, like the priests or bete, they delved into the spirit world and taught tribesmen and women meke that sometimes contained prophetic messages or warnings that deities wished to convey.
Each daunivucu possessed a form of mana or magic and had to closely serve a particular deity to possess the rare ability to teach a meke.
According to old stories passed down many generations to the people of Rukua, Dakuwaqa had two daughters. Senilagakali was involved with traditional medicine and healing while Senivaivai was a chant and dance specialist, said Rukua Village historian, Mika Tubanavau, 70.
During an interview with this newspaper in June 2019, Mr Tubanavau said Senivaivai helped Rukua compose many traditional dances one of which was a meke marking the Duke of Gloucester’s visit to Beqa Island in 1935.
In the 1930s, the village of Rukua had a group of top “ancestral worshippers”.
One of them was a daunivucu by the name Aporosa Bulivou.
According to an account written by Bulivou, which was documented in the 1970s, he confirmed ancestral worship and witchcraft were still rife in the early 1900s, although Christianity was already accepted and practised in Fiji.
Traditional meke were never for the sole purpose of entertainment.
They were part of traditional gatherings, celebrative events and special rituals associated with death and birth.
The kind of meke performed to commemorate someone’s death was usually performed four nights after burial or vakabogiva. The meke was called vakavidiulo (flicking of maggots).
In old Fiji, the birth of a child was a special occasion marked by meke performed by elderly women.
When a baby was put to sleep or attended to, grandmothers would perform a dance called “meke ni vakawele” which featured special chants belonging to either the grandfather or grandmother.
Some meke were performed to appease the spirits or a traditional deity, to seek their blessings and protection
Whenever the vanua planned an important event, the daunivucu was traditionally approached to teach a new meke to commemorate the occasion (kerei ni meke).
In Bulivou’s case, he would present a sevusevu to Dakuwaqa who then assigned Senivaivai to teach a meke containing around 24 to 30 verses that “described future events and important riddled messages”.
The lyrics were revealed in a dream, three or four verses at a time, so one chant would be revealed over a few night’s vision, Tubanavau said.
When the chant was given in its entirety, it was then Bulivou’s job to teach the village the verses of the chant before Dakuwaqa and Senivaivai would then give him further instructions on the choreography.
This took many more nights and hours of dreaming.
When it came to choreography, a big house was usually divided into two halves by long curtains. Singers of the meke (called vakatara) would occupy the bottom half of the house while the daunivucu would be in the other half with a group of selected dancers dressed in full meke attire.
Separated by curtains, the singers and dancers didn’t see each other. Bulivou would dream, receive the actions (matana) and teach the movements of the meke to the dancers while the vakatara group provided the accompaniment in the other half of the house.
This happened over somany nights. When the whole meke was received and learned by heart, a thanksgiving sevusevu was then presented to the deity.
In Rukua, a composition of 30 verses took the daunivucu about 10 days to receive and another two to three weeks to teach the matana. Sometimes, no specifi cally known deity was involved with the composition of a meke so on a dark night men would perform a ritual to randomly ask beings in the spirit realm for a meke. This was called suqe vucu and was often asked in “vanua tawa” or places known to have supernatural custodians.
After a meke was thoroughly learned, it was presented for the first time (sevu meke) to the chief, usually on the main village green. A performer who was of chiefly rank normally wore the unprinted brown masi kuvui, a custom still practised today.
During the days when the daunivucu was revered as a performing artist, he would have mysterious amnesia after successfully teaching a meke and would not remember any of the lyrics or actions ever again. It is believed the gods would erase it from his memory.
After a major traditional obligation was successfully carried out, and a meke was performed, gifts and yaqona are presented to the daunivucu to thank him for his services. This is called vakacirisalusalu.
Below are some types of traditional meke for men and women.
Seasea ( formerly sese)
This meke is performed by women while standing and usually to entertain guests during very special occasions. The procession of dancers and vakatara starts this meke by repeatedly singing a verse and moving to the main dance spot (ucu ni meke) where various confi gurations are later formed.
Meke i wau
Also called meke mada, this is the most spectacular of traditional Fijian meke. Meke I wau is performed only by men and features clubs, precision and rapid movements. It is usually performed during very special events such as vakasenuqanuqa, and takes a long time to learn because some movements can cause injury if not timed well.
Performed by men while standing, meke wesi features spears and fans.
A type of meke that does not feature any prop except the hands. This meke is associated with the spirit of stillborn and miscarried babies.
Meke ni manumanu
This is a very entertaining meke which uses very funny actions, often depicting animal movements like crawling, squatting and sliding.
Meke ni yaqona
A type of meke performed during traditional ceremonies of welcome where yaqona was mixed and served to a dignified guest.
This meke follows the rise and fall of the waves. It involves making fun and sometimes features women dancers when men were the usual performers.
Meke performed by the people of Malolo in the Yasawa group of islands while seated can be performed by both men and women.
- History being the subject it is, a group’s version of events may not be the same as that held by another group. When publishing one account, it is not our intention to cause division or to disrespect other oral traditions. Those with a different version can contact us so we can publish your account of history too — Editor.