Tonga: Follow the band

By Leeanne Arnold

Bleach must be a popular item on Tongan shopping lists I think, as I survey the brilliant white clothing of the brass bands winding their way through downtown Nuku'alofa.

In the sultry May sunshine, the snowy colour is dazzling, its brightness heightened by the smooth cafe latte skin of the marchers, the bright colours of the braid-trimmed uniform jackets in red, yellow, the glowing tupenus (wrapped skirts) in apple green, orange and deep maroon, and the sparkling silver of the trumpets and tubas.

At last count there are eight of these high school bands - an impressive muster for Nuku'alofa's population of 24,000 - and their parade is strengthened by baton-wielding drum majors, flag-waving marching girls (and boys), flower-bedecked teachers, and the Tongan army, navy and police forces turned out in crisp dress uniform.

It has the appearance of an American homecoming or victory celebration but, not so, this is a uniquely Tongan occasion - the Laka Falealea, an annual march to mark the opening of the Tongan Parliament.

For a country with a 3000-year-plus history, the Laka is a startlingly modern tradition, dating from the establishment of the constitution in 1875.

In the early days, the Tongan Parliament met three-yearly, at which time elected representatives and hereditary nobles of the Fale Alea (Legislative Assembly) would pack up their families and decamp to the capital, travelling on foot, or by boat for those from outer islands - hence the Laka (to march, or progress towards) Fale Alea.

Today, modern dictates mean Tonga's Parliament meets annually, and with an abundance of oversized 4WDs jamming Nuku'alofa's roads, pothole to pothole, there's presumably little need for current MPs to walk to work.

Thus the 21st century laka is now a symbolic march, where the country's youth honour their king by lining Nuku'alofa's dusty streets as he is driven to Parliament.

Only it's not King George Tupou Vwho opens and closes Parliament this year, but his sister, HRH Princess Pilolevu Tuita. The king is reportedly travelling overseas.

Fortunately his absence hasn't dampened the mood of the crush of mothers, fathers, aunties, grannies and small children who surround me in my prime spot across the road from the princess.

Dressed in their finest, grinning and waving flags, it seems like the entire town has turned out, and I initially expected my view of the proceedings to be limited.

However royal protocol demands commoners must remain at a level lower than the princess, so when the royal procession arrived we all sat on the none-too-clean footpath (me casting envious glances at my neighbours' well-padded rears) offering the respect required for royal and noble families.

There are a few exceptions to the sitting rule.

Ignoring the shouts from strutting policemen, a small group of women intermittently leap into the path of the parade and march a few dozen steps with arms swinging and chests puffed out, while others dance on the sidelines, bottoms wiggling vigorously with each delighted whoop from the crowd.

These antics are called mafana, and according to high school principal Vaimoana Faka'osi they "express (the women's) pride and joy at seeing their children look so beautiful".

Vaimoana adds that mafana is also intended to encourage the children to perform their best, although I suspect an element of planned scene-stealing, especially when I spy some flamboyant mamas have dressed in replica band uniforms.

Yet despite the attempted upstaging of these mature groupies, it's the bands that shine, like the tinsel decorating their drum majors' batons, as they break into their well-rehearsed routines: sidesteps and spins to the upbeat tempo of Deep in the Heart of Texas, mock charges and chases to the William Tell Overture, and kung fu posing by military cadets.

Each act is enthusiastically received, playing to Tongans' love of music and slapstick humour.

The exuberant response of the crowd makes it easy to see why a fully kitted band has been the aspiration of every Tongan high school, church, army, navy and police force since first being introduced by Methodist missionaries.

But brass doesn't come cheap. How can these cash-strapped schools afford to support a band?

My question is answered by Louisa, a young teacher from Saint Andrew's High School.

"We just ask the old students," she explains, grinning mischievously.

"We're always asking them for money. Sometimes when they see me coming they hide."

Expatriate Tongans are a favoured source of funds. Since the early 1970s the export of people - primarily to the US, Australia and New Zealand - has reaped substantial income for Tonga.

In fact today remittances exceed all other foreign earnings, posing a potential problem in these financially troubled times.

Could falling remittances put an end to the brass bands? My question is met with smiling incomprehension.

Get rid of the bands? Why? No, it couldn't happen, the money will always be found.

It's the sort of response that's the despair of many a foreign economic adviser, yet contains more than a grain of truth.

The high school bands are hugely popular in Tonga, attracting big crowds whenever they perform at the Laka Falealea, school athletics week, Heilala Festival and other parades that fill the Tongan calendar.

The police and army bands are also in demand for funerals and weddings, and smaller bands regularly accompany services in many churches.

So, whatever financial cuts are in Tonga's future, I suspect its brass bands will remain. After all, what would they tell the Mafana Mamas?

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates up to five direct flights per week from Auckland to Tonga with connections from all 27 domestic points around New Zealand. Fares start from $205 per person one way ex-Auckland.

Laka Falealea: Officially Parliament opens during the last week of May but this has been known to vary. Tongan bands are also on display on other festive occasions such as the Heilala Festival - which this year runs from July 27 to August 1 - and the annual Breast Cancer Awareness March, held every October.

Further information: See tongaholiday.com for details of festivals and information about visiting Tonga.

- NZ Herald

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