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Strumming and drumming in the Cook Islands

Saturday 1 July 2023 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Entertainment, Features


Strumming and drumming in the Cook Islands
Bobby Alu says his stay in the Cook Islands inspired him to write more music. 23063010 Photos: supplied

Australian singer-songwriter Bobby Alu has spent the past four weeks soaking up island life in Rarotonga. He talks to Cook Islands News journalist Matthew Littlewood about what he discovered during his stay.

It’s been quite the trip for Bobby Alu. The Australian singer-songwriter is visiting the Cook Islands for the first time, and already it’s had an effect on his approach to music.

“I love the sound of Cook Islands music. The first thing I noticed was how connected and how natural it was,” Alu says.

“It’s all about naturally picking it up, it’s not about lessons. It empowers your natural ability. That’s been really fascinating.”

Alu says he spent the early stages of the trip observing the skills and approaches of the Akirata Cultural Dance Troupe.

“Initially I watched how they did it, but then I started playing drums and ukelele with them. I don’t think any of them knew how good they were.”

Alu has been involved in the music business for many years, releasing his self-titled debut in 2010.

He has since released three other albums, and toured the world. 

“I started touring about 2009. My mother’s Samoan, so the Polynesian connection has always been there. I learned all the instruments through playing with the family, but I never envisaged it would be a career,” Alu says.

“It’s been quite the adventure. I feel lucky to have had this opportunity, so I want to give something back.

“It was scary releasing music at first.”

Alu, who says he has been strongly influenced by soul music and reggae, describes the Cook Islands approach to music as “all feeling”.

“It’s less thinking, and it’s more in line with what I like,” he says.

“This place reminds me of an island in Italy called Sardinia, it’s so beautiful and laidback.”

Alu has been performing with the Akirata Dance Troupe at the Edgewater Resort, Rarotongan Resort and Lagoonarium and the Islander Hotel.  

Kutia Tuteru was his Ukulele teacher and Alu also would jam every Friday with the string band and Mahuta Adamu at The Cook Islands Game Fishing Club. 

“I didn’t come here to show off, so I didn’t play any of my own songs here. It’s like a big school of fish or a big flock of birds that all move together, everyone is travelling in the same direction, they’re listening and feeling, everyone is in the moment,” he says.

“When you’re touring, or on the road, it’s so busy, you’ve got to be always forward-thinking and you end up tying yourself in a knot.”

Alu says he enjoyed being cut off from most contacts while he was in the Cook Islands.

“It’s reminded me to slow down, which is hard when you do something you love,” he says.

Alu says he was inspired by Australian musicians John Butler and Xavier Rudd.

“I’ve played with both of them on tour, they taught me to follow your own path. When you’re in the music industry, it’s quite easy to copy, but if you stay true to the music you enjoy, then it’s more effective,” he says.

“You can make your own path, rather than doing whatever everyone else does.”

Alu says he was worried about how the people of the Cook Islands might think about him playing their music.

“When I first got here, some people were a bit standoffish, and rightly so, they should protect their music, it’s very special. The level of musicianship is so high, everyone can play,” he says.

“It’s such a rich place of music. It’s pretty humbling. I explained that to the dance troupe, they were very lucky to have what they have.”

Alu says he is currently working on a new album.

“I wrote some songs in Rarotonga, I’m looking forward to seeing how those flavours mix into my musical soup,” he says.

“I’ve done some recording while I was here, I’ve recorded some drum and ukulele sounds, it’s such a great sound.

“The thing about music in the Cook Islands is that it relies on what you have naturally. You got to let it happen. It’s a feeling, you know when it’s right and when it’s wrong. Sometimes you can have everything prepared, and it doesn’t flow, and that’s cool. Sometimes you have got to let go of the room.”

Alu says he will definitely return to the Cook Islands at some stage.

“I had no idea what to expect when I got here. As soon as I got off that plane, I was struck by the warmth of the weather, and the warmth of the people. You don’t have this anywhere else.”