The noise sounded like the rhythm of beating drums to us as we entered Te Papa Museum. A closer look showed us that it wasn’t drums at all, but strips of bark laid over a wooden block, and beaten out thin with a grooved wooden mallet. A Tongan church group were demonstrating the ancient art of making tapa cloth. The commentator told the crowd of fascinated onlookers all the steps that needed to be taken to produce this highly revered and labour intensive cloth. The village men plant and tend the paper mulberry trees, and then cut the branches to strip the bark. These long thin strips are first dried in the sun, then soaked. Bang, bang, bank, the 3 inch strip of bark was beaten to twice it’s width in no time at all.
When the strips are thin enough, several are butted up and beaten together into a large sheet, with starch rubbed on to the joins to help them stick together. Tapa cloth is made up of two layers, with one large piece on the top layed over the lower sheet. More starch is rubbed on to help the two sheets stick together. The women worked competently together and the spokesperson kept up a running commentary. We were shown how the designs were made by laying stencils underneath then rubbing dye all over the cloth. The stencils are simply made. Thin smooth sticks are laid over sacking in the required pattern, then bound in place.
The first lot of dye is then rubbed all over the tapa cloth. The pattern from the stencils underneath start to stand out clearly.
Later the tapa cloth is repainted in several colours to bring the designs to life. A trio of Tongan youngsters were enjoying themselves as they knelt together on the floor painting a piece of cloth. When they saw our cameras they asked us, “Would you like us to look up?” What beautiful smiles they had.
These days, tapa cloth is still often worn on formal occasions such as weddings, and given as gifts for weddings and funerals. It is also highly prized for its decorative value and is often used as a wall hanging in Tongan homes.
The work was still taking place later in the morning as we looked down from the balustrade above. The sound of the wooden mallet beating the bark reverberated up the stairs, and the women were singing softly as they worked together. These sounds of the Islands reminded me of a trip I took to Tonga many years ago, when I heard the villagers working on their tapa cloth every day.