By Kendall Grady, Global Leaders Program 2020 Cohort
Rapa Nui, the most isolated inhabited place on earth, is the birthplace of the Rapanui people, who call their island “the navel of the world.” With deep, ancient roots, the island attempts to balance its past—including difficult recent memories of colonization in the 1860s—with its prosperous growth in the Western context. In this unique setting, music has played a pivotal role in building collaboration and coexistence between multiple cultures and lifestyles. In my opinion, no organization has embodied that balance more than the Toki School of Music, which celebrates its people’s authenticity in an increasingly modern world.
This past January, I was given the opportunity to travel to Rapa Nui through the Global Leaders Program, where cohort member Salomé Rateau and I were able to work with Toki’s founders, administration, and teachers—myself as a violin teacher and administrative consultant. Upon arriving, I was immediately struck by the life-affirming principles shared among the Toki community, students, and Rapanui people. Rapa Nui overflows with vibrant energy and warmth, and my experience there forever changed my views on society, ancestry, and quality of life.
The toki is a Rapanui tool for carving out Mo’ai statues from volcanic rock—representatives of the island’s Polynesian founders that serve as protectors against destructive outside forces. In this way, the toki honors an ancient way of life: the carving out of one’s future from hard, seemingly impenetrable rock. The Mo’ai statures were given “living faces,” with eyes made of coral and obsidian, the mineral believed to contain the island’s energy. These elements fit well, as environmental sustainability is a core local value. The three pillars of the Toki School’s beliefs—a comprehensive, accessible music school; promotion and preservation of ancestral traditions; and environmental sustainability—demonstrate the importance of “carving out a living legacy” for future generations.
Toki’s mission is to provide all children of Rapa Nui, Rapanui and Chilean alike, accessible music education in both traditional and Western traditions. This is fueled by their belief that each child can express themself confidently, respect their ancestry, and develop the island in an ethical way. In addition to providing a practical education, Toki takes an emotionally holistic approach to music learning, developing students’ creative, critical, and problem-solving capacities while offering performance art opportunities. Part of this holistic approach involves teaching students to value the earth, their instruments, their individual skills, and each other—seeing themselves as part of an interconnected whole. This is especially useful on Rapa Nui; in a place where cultural boundaries might otherwise prove impenetrable, the lessons of quality instrumentation, ancestral language, and ensemble learning can break through, fostering respect and commitment to one another. Toki’s work demonstrates that a high-quality music education can be attained through a holistic and empathetic approach, rather than the more aggressive top-down approach many musicians know.
Although many organizations advocate for environmental sustainability, Toki is itself the “living face” of these ideals, actively working to make organic resources accessible to everyone. As the only music school on the island, the Toki School operates in an ecologically sustainable building designed by American architect Michael Reynolds with the company Earthship Biotecture. Shaped like a flower and made entirely of recycled materials, it contains two years of fresh rainwater preserves, solar panel-generated electricity, and over an acre of organic gardens, planted through ancestral practices and large enough to feed school and community members.
What’s more, Toki is careful to maintain its spirituality and traditional language without the veil of mainstream consumerism. Wary of seeing tourists (who fuel the island economically) exploit traditional Rapanui art without supporting the community, Toki administrators and educators must examine their work within the context of cultural appropriation. This ensures that Western traditions don’t overwhelm their teaching. At Toki, sustainability stems from respect and resourcefulness; in teaching students to care for the earth and for each other, they foster growth that students will bring into their own homes and communities, thus sustaining the school and its moral tenets.
As GLP cohort members, we were trained to “empathize with the problem.” I recall a morning that Salomé and I spent teaching students and preparing the orchestra for the annual Tapati Festival. We found it difficult to connect with parents, administrators, and teachers using the Western meeting-based approach. I worried that after all the work we’d done, we wouldn’t reach their hearts, and would leave without giving anything in return. And then, after rehearsal, Salomé found herself helping faculty and volunteer staff peel potatoes for lunch. In that moment, she showed them her willingness to do the hard work of preparation, not simply reap its benefits. They began to connect in a way that allowed school staff to communicate and share concerns confidently. Suddenly, we understood. Simple gatherings, even just food preparation, shouldn’t be taken for granted. They were a way of community building, creative problem-solving, and leadership. We realized this is true for all music educators, anywhere, who want to serve their communities.
In Polynesian readings, there is a concept of “life’s refining fire,” challenges that destroy and in so doing make anew. When one steps into the heart of Toki—at the center of the flower, surrounded by samples of the rocks that comprise the island, listening to the sea breeze float over children’s songs—they can feel that refining happening around them. Things that cannot be sustained by natural forces will surely perish, but Toki is founded on beliefs which have and will continue to last. I hope that, over time, organizations that adhere to Western business practices will come to imitate Toki’s model, rejecting monoculturalism and pro-colonization thinking and finding empathy and love for “outside” cultures. There is no better example of this balance than the Toki School, which honors and brings to life its cultural heritage every day.