The pounding and cracking noise was relentless as we waited at a money exchange on the Main West Highway in Nukunuku, Kingdom of Tonga, in the South Pacific, north of New Zealand. Inquiring to Esther our guide about the noise, she replied, “that is tapa making.” Immediately I requested to watch the process.
Somewhat surprised at my request, Esther agreed to search the Tongan village for the noise. And the driver said the noise was coming from the right of us.
So, off we went, not knowing where we were headed. Tanga, our driver, had never been on a “spur of the moment” search for tapa in the making and was nervously talking and laughing all at the same time. ‘There is a couple walking on the road,” I said to Tanga. “Stop and ask them who is doing it.”
Tanga talked to the couple and the look on their face was one of “are you crazy.” But, he kept talking and explaining the noise in Tongan language and finally the lady pointed to the next street and the house.
Off we went again, turning right on the next street and stopping at the first house on the left. Ofa answered the knock at the door and was surprised at the request as it is unusual for strangers to ask to come in and watch them work. “But I have 2 tourists who would like to watch the tapa making process since they heard the noise.” Esther told her. Ofa welcomed us with open arms. “Come in” she said.
Half of her large living room displayed one 12×12 foot (3 meters) tapa that she and 4 other ladies were making from the beginning. “It is going to my niece for her 16th birthday,” Ofa said, “and we have been working on it for 8 days.”
Ofa explained, when finished, she will fold it up and give it to her with a big bouquet of flowers on top. Family in Tonga is number one importance, Ofa explained, and most tapa is given as gifts and not for sale. “My niece will then keep it under her bed and give it as a gift to her future husband’s family”
But, we still had not found where the noise was coming from and in the kitchen in the back of the house we found it. Next to a wall, Ofa sat cross legged on the floor making that noise that we heard 3 blocks (3 KM approx.) away on the main West Highway. Ofa was pounding out a 6 ft(2 meters) long piece of paper mulberry tree into a flat piece of “paper” about 12 inches(1/3 meter) wide by 6 feet long (2 meters long).
One after the other, the 38-year-old pounded her 3×3 inch square Ike wood mallet club onto a Toa hardwood log that was flat on one side. When the 3 pound flat mallet hit the flat log, the ¼ inch mulberry bark that was 3-7 inches wide became paper thin and 12 inches wide. The noise was so super loud and so deafening we could barely hear anything.
Before Ofa flattened the off-white inner part of the mulberry tree bark strip, she removed the hard outer layer by pulling and cutting it off in strips. The inner bark was soaked in water to make it soft and pliable for Ofa’s mallet to flatten.
A fabric backing from New Zealand was used to glue the strips together so the tapa can easily be repaired if damaged or torn.
Ofa explained that these handmade tapa are used for weddings, funerals, birthdays, celebrations, room dividers and wall decorations.
“Painting” traditional designs onto the tapa represent happiness, giving, peace, friendly and sharing that the 5 ladies painted using a round 3 inch long piece of the pandanus stalk because it absorbs the nautral dye.
After sun drying thoroughly, it was then time to rub a thick coating of boiled flour, water and taro seeds for sealing and making the tapa shine. The masterpiece is then sprayed for bugs to prevent damage. After another thorough drying in the sun, the tapa is finished and ready to give for that birthday.
It is obvious this long hard process to make this work of art is a work of love for Ofa, which means LOVE in the Tongan language. And she shows her love for her family with every mallet sound she makes in tapa traditional Tonga. Photo Copy © 2015 carolyntravels.com