Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Where Two Rivers Meet: An Analysis of Trance and Ritual Practice in Fiji

Fiji has a reputation worldwide as being a country that welcomes tourists with open arms. Though much of Fijian society has been influenced by Western thought and philosophy, its indigenous culture still thrives. It is this connection to ancestral tradition and ritual practice, along with its beautiful landscapes and vistas, that makes Fiji such a popular tourist destination. Fijian eco-tourism has become increasingly popular in recent years due to the high demand for “indigenous knowledge” on the part of the Western tourist (Mulcock 50). I got the privilege to spend a week in Fiji in April of this year. Western, (though culturally conscious) tourist that I was, I decided to embark upon an eco-tour to a village called Namuamua. I found that Fijian ritual was permeated with emotion and trance-inducing practices, which were aimed at establishing a sense of community and shared experience.
Namuamua (‘where two rivers meet’) is hidden deep in the mountain rainforests located on the southern coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. Though Namuamua is accessible by car, the most efficient way of travelling there is by boat. I began my journey with a large group of tourists in the town of Navua, where we boarded our wooden longboats in pairs. Our Fijian guide sat at the back of the boat, guiding the motor that propelled us down the river. With each metre we travelled, the river narrowed and the mountains grew taller. As I noticed the cascading waterfalls and complete wilderness that surrounded me, I realized that this boat trip held much importance in itself. It was making all of us acutely aware of the depth and significance of our surroundings, so that we would have a context within witch to place the ritual we were about experience.
The sevusevu, or welcoming ceremony, commenced the minute we disembarked the boat. A longstanding part of Fijian culture, the sevusevu is a ceremony designed to bring communities together through the consumption of kava (Brisonb 48). Kava, an integral part of many Fijian ceremonies, is a root that is crushed into powder and steeped in water, like tea. It acts as a muscle relaxant, and often induces a mild state of euphoria. For Fijians, kava is what Hume (21) refers to as a “correspondence”: it connects this world to another spiritual realm. Specifically, kava connects “ancestral spirits of a particular location with a human community connected to that location” (Brisona 316). Through the sevusevu and kava ceremony, villagers affirm their positions as “guardians of a sacred tradition” (Brisona 326).
Directly following the chief’s welcome speech, the kava ceremony began. Every aspect of the ceremony was ritualised, from the way the kava was mixed, to the way it was served, down to the way it was consumed. Three male Namuamuans, covered in body paint and donning woven skirts, sat around a large wooden bowl of water, into which the man sitting in the middle dipped a satchel filled with kava. After the water had become a murky brown colour, the man removed the satchel and began mixing the liquid with a bowl-shaped coconut shell. Once the kava had been prepared, a very elaborately painted man emerged to serve the kava to our chief. The rest of us were offered our own bowls once our chief had imbibed his portion.
We were instructed that, in accepting the kava, we were to clap once and say ‘bula’ (‘hello’), and then drink the whole bowl in one fell swoop. Once we had finished, we were to clap three times and say ‘matha’ (‘finished’). This was not my first taste of kava, but it was my first time drinking kava in a ceremonial setting. I slowly noticed my tongue going numb and my body beginning to relax. While I was not in an altered state, I felt as though I might be standing on the threshold of some deeper spiritual experience.
The rest of the savusavu consisted of songs and dances, both those that were performed for us and those that we were encouraged to participate in. It was during this part of the ritual that I noticed people falling into trance states. These were not shifts that caused people to appear physically different than they had before. Rather, I realized in retrospect that many people present—villagers and tourists alike—had entered into a state of flow, or a rather indescribable feeling of an unbroken stream of awareness (Csikszentmihalyi 29). I say that I realized this in retrospect, because I myself had fallen into a flow state, and therefore did not come to many of these conclusions until after the ceremony. I was dancing and chanting along with the rest of the group with very little thought about what I was doing. It was not until I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I was listening to the villagers perform their second song that I became aware of my body again, and realized what a profound impact the ceremony was having on me.
While the dancing was largely responsible for maintaining people’s sense of flow, the singing in the ceremony seemed to be the primary flow inducer. The singing held a lot more emotional and cultural significance than the dancing, and was more of a central focus of the ceremony. This observation is supported by fieldwork done by Russell (197) on the significance of singing in Fijian culture. Russell suggests that singing “fosters group identity, helps us to know ourselves and others, and alleviates alienation,” and that it also “transmits the cultural values and products of a culture” (199). Russell asked one villager to describe the relationship between singing and religion in Fiji, to which the villager said: “singing is the religion” (205). This mindset was evident in the performances I witnessed in Namuamua. The songs were felt so powerfully by those singing them that they had no choice but to chant them as loudly as they could, clapping and rocking their bodies to the rhythm of the music.
Fachner suggests that “music creates the context, which fosters the onset of trance, regulates the form and process of trance and makes it foreseeable and controllable” (21). Though there have been no musical elements proven to be trance-inducing, there are some musical features that are more common to music associated with trance states. These features include repetition and rhythmic ebb and flow (22, 37), both of which were prevalent in the singing at Namuamua. The repetition was an especially powerful device, as it stood as a metaphor for the flow that many were experiencing on a larger level.
The savusavu lasted about 45 minutes. While it is difficult to say with certainty what the other tourists were thinking when the savusavu was over, the smiles on their faces indicated that at least it had been a pleasant experience for them. For myself, attending the savusavu was invaluable. I was reminded of the deep connection I have always had with music. Getting to hear foreign music in an environment that was so different than what I was used to was enlightening and extremely powerful. Additionally, I felt liberated by allowing myself to dance and experience flow, thereby participating in the ceremony wholeheartedly. The most important lesson I learned was that participating in rituals so deeply entrenched in tradition can instantly make you feel like you are apart of a larger community that has a greater purpose.

Works Cited
Brisona, Karen J. “Constructing Identity through Ceremonial Language in Rural Fiji.”
Ethnology 40.4 (2001): 309-327 (Print).
Brisonb, Karen J. “Crafting Sociocentric Selves in Religious Discourse in Rural Fiji.”
Ethos 29.4 (2001): 453-474 (Print).
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “The Flow Experience and its Significance for Human
Psychology.” Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in
Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 15-35 (Print).
Fachner, Jörg. "Music and Altered States of Consciousness: An Overview." Music and
Altered States - Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addictions. London:
Jessica Kingsley, 2006. 15-37 (Print).
Hume, Lynne. "Entrances and Exits." Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities
Through the Senses. Oxford: Berg, 2007. 1-24 (Print).
Mulcock, Jane. “(Re)Discovering Our Indigenous Selves: The Nostalgic Appeal of
Native Americans and Other Generic Indigenes.” Australian Religion Studies
Review 14.1 (2001): 45-64 (Print).
Russell, Joan. “Born to Sing: Fiji’s ‘Singing Culture’ and Implications for Music
Education in Canada.” McGill Journal of Education 36.3 (2001): 197-218 (Print).

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