Tongo – Polynesian Canoe Song

This awesome folk song has multiple uses. Its pentatonic range of low la up to la (la, do re mi so la) allows teachers to use it with multiple grade levels. The syncopated rhythms and dotted quarter note and eighth note rhythms make it engaging for upper elementary as well. The call and response format makes it very easy for students to learn. Finally, the opportunity for improvisation makes it a winner. Let’s dig in!

For the game, my students sit in long rows of equal length, as if they’re sitting in canoes. After singing the song, I clap a four beat pattern and they echo me. Actually, I do four different four beat patterns and they echo each one. Then I immediately sing the song again. By teaching them not to talk after each “set,” I’m also building good classroom management habits.

After we’ve tried this a few times, the head of each canoe chooses an unpitched instrument. During the final phrase of the song, they stand and face their row. They improvise four beat patterns and their row/canoe claps back the four beat patterns. Be prepared for a bit of chaos the first time. The students have to get used to listening for just their leader’s instrument and the four beat patterns. My student teacher made a sign that said, “Play” with four hearts under the word. She stood at the back of the canoes and pointed to the beats while the leaders were supposed to improvise their patterns. It helped the “leaders” stay together. When the song begins again, they should hand their instrument to the next person and walk to the back of the canoe.

Another helpful tip: Clap some patterns for the students while singing phrases that match such as, “Doggie, Doggie, where’s your bone?” “My paddle’s keen and bright” “Rain, Rain, go away” etc. so they get some ideas and realize they can use rhythms from songs they already know.

Eventually, ask your class who would like to be the singing leader. You’ll be surprised and delighted to hear your students take over. The full song with lyrics is also available under Resources for Teachers near the bottom with full lyrics. Tongo in F

10 thoughts on “Tongo – Polynesian Canoe Song

  1. Hi,

    I have been unable to locate an English translation for “Tongo” (mangrove). Do you have the English translation?

    Thank you.

  2. I dance that song and that is not the whole song it repeats the has a long interlude,then some tango’s… So that is not the correct Tongo

    • As with all folk songs, there are numerous versions of the same song. For example, my students improvise at the end of the version printed in this post and then repeat the song. Other teachers may not add the improvised part. In your dance, you’re used to an interlude. It may have been added but someone, but it may not be part of the folk song as it was originally collected. Which folk song collection is your original source?

  3. Does anyone know the precise origins of Tongo? I am currently doing a unit on the music of Oceania with my students and I am trying to be as accurate as possible. I was hoping someone might know from where in Polynesia it originates.

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