Ori Deck: The New Sound of Polynesia
In Tahiti, the main island in French Polynesia, music is an integral part of the culture. As essential to everyday life as water or air.
But there’s one style of music that reigns supreme: sapa’u, also known as ori deck. Head to a beach on the weekend and chances are you’ll find a group of young people gathered around a giant boombox, blasting the sound – often abbreviated to deck – and recording TikToks. In Papeete, Tahiti’s capital city, the most popular clubs are headlined by local deck DJs. Alternatively, drive deep into the island’s lush valleys on a Saturday night and you might find a ‘car bass’ party, with people dancing until sunrise, deck thundering from their vehicles’ subwoofers.
This distinctive style of music is native to Tahiti, with roots in moombahton, reggaeton and dubstep. Characterised by downtempo drums, exaggerated portamentos, syncopated rhythms and simple, affecting melodies, deck tracks are often infused with traditional Polynesian hallmarks, such as orero – an ancient oratory art of preserving and communicating knowledge, art, science and history through speeches, chants, songs and plays. Some artists also interpolate the haka into their productions, a warrior dance and chant from the Marquesas Islands that is normally accompanied by large bass drums called pahu. These ancestral sounds are sampled, looped or manipulated digitally and the result is a heady mix of electronic beats and local culture, shot through a uniquely Polynesian prism
“We are trying to combine Polynesian culture and electronic music, halfway between tradition and modernism”
Manuarii Torohia, known in Tahiti by his alias Tommy Driker, is an artist and DJ who was among the first to pioneer the sound that would become deck. It was in 2006, long before he had access to a reliable internet connection, that Driker began experimenting with electronic music at home. He would remix tracks on his computer and burn CDs, which were passed around to family and friends. “It was a passion, and at the same time, a lot of perseverance,” explains Driker. One of his earlier tracks, a remix of 2009 reggaeton track Prrrum, garnered attention on the island for what people now describe as unmistakably deck-like characteristics: sluggish dembow rhythms, melodic vocals and that siren sound. It’s the work he’s still most proud of.
Around 2011, a youth culture movement was growing alongside this nascent genre – specifically, a new dance, based on striking movements of the arms. On the island, groups of young people began to hold weekend dance parties and battles, dressed in the quintessential Tahitian style: board shorts, caps, flip-flops. Some people think the origins are in the flapping, ritualistic Marquesan bird dance, but most insist it all began one night in Papara, a district on Tahiti’s west coast. There was a moombahton party at a house near Taharuu Beach, where partygoers danced on a large wooden veranda – or deck. Local legend has it that this is the place where it all started. Whatever its origin story, the name of the dance – ‘ori’ refers to a dance or dancing in Tahitian – became the name of the genre.
It remained a firmly underground concern until one night in 2012, when Driker’s friend convinced a club owner to let him play on the condition that it would be one night only. “That first night there were too many people. The boss panicked, he was at the entrance saying, ‘Oh my god!’ and the people kept coming. The next day, he said, ‘We’ll take you every weekend,’” recalls Driker, laughing.
Fast forward to present day, and Tommy Driker is a household name and deck rules Papeete’s nightclubs. He’s played at French Polynesia’s biggest venues, including Place To’atā, an amphitheatre in Papeete that can hold thousands of clubbers. He’s also programmed events like the L’Amadeus Music Festival, which spotlights local talent, alongside leading a collective of DJs called Driker System. “We’re lucky to be here in Tahiti. I hope my music brings people joy and warmth. People often say the music reminds them of the island; of the coconut trees and beaches. Only good vibes,” Driker smiles.
Deck is also defining a generation of young Tahitians who access the music via SoundCloud, YouTube and TikTok. Fletcher Rooarii, a 17-year-old high school student, tells me that deck has shaped the way he consumes both Polynesian art and pop culture. “When I listen [to deck], I feel good. It makes me feel like going out with my friends and partying,” he says, sitting on the veranda at his house. Off his smartphone he plays one of his current favourites, a downbeat, synth-laden track called Puaka Kaipeka, which features the instantly recognisable chanting and grunting sounds of the haka. The track has struck a chord with the genre’s young fans – so much so that a Puaka Kaipeka dance video currently sits at over 150,000 views on TikTok. A striking number considering the population of French Polynesia is just over 280,000.
One of the brains behind Puaka Kaipeka is Keanu Boosie, better known as DJ Bozy. A young father and up-and-coming DJ, Bozy confesses that adding the haka to the track was a spontaneous idea that occurred when collaborating with his friend and fellow producer, Sueno. “The haka is something we all identify with; something Polynesians are very proud of. Mix that with sapa’u and you’ve got a recipe that’s gonna take off,” Bozy beams. “We should keep evolving in this way, in collaboration. If we stay united as Polynesians we can go further and keep getting better… [Musicians] have so much to offer society but we don’t necessarily have the means or the courage to express ourselves, so we do that through our music.”
The sound that Bozy and his contemporaries are producing is a radical departure from traditional Tahitian music, yet still draws inspiration from its ancestral roots. Crucially, this merging of the old and the new reflects the increasingly modern, connected world in which young islanders are growing up. French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands and relocating to Tahiti has long been a trend for islanders, particularly young people and families, who move for better access to jobs and education. Polynesians now live in a rapidly changing landscape, and deck is one way they’re exploring, celebrating and staying rooted to their Polynesian identity.
“Musicians have so much to offer society but we don’t necessarily have the means or the courage to express ourselves, so we do that through our music”
On the other side of the globe, in France, Tsi-min and Ennio are two expat Tahitians who form part of the band QuinzeQuinze. “We are walking the same path on our side of the planet, trying to combine Polynesian culture and electronic music, halfway between tradition and modernism,” the pair explain. “We really love dancing to deck because it puts us in a trance – the lead synths make us wanna move like tupapa’u [ghosts] and the sound textures are so sharp that they can cut feet. We try to use the images that deck provides to tell our own story.”
Made up of five self-taught musicians and visual artists who met at art school, QuinzeQuinze aim to make their listeners “re-evaluate their expectations of what a musician could be and sound like”. The group achieved just that with their latest EP, Vārua, meaning soul or spirit in Tahitian. Vārua takes listeners on an intoxicating journey that doesn’t conform to any rules, effortlessly weaving together everything from traditional percussion instruments to futuristic electronic sounds and lush melodies sung in English, French and Tahitian. Vārua feels like something entirely new.
For Tahitian artists, the need to make music that pays homage to tradition is bound up in a strong sense of identity. The issues surrounding this topic are complex in French Polynesia, an island nation which was brutally colonised by European settlers who attempted to erase Indigenous culture. Today, Polynesians are French citizens, speak French and go through the French school system. The government, laws and very fabric of society is based on French values and ideals, which are often branded as ‘modern’. But Polynesians are not French. They are Polynesian. This constant push-and-pull between modernity and tradition, French and Tahitian, is part of the complicated experience of being an islander today.
It’s through this lens that the island’s music scene is evolving. Deck is now branching out into multiple subgenres as more artists develop their own unique styles. The music has now become the definitive soundtrack of everyday life for many Tahitians, as it continues to inspire and define a generation by bridging the old and the new. Tsi-Min and Ennio sum it up best: “The goal is not to live like we used to, but to define our identity and understand where we come from. I feel like we must transpose the ancient culture in our new world, to confront it with new technology in order to create something original and authentic – for us.”