Christmas 2008: A Celebration in Song
Even though nearly half of the population of Flji is not Christian, Christmas Day and Boxing Day are public holidays, and Christmas is celebrated in some way by all segments of the population.
While all Christian denominations include choral music as part of their liturgy, none emphasise it to the same extent as the Wesleyan Methodist Church (Lotu Weseh), which was historically the first denomination to bring Christianity to Fiji, and still today commands the allegiance of some four-fifths of the indigenous Fijian population. Indeed, the annual Methodist Choir Competition, which takes place along with a bazaar before the annual Conference (Koniveredi), is the single largest gathering of indigenous people in Fiji, and looked forward to by Fijians, Rotumans and other ethnic groups from every corner of the archipelago. For many in rural areas and remote islands, it is their only trip to the capital city Suva, where it is usually held, and they will save every penny during the year to be able to splash out on boat fares and a colourful and elegant choir uniform, and to buy handicraft or sample the culinary delights that other participants bring with them to sell.
Wesleyan Methodism was introduced to the island of Lakeba, in the Lau Islands of eastern Fiji, by Reverends David Cargill and William Cross, in 1835.They had ~ preceded by three Tahitian missionaries of the London Missionary Society, who had had limited success, and a number of the Tongans who regularly visited Lakeba and the Lau Group had also become Methodists and had introduced some concepts and practices of the new lotu (Christianity).
It was soon discovered the Fijians had a natural aptitude for singing. A particular style of polyphonic traditional chant was adapted to the new religion, and the earliest hymns, composed in the dialects of Lau and Somosomo, were sung in this style. Before long, it had become customary to chant the Fijian translations of the Te Deum, Apostles' Creed and Litany from John Wesley's abridgement of The Book of common Prayer in this sonorous and rhythmic polyphonic chanting style.The popularity of hymn-singing is evident in the fact that 4,000 Fijian hymnbooks were printed in 1843 - long before mass conversions to Christianity, and when very few Fijians could read.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, western style four-part harmony was introduced and quickly gained popularity, as Methodist missionaries translated standard English hymns into Fijian, and soon Fijians themselves were composing and adapting. As in other Pacific nations, the notation used was tonic sol-fa rather than staff notation, and this remains the most popular notation to this day. Gradually the traditional chanting style was lost, and now it is confined to singing the psalms, Fijianised as same, and in Lau the catechism (tare), usually chanted by women before the Sunday service.
It is jokingly said that Welsh people "break into four-part harmony at the drop of a hat", and the same could justly be said of Fijians. Choir practice is probably the most widespread form of social activity, with the exception perhaps of kava drinking. National rugby teams (both fifteens and sevens) have become famous for singing melodious hymns of praise after games, in stark contrast to the traditional challenge or war dance (cibi) performed beforehand.
As illustrated in these stamps, there is a fairly rigid dress code, with men wearing isulu vakataga (tailored wraparound sarongs) and women isuluira and jaba (dress over ankle-length skirt), but a great variety of styles, colours and accessories. At Christmas, choirs sing Fijian versions of well-known English carols, such as Bogi buts (Silent night), So memela dina mat (Ding-dong merrily on high), No ivakatawa era to), No ivakatawa era tu (While shepherds watched), Mai na koro i Tevita (Once in royal David's city) and Keitou go no kilaka- (We three kings); and, of course, no Christmas would be complete without a resounding rendition of Aleluya - Handel's Hallelujah Chorus!