Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Brass bands: the musical pride of Tonga

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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Alice Lolohea | Reporter/Director/Videographer

Funerals, fundraisers or official public events; the sound of brass horns will occassionally echo over the hot Tongan stillness, breaking the slow quiet of island life with a pleasant harmonious blare.

If there’s one musical group that has become synonymous with Tongan culture it is the ifi palasa, or brass band. 

It’s a rite of musical passage for many of Tonga’s youth, where almost every high school, youth group and church has its own ifi palasa. Even Tonga’s military has the Royal Corps of Musicians, renowned for the excellent musicianship they’ve displayed at military tattoos the world over. 

Trumpets and cornets might not have musical origins in the kingdom, but Tongans certainly had an aptitude for the brass. So how did they come to be one of the Kingdom’s most beloved instruments? 


Oceanic ethnologist Adreienne Kaeppler says brass instruments were introduced to the Kingdom through a number of ways, mainly through missionaries:

“It is said that in 1865, Father Lamaze of France, who was the principal at the Catholic school in Ma’ufanga was the first to introduce brass instruments to Tonga. A brass band was certainly well established there by the 1890s…”

This school, which eventually became ‘Apifo’ou College, is where I learnt what it meant to be a part of what is now considered a cultural institution.

As a tween in Tonga, I had never gravitated towards trumpets, trombones or tubas. But when the time came for me to pick my high school instrument, my father declared, “you’re not playing anything but the trumpet – it’s Tongan.” 

“It is said that in 1865, Father Lamaze (left) of France, who was the principal at the Catholic school in Ma’ufanga was the first to introduce brass instruments to Tonga.” The school’s brass band, 1884. Photos: ‘Apifo’ou College

I only ever mastered five notes and needless to say I was terribly average. But I have fond memories of band practices, uniform fittings, and marching down Hala Tahi (the Waterfront) with the band, leading our school into town for the opening of Parliament.

During my time in Tonga my Grandfather passed away and our band was asked to play at his ‘Ā pō (wake). 

As they lined into the front of the house with their chairs and instruments, my Dad urged me to join them.

The nerves snaked into my hands – Dad had never heard me play before. My fingertips began to sweat as I pressed down on the valves, and I tried to steady my breathing as I blew out the first couple of notes. 

That’s me in black, sheer panic in my eyes when I see Dad move closer to hear me. Photo: Fran Popua Afeaki
As you can see by the little kid sitting behind me, they start brass education very early in Tonga. Photo: Fran Popua Afeaki

But I shouldn’t have worried – he stood on the steps beside me, his keen ear tilted towards my direction, a little smile on his face as he listened to me play the heck out of those five notes.

This was the first time I understood what it was to play for someone and something other than myself and it was these memories that came flooding back to me in the cinema when I sat down to watch Red, White and Brass. 

Set in 2011 at the brink of the Rugby World Cup, we follow Maka, his cousins and church community as they try to score tickets to the historic match between Tonga and France – by starting their own brass band. 

Based on a true story, this motley crew of rookie muso’s take us on a hilarious trip as they try to master their instruments in time for their international debut. 


But what starts as a grandiose ploy for rugby tickets, becomes an emotional and heartfelt journey where Maka realises who and what he is representing when he leads the band onto the field. 

The film not only buzzes and brims with māfana, it’s filled with real moments of family, ‘ofa (love), pride and connection that can resonate with anyone. And it’s great to see Tonga’s brass enthusiasm celebrated so well on the big screen.

Red, White and Brass has already ignited a flurry of well-deserved positive reviews and much 2011 Rugby World Cup nostalgia. 

But for me the nostalgia is in the sound of the horns, instantly taking me back to that little stone band hall at ‘Apifo’ou, playing those five notes alongside my much more talented band mates. 

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