The Contemporary Tongan Drum getting International Props

A Massey University graduate Rachael Hall who was inspired by her Pacific heritage, has won international acclaim for the unique musical instrument she designed and handcrafted herself based on the traditional Tongan lali.



The half-Tongan Wellingtonian says the idea for her modern take on a traditional Tongan lali, or wooden drum, came about while working on her honours degree in Industrial Design at Massey’s College of Creative Arts.


Patō, which means “to strike or hit”, is an electronic, tuneable and portable log drum that brings the sound of the Pacific into the modern digital environment.


“I wanted to rejuvenate an instrument that’s not so recognised anymore and introduce it into the modern digital environment where it can be appreciated and adapted by a range of musicians and blended with other instruments and genres.”



The traditional lali can be heavy to carry and generates only one or two pitches and Racheal wanted to make an instrument that was tunable so the musician could adjust the pitch depending on what they were playing, “I wanted it to be portable because there is a high demand for easily transportable instruments,” she says.


She made it electronic because according to her technological relevance is important in today’s music world, however she also gave users the option of it also being acoustic as well.


Patō has an internal pick-up which means it can be hooked up to modern technology but still allows the natural timbre of the traditional lali to come through.


The streamlined design incorporates pale maple wood with darker walnut end caps engraved with a ring of Tongan motifs.



In choosing materials for Patō Racheal says she had to take into account durability, “I used maple because it’s a hardwood with an even grain so when playing along the drum the sound quality remains consistent but also it’s strong enough to get that whole ‘performativity’ that you get with Tongan playing – it’s quite a physical experience.”


It’s a combination of her two great passions, music and design.


Although a violinist herself, her twin brother Jeremy Hall is a professional drummer working in London and she says this design gave an insight to his world as well as providing an instrument he could test and play.


“He came back to perform on the drum at my final presentation for my degree and he’s looking to adapt it to a contemporary drum kit so it brings his Tongan culture into his every day music life.”


The design has already won a Red Dot Award one of the most prestigious design competitions in the world.


Massey’s Pasifika Directorate is helping fund Ms Hall to travel to Singapore to receive her Red Dot at the ceremony in October.


Patō was also a national finalist in the international James Dyson Award and the NZ Best Awards, the winners of which will be announced in Auckland on Friday 6th October.



Associate Professor Rodney Adank of Massey’s Ngā Pae Māhutonga – The School of Design, says Patō has tremendous potential to be commercialised and is a lovely integration of traditional performance with digital technology.


“Rachael spent a lot of time ensuring it was true to its Pasifika origin and in its final form it is a beautiful object,” he says.


Ms Hall who graduated from Massey University last year, and currently works within the Massey Industrial Design programme would like to see Patō manufactured and is keen to continue designing in the musical space.