Volume 50 1941 > Volume 50, No. 200 > Pan-Pipes in Polynesia, by Te Rangi Hiroa, p 173-184
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PAN-PIPES are primitive wind instruments that derive their popular name from the Greek myth that they were invented by the god Pan. Pan was represented as having the legs and sometimes the ears and horns of a goat. In Arcadia, he was supposed to wander through the forests attended by nymphs and playing upon the syrinx 1 or Pan's pipes. The instrument consists of a number of short hollow reeds graduated in length to provide a musical scale and bound together side by side with the lower ends stopped and the upper ends open and level for playing with the lips.

The instruments are widely spread for they are also recorded from Peru and Oceania. The distribution in Oceania has been summarized by Andersen (1) from the instruments figured by Edge-Partington (2) in his Ethnological Album of the Pacific Islands. The islands so recorded comprise New Guinea, Admiralty, New Britain, Solomons, New Hebrides, Fiji, and Tonga. Both in New Guinea and Melanesia, the instruments vary in different districts or different islands in the same group. They may consist of a single row of reeds or a double row in which the reeds of the back row are open at both ends. In all these Pacific islands, the reeds consist of lengths of bamboo in which the natural node forms the stopped lower ends of the single-row instruments and the front reeds of the double-row instruments. The reeds vary in diameter as well as length, the shorter reeds being of less diameter than the longer ones. They also vary in the number of reeds and the methods by which they are bound together. - 174 The reeds may be regularly graduated in length from the longest to the shortest or they may be arranged in a sequence in which the lower ends present an irregular appearance.

Though Tonga is the only Polynesian group figured by Edge-Partington, pan-pipes were also known in Samoa. A solitary instrument in the British Museum has been wrongly attributed to New Zealand. I saw four Tongan instruments in the British Museum and one in the Berne Museum. As I took photographs and notes on the five instruments, I give the details here to place the Tongan technique on record.


The authenticity of pan-pipes in Tonga is placed beyond doubt by Cook (3, 3rd vol., pl. 21, fig. 5), who saw the instrument being played and figured a specimen, which Andersen reproduced in his work. The instrument figured is evidently the one I saw in the British Museum attributed to Cook. The other three in the British Museum were collected on a voyage of H.M.S. Herald. The instrument in the Berne Museum was collected by Webber, the artist with Cook's third expedition. The five instruments are shown in fig. 1 and the number of reeds, length in inches of the shortest and longest reeds, and the width of the instruments are given in the accompanying table. The British Museum specimens are grouped together under the number 56/7-9/6 and the Berne Museum instrument is numbered Fr. 22.

The reeds consist of varying lengths of bamboo arranged in a single row with the upper open ends in a straight line and the lower closed ends forming an irregular line except in the smallest instrument (e). The open ends are trimmed both back and front into a concave curve, the curve on one surface being usually deeper than the other. The reeds are bound with two horizontal rows of coconut-husk fibre, an upper row a little below the open ends and a lower row just above the level of the closed end of the shortest reed.

The instruments in fig. 1 are drawn in the position in which they were photographed by me with the shortest reed on the right, but I have no information as to whether or not this was the position when played. However, when held in this position, the deeper curves of the open ends are toward the mouth and one may therefore assume that this was the

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FIG. 1—Pan-Pipes from Tonga.
No. of reeds, Shortest, Longest, Total width, a. British Museum (Cook), 10, 9½, 13¾, 4, b. Berne Museum (Webber), 10, 6¾, 9¾, 3¾, c. British Museum (H.M.S. Herald), 10, 5¾, 8, 3 1/8, d. British Museum (H.M.S. Herald), 9, 6½, 10¼, 3 1/8;, e. British Museum (H.M.S. Herald), 5, 4¾, 7½, 1 5/8;
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position when played. In lieu of direct information, I again assume that in the double-row pan-pipes, the closed row is next to the mouth because it is the closed reeds which are sounded. It is interesting to note that of the pan-pipes in the Bishop Museum collection, the double-row instruments from the Solomons and the New Hebrides have the shortest reed on the right. The curved open ends appear to be peculiar to Tonga, for all the Bishop Museum instruments from New Guinea and Melanesia have straight upper ends.

An examination of the four wider instruments in fig. 1, a-d, shows that though apparently arranged irregularly as regards length, they are definitely arranged in two series. In all four, the right series consists of five reeds, commencing on the right with the shortest reed in the whole instrument. Moving in order to the left, the second reed is short, but a little longer than the first; the third is longer still and of medium length; the fourth is long, usually the longest; and the fifth falls back to the same medium length as the third. Thus the fourth longest reed is supported on either side by mediums of equal length.

The left series consists of five reeds in three instruments (a, b, c) and four in the other (d). The series commences with a short sixth, always a little longer than the first. The seventh is medium, the eighth long and the ninth medium. Thus the long reed (8th) is again supported on either side by mediums of equal length. The instrument with nine reeds stops here, but in the other three, the tenth or left marginal reed differs. In the Cook (a) and the Webber (b) instruments, the tenth reed is long, but in the third (c), the tenth is short, corresponding in length to the first (6th) of the second series. The reeds in the Tongan instruments were thus not placed haphazard, but according to a definite musical scale that Andersen or some other musician could work out if the instruments were available for testing.

The small instrument (e) with five reeds is really a half-instrument and though it departs from the preceding types in having the reeds arranged regularly in sequence of length, it follows the general plan in having the shortest reed on the right.

The lashing-technique, similar in all five instruments, consists of two spaced rows made with coconut-husk fibre. - 177 It was commenced by passing a number of fibres horizontally around all the reeds to form a band consisting of five fibres in the Webber instrument and eight or nine in the British Museum specimens. The ends of individual fibres were brought together and the double ends tied with an overhand knot. A single fibre was then passed back and forth between the reeds and around the horizontal band both back and front as shown in fig. 2, a-c. The technique was the same in both rows, but in the Cook instrument, a double fibre was used in the lower row which, after completing one round, was reversed for a second course with resultant crossings on the back of the reeds as shown in fig. 2, d. This technique is similar to that used to bind together the lengths of dry coconut-leaflet midribs in both Tongan and Samoan combs.

FIG. 2—Lashing Technique of Tongan Pan-Pipes.
a. Front: 1, Upper ends of reeds, showing lower curved cuts on front; 2, Horizontal band of coir fibre; 3, Binding fibre passing around horizontal band in front between reeds and passing back in same interval., b. Back: Binding fibre (3) after passing around band (2) in front, passes obliquely to right to pass around horizontal band in each interval., c. Horizontal section showing horizontal band in front (2) and at back (2′) with binding fibre (3) passing backward and forward between the reeds., d. Back of lower lashing row in Cook instrument, showing two crossing courses (3, 3′) of the binding fibre around horizontal band (2).
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According to McKern (4) the Tongan name for pan-pipes is mimiha.

The drawing of a pan-pipe reproduced by Andersen (1, fig. 25, No. 3) from D'Urville (5, vol. 1, pl. 84, fig. 2) with the inscription “Tongatabu panpipes,” differs markedly from the Tongan forms already described. The reeds are arranged in regular sequence of length and the lashing consists of fairly wide bands of fibres that pass around successive pairs of reeds near the lower closed ends. The lashings thus ascend from the longest reed to the shortest in a series of steps. This lashing technique is characteristic of New Britain, to which locality the instrument probably belongs. It certainly does not belong to Tonga.


The information obtained by me in Samoa (6, p. 580) about pan-pipes was very scant. The Samoan instrument was said to be a fa'aili'ofe (bamboo made into a whistle), a term which is descriptive rather than specific. It was said to consist of five reeds which were bound together with the coconut-leaflet midrib comb-technique (fausanga selu). The number of reeds corresponds to that of the small Tongan instrument, though probably there were larger ones similar to the larger Tongan pan-pipes. The reported comb-lashing also corresponds to the Tongan technique and it is very probable that the old Samoan pan-pipes resembled those of Tonga very closely.

I disagree with Andersen (1, p. 270) in his statement that the Samoan people did not know the pan-pipes “until it was introduced by Solomon Island labourers in comparatively recent times.” Its presence in Samoa is vouched for by Stair (7, p. 135) and Wilkes (8, vol. 2, p. 142) long before Solomon Islands labourers were brought to Samoa. However, it is extremely likely that the pan-pipes that were originally introduced in pre-European times were abandoned after European contact and then re-introduced by Solomon Islands labourers. If such were the case, the original Samoan form resembling the Tongan type with the comb lashing would have disappeared and the form which came in later should resemble one of the Solomon Islands types of instrument. Such an explanation would bear out the latter part of Ander- - 179 sen's statement and it is supported by a modern pan-pipe from Tutuila that was made for the Bishop Museum by Fepulea'i Ripley. This instrument (fig. 3, a) differs from

FIG. 3—Pan-Pipes with two Bar Lashings.
a. Modern Samoan, Bishop Museum (C. 1601): total width, 15½in.; 33 reeds; longest, 7½in.; shortest, 2in.; with upper horizontal bar (1) and lower oblique (2)., b. Solomon Islands, Edge-Partington (I-228-1): width, 6in.; depth, 6in.; with upper horizontal double bar (1) and lower oblique double (2).
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the Tongan type in having a larger number of reeds (33) arranged in regular sequence according to length and being bound together by lashing the reeds with narrow sennit braid to an upper horizontal bar and a lower oblique one. The type of Solomon Islands pan-pipe that it resembles is shown in fig. 3, b. It will be observed that the reeds in both instruments are regularly graded in length and the upper horizontal and lower oblique bars are present.

The Solomon Islands' instrument differs in that the bars are composed of flat strips of bamboo arranged in pairs for both horizontal and oblique bars whereas Ripley has used fairly thick rounded rods of some local wood on only one side of his instrument. For lashing, the Solomon Islanders used some form of local fibre which is not coconut-husk fibre, and Ripley used sennit. The lashing-technique is also different in the two instruments. It would be interesting to investigate the history of the introduced Solomon Islands labourers to find if some of them came from the district or island in which horizontal and oblique bars were used on their pan-pipes.


The presence of pan-pipes in New Zealand, to quote Anderson (1, pp. 267-270), rests on its inclusion in a list of Maori musical instruments in Marshall's Account of New Zealand, 1834 and a set of pan-pipes in the British Museum attributed to New Zealand. The British Museum instrument was figured by Edge-Partington (2, series 1, pl. 386, fig. 4) in his Ethnological Album of the Pacific Islands, and this drawing was reproduced by Andersen in his work on Maori Music.

Marshall is the authority for the statement that he saw two Maori women weaving a cloak from either end toward each other so that the weft-line met in the middle of the garment. Such a technique would involve the knotting together of the weft-elements in the middle of each row with the result that the completed garment would show a vertical row of knots in the middle of each garment. No such garment has been recorded, because no craftswoman would adopt such an inconvenient and untidy technique. What really happened was that one woman wove the weft line from left to right to the middle of the garment and then relinquished it to her - 181 assistant who completed the row with the same weft-elements while the first woman commenced another row. By the time the new weft-row reached the middle, the assistant had completed the preceding row and was ready to take over. Thus two women could weave on the one garment, but the second woman worked away from the first and not toward her. An author who could not describe accurately what he saw can be little relied upon to record accurately what he did not see.

Andersen (1) mentions that J. Macmillan Brown wrote that the pan-pipes were reported “once or twice from New Zealand” but Brown did not give his authorities for this statement. Evidently, according to Andersen, Macmillan Brown referred to Marshall and Edge-Partington. Elsdon Best rightly considered that the instrument was essentially Melanesian and had reached Tonga through Fiji. George Graham, who made special inquiries for S. Percy Smith many years ago, found that none of the old Maoris he interviewed had ever seen or heard of such an instrument.

Coming to the instrument in the British Museum, it is curious that it should be the only specimen attributed to New Zealand, whereas large numbers of the various Maori musical

FIG. 4—Pan-Pipes with One Row of Herring-Bone Lashing.
a. British Museum specimen wrongly attributed to New Zealand., b. Tanna, New Hebrides (Cook's Voyages)., c. New Hebrides instrument in British Museum.
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instruments have been preserved together with their names. Any single representative of an alleged class of object must be treated with suspicion. However, there is a very simple method of deciding whether the instrument belongs to New Zealand or not, and this is by examining the material from which it is made. I did not see the instrument when I studied Polynesian artifacts in the British Museum in 1933, and it is not possible to obtain further details at present because the British Museum material has been stored in the country for safety during the duration of the war. However, a study of Edge-Partington's (2, series 1, pl. 386, fig. 4) drawing, reproduced in fig. 4 a, indicates clearly that the reeds composing the instrument consist of bamboo. The bamboo (kohe, 'ohe, 'ofe), though widely spread throughout the tropics, was not present in New Zealand in pre-European times. The fact that the Polynesian bamboo name of kohe was given by the early Maori settlers to a totally different plant (Dysoxylum spectabile) shows that they neither introduced the bamboo nor found it in the native flora of New Zealand. Having a plant-name to spare, the Maoris applied it to a plant which produced long slender saplings that could be used for some of the purposes which bamboo served in their previous home in central Polynesia. The poles, however, were solid and could not be used to make pan-pipes even had they been acquainted with that instrument. Thus, if the British Museum instrument is made of bamboo, as it appears to be, the instrument cannot possibly belong to New Zealand.

In the alleged New Zealand instrument, seven reeds are regularly graded in sequence of length. The lashing-technique consists of a single row near the upper end and the turns around the reeds form a continuous chevron or herring-bone pattern (fig. 4, a). In both reed-arrangement and lashing-technique, the instrument differs greatly from the Tongan type. In seeking the correct locality of the instrument, my attention was arrested by Andersen's (1, p. 23) reproduction of a figure in the illustrations of Cook's voyages, of a pan-pipe from Tanna, New Hebrides. The regular arrangement of the reeds, the herring-bone pattern of the lashing, and even the overhand knots at each end of the lashings are identical in the drawings of the two instruments. The only differences are that the Cook instrument has one - 183 more reed and the longest reed has extra length below the closing node (fig. 4, b). The two drawings were made from opposite sides which may confuse the reader at first glance.

Another pan-pipe in the British Museum figured by Edge-Partington (2) and attributed to the New Hebrides is shown in fig. 4, c. Two other New Hebrides pan-pipes in the Peabody Museum, Salem, with nine and eleven reeds respectively, show the same regular grading of reeds and a similar lashing in one row with the herring-bone pattern.

Edge-Partington, in a note to his drawing of fig. 4, c, states that the reeds are “fastened together with strips of leaf.” In some modern pan-pipes in the Bishop Museum from the New Hebrides with three rows of lashing similiar to the Tongan technique, the lashing-material consists of strips of the separated upper surface of pandanus leaves. It is probable that pandanus leaf is the leaf referred to by Edge-Partington for though techniques may alter somewhat, people are likely to adhere to the local raw material used by their elders. If another test were required to disprove the New Zealand locality of the pan-pipe attributed to it, the absence of New Zealand flax fibre as the lashing material would be significant, but the presence of pandanus leaf would be conclusive evidence as the pandanus is not present in the New Zealand flora. However, the use of bamboo reeds is conclusive enough. From the evidence, it is clear that pan-pipes were not used in New Zealand and the specimen in the British Museum attributed to New Zealand belongs to the New Hebrides.


Pan-pipes are widely spread throughout New Guinea and Melanesia, but in Polynesia they occurred only in Tonga and Samoa, two groups in closest proximity to Fiji, the eastern outpost of Melanesia. Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji form a triangle within which frequent inter-island communication and trade took place. Tonga traded with Fiji for red feathers, sandal wood, and logs for building double-canoes. Even Fijian craftsmen were imported into Tonga to build the Fijian type of double-canoe. This form under the name of kalia displaced the older Tongan type termed tongiaki. Samoa also traded with Fiji for red feathers and like the Tongans adopted the later double-canoe with its dialectical name of 'alia in place - 184 of their older vaka tele that corresponded to the Tongan tongiaki.

In addition to trade which spread material objects, inter-marriages took place between the three groups, and certain social customs such as brother-and-sister avoidance and the power exercised by the sister's son over his maternal uncle's family, crept into both Tonga and Samoa from Fiji. Of the material objects that spread from Fiji to western Polynesia, the pan-pipes form a good example. The fact that a number of elements of Melanesian culture reached Tonga and Samoa, but penetrated no further eastward into the rest of Polynesia, would indicate that the diffusion was local and probably fairly recent in pre-European times. The restricted character of the diffusion forms an argument against the theory that the route of the Polynesians from Indonesia passed through Melanesia and hence supports the view of the alternate route through Micronesia.

  • 1. Andersen, J. C.—“Maori Music.” Polynesian Society, Memoir 10. New Plymouth, New Zealand, 1934.
  • 2. Edge-Partington, J.—Album of Weapons, Tools, Ornaments, etc., of the Natives of the Pacific Islands. Manchester. 3 series; 1890, 1895, 1898.
  • 3. Cook, James—Voyages . . . . 2 vols. London, 1842.
  • 4. McKern, W. C.—“Tongan Material Culture.” Manuscript in B. P. Bishop Museum awaiting publication.
  • 5. D'Urville, J. Dumont—Voyage de la Corvette L'Astrolabe . . . . 1826-29. Paris, 1830-33.
  • 6. Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H. Buck)—“Samoan Material Culture.” Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 75.
  • 7. Stair, J. B.—Old Samoa. London, 1897.
  • 8. Wilkes, Charles—Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. 5 vols. Philadelphia, 1844-45.
  • Figure 1—Pan-pipes from Tonga.
  • Figure 2—Lashing technique of Tongan pan-pipes.
  • Figure 3—a Modern pan-pipe made in Samoa.
  • b Pan-pipe from Solomon Islands.
  • Figure 4—a Pan-pipe in British Museum wrongly attributed to New Zealand.
  • b Pan-pipe from Tanna, New Hebrides (Cook's Voyages).
  • c Pan-pipe from New Hebrides (British Museum).
1   The alternative name was given after an Arcadian nymph, Syrinx, daughter of the river Ladon; and on Pan falling in love with her and pursuing her, in order to escape him she was, at her own request, turned by the gods into the reed called syrinx by the Greeks. This reed was thereafter used by Pan for the fashioning of his pipes.