Image left: Our church in the ‘90s. Courtesy of the author.

Alone in a windowless room. I load an MP3 file into WaveLab, and wait for the compressed file to load. A collection of blue lines appear. They’re accentuated by chaotic peaks and sudden dips, rendering the moment when my relatives sang with force and when they retreated into silence. I press play. Atmosphere floods the speakers. The lali drums begin to strike, followed by many hands clapping to form a rhythmic pattern. Anonymous laughter and excitement floats up from the background, as well as the sound of a truck passing by.

I’m transported back to when I learned a mā’ulu’ulu for the first time. It was the middle of winter. Every Sunday my mum drove us to church in Māngere. We packed into the cold chapel, kept warm by voices belting out Tongan hymns before an altar dressed in white lace. Afterwards the congregation would spend hours in the hall learning and practicing our mā’ulu’ulu together. Arriving home late at night, the smell of cigarette smoke on my clothes, I remember buzzing from the act of memorising the dance together, arranged in a circle around that cold wooden floor.

Back in the Archive I pause and play the MP3 with the click of a mouse. The sound of joyful celebration stops and starts like clockwork, mirroring my movements. I can’t see them performing, or feel the music reverberating in the room. But I can picture it, connecting the dots as I hear crickets chirping or rain falling in the distance. Even the slightest noise like a dog barking, a rooster crowing, or a baby stirring provide clues. Understanding the past is an act of imagination.

At the Archive I encounter audio recordings of song and dance from all over the Moana Pacific. ‘Okusitino Māhina categorises Tongan arts into three main areas: tufunga or material arts, faiva or performing arts, and nimamea’a or fine arts.[1] Faiva is a term for song and dance, but it literally means, “to do time in space.” As an art, faiva aims at creating harmony and beauty through the rhythmic or symmetrical arrangement of tā (time) in vā (space). The noted Tongan poet Futa Helu breaks down the term faiva as fai - to do/make and hiva - singing and music to give our tongue faiva.[2]

I attended the National Digital Forum conference at Te Papa Tongarewa last year, where Seth Ellis spoke about sound as “both a visceral connection to the past, and the most inaccessible thing about the past.”[3] On one hand sound can trigger memory, but it doesn’t just remind you of the past. It seems to erase the boundary between you and the past. It casts you into a memory. On the other hand, sound is one of the least accessible things about the past because it literally does not last. A sound is created, reverberates in the air for a little while, and unless it’s recorded, vanishes. It’s gone again.

Sound creates an intimate link with the past. Yet this intimacy can be interrupted by the clunkiness of technology.

At the Archive we deal with old audio formats: open-reel tapes, cassette, compact disc, phonograph record, wax cylinder. Each format has its own materiality, its own nature. It creates its own interface between you and what you’re listening to.

For the most part I’ve encountered music in mechanical ways. I remember when my family first got the internet, and the first thing me and my sister searched for was ‘2Pac.’ I grew up watching music videos on television channels like Juice TV and C4. I have my older siblings to thank for opening me up to all kinds of genres. When they weren’t home I’d raid their CD collections and listen to them for hours on their stereos. In high school things got a bit more sophisticated and I began downloading Mp3s using Limewire, which would take around 2 hours a song on our dial-up connection. My knowledge of music also owes a lot to Amazon algorithms, and more recently, Youtube and Spotify ones. I tried out SoundCloud for a bit.

It’s a privilege to reconnect with my Tongan heritage at the Archive. There’s something about listening to your own ancestors that hits different. But as I’ve found, the Archive also contains its own blockage, its own kind of interface.

As sound is recorded, what you have is a recording that’s removed from its original auditory place, its original space. The sound is extracted and brought over to be stored in a climate-controlled room. Not a lot of information about the performers, village or composer is brought with them. Tapu songs were given English names like “prayer chant” or “canoe hauling song.” For Western academic researchers, the sound alone was sufficient. What is sound without a connection to the conditions that created it? What you’re left with is something like a stock photo, suspended in time and space, general enough to be downloaded at anyone’s disposal.

But there’s the issue where these recordings can’t be shared with the public due to copyright restrictions. In archival practice ownership is often given to the person who deposits material rather than the people whose culture it comes from. Often the families of people held in these recordings don’t know they’re there.

What can be done to make the edges of the archive more porous, without damaging the items that are in them, without damaging our interaction with them?

The Archive is a tapu space. The recordings are tapu. They’re alive. They are embedded with knowledge of self, voiced by our ancestors themselves. But they need people to activate them and the knowledge they hold. Without people they remain cryogenically frozen in time. We can keep our ancestors warm by bringing them out from the vaults and into the present.

Digital spaces are inherently noa. In the Tongan language, noa is an adjective meaning common, ordinary, of no particular kind. This is similar to the definition of noa in te reo Māori. Digital spaces don’t discriminate, unless we program them to.

The digital space has its own nature, its own sense. It allows greater interaction with information. But because it is such a powerful access tool, it presents a danger for tapu knowledge. Indigenous cultures have their own set of protocols that restrict what information is accessible and by who. Some first nations groups have already begun leading the way in designing measures for keeping their cultures safe in the digital space.

Navigating the delicate space between tapu and noa is not easy. Often you are met with criticism from both sides of the fence. But it’s important we continue to keep our ancestors warm and share what we learn safely with our communities.


[1] Māhina, O. (2002). Tufunga Lalava: The Tongan Art of Lineal and Spatial

Intersection, in Filipe Tohi: Genealogy of Lines Hohoko e Tohitohi. S. Rees. New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

[2] Ka’ili, T. (2008). Tauhi Vā: Creating beauty through the art of sociospatial relations. [PhD Dissertation]. The University of Washington.

[3] Seth Ellis is a Senior Lecturer in Interactive Media at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.


Huni Mancini is an archivist, writer and creative. She works at the Archive of Māori and Pacific Sound, University of Auckland. Her heritage is Tongan (Mu’a; Niuatoputapu) and Italian (Grillara; Monti).