The Cook Islands culture is moulded by its Polynesian heritage mixed with a European influence. A melange of magical mystical islands shrouded in legends of romance and piracy, escapades and hidden treasures, all of which have shaped the traditions and customs that give the Cook Island people their own unique identity.
The Call of the Drum

Stories abound of marauding tribes, romantic liaisons between ill-fated clans, seafaring adventures and cultural clashes. But what defines the Cook Islanders from their neighbours is the call of the drum. Considered some of the best – arguably the finest – entertainers in the Pacific, Cook Islanders come by this reputation honestly. The art, skill and grace of their dancing and their drumming take you on a spiritual journey as anyone who has experienced the traditional Ura will verify. Based on legends that relate through body movement and music, stories of love, desire, hurt and passion they reflect a cultural heritage that is alive and beating strong.

Music of the Cook Islands

The call of the drum is loudest in the Cook Islands – the rhythmic pounding of a tattoo on hollowed out tree trunks is a talent taught from childhood. Music is a part of life, from the chants and songs of the Kaparima, hymns heard harmoniously echoing in the hallows of the churches; from the choirs on Sunday to the string bands and their combos of electronic and traditional ukuleles made from coconut shells that pulsate from the night clubs all over this part of the Cook Islands.

Numerous festivals throughout the year reflect this talent. There are many competitions held annually where the competitive spirit between each island comes to the fore. Regular international awards are a testament to this phenomenal talent.

Arts and Crafts

Then there are the arts and crafts. Considered as some of the finest artists and carvers in the Pacific, it's the decorative wood carvings, tattoos and tapa cloth designs which have a distinctive Cook Islands touch. The missionaries considered tattooing to be taboo in the mid 1800s, but fortunately it survived and is re-emerging in fine tradition. Designs and motifs are derived from heritage and ancient lore and are worn with pride, symbolising one’s traditional inheritance.

Wood carving is revered. The Tangaroa is the symbol of the Cook Islands and a favourite subject. Many wonderful examples are found in the museums along with other replica wood carvings like huge hollowed out bowls, story boards and war clubs as well as the inevitable spears and fish hooks. According to folklore, the ancient islanders carved the poles of their huts, their canoes and of course their weapons. The patterns used are much the same as those for tattooing, tapa and indicating family symbols.

Weaving, particularly of baskets, is a traditional part of life. Pandanus, or kikau and coconut fibre, are the most commonly used materials. But rito is probably the most highly prized. Baskets were used for everything from collecting shellfish, for fishing, carrying crops and putting in the umu in the old days. Then of course there were sandals, fishing nets, ropes and eel traps out of sinnet – another part of the coconut tree. Roofs from rauara were the norm, later kikau replaced it. The hats, fans and mats from both pandanus and rito are true treasures of the Cook Islands.

Many of the handicrafts have their own unique history. The shell and seed hat bands from Mangaia for instance, while the finely woven pandanus mats from Pukapuka are renowned for their intricate and delicate finish. The rito hat – desired by many a visitor – is also a vital part of every Cook Island woman’s wardrobe. Tivaevae, particularly from Atiu, are intricately made bedspreads demonstrating a unique form of patchwork.

Painting, a legendary island art form, is prevalent and popular. With a relaxed lifestyle, the Cook Islands is a haven of inspiration for artists. Highly valued works, inspired by traditional island elements but with contemporary creativity, are found in the form of oils, portraits sketches and water colours.

Also of value are the hand printed designs of pareus and mu-mus derived from carved wooden boards depicting traditional patterns, along with flora and fauna and sea life that are so typical of the islands. In natural dyes, this unique form of printing is a boutique craft gaining admiration globally.

Polynesian identity is found everywhere in the Cook Islands – in museums and galleries, in restored sites and in everyday life. A true indication of the innate artistic spirit contained in the body of every Cook Islander.
Enjoy the Cook Islands culture and hospitality
Enjoy the Cook Islands culture and hospitality
Enjoy the Cook Islands culture and hospitality
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