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Towards a Model for Cultural Sustainability: The Case of Toki Rapa Nui
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Towards a Model for Cultural Sustainability: The Case of Toki Rapa Nui

Authors: Sophie Gledhill (UK)


Toki Rapa Nui is situated on Easter Island (Rapa Nui), a remote volcanic island over 2000 miles west of continental Chile. The organization’s mission is to protect the social, cultural and environmental heritage of the island. Toki’s School of Music and Arts was founded in 2012 and provides tuition to children of all ages in both classical and traditional instruments. While Toki as an umbrella organization has a broadly defined mission of environmental and cultural sustainability, the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts lacks its own clear identity and goals. Consultative leadership is required in order to develop a mission statement and specific outcomes for the music school.

January 25 — February 8, 2018

In early 2018, I spent two weeks working alongside the students and staff at Toki Rapa Nui, Easter Island’s School of Music and Arts, to prepare for the school’s performance in Tapati Rapa Nui, the island’s annual festival of culture. I taught cello and violin classes, offered guidance during orchestra rehearsals, led a composition and improvisation workshop, filmed student performances of traditional music, discussed strategy with staff, and gave solo and group performances. As far as the language barrier allowed, I carried out discussions about the organization, and its place within the context of life on the island, with founders, teachers, administrative staff, volunteers, parents and students.


Toki Rapa Nui is a non-profit organization on the Chilean territory of Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. Situated over 2000 miles west of continental Chile with an area of 63 square miles, the population of the island at the 2017 census was 7750, 60% of whom are descended from Indigenous islanders. As Thor Heyerdahl has written in The New Scientist, “geographical isolation breeds unfettered speculation” (January 20, 1990), and the mystery-shrouded history of Easter Island ensures its ongoing international status as an intriguing and compelling destination for researchers and tourists alike.

The word toki is the name for the tool used to carve moai, the stone statues that have become globally recognized icons of the island. Rapa Nui is the Indigenous name for Easter Island and also designates its native people and their language. At the core of Toki Rapa Nui’s mission is the concept of sustainability, both environmental and cultural. The organization comprises a number of strands that share the common aim of improving both the environment and the quality of life on the island, in areas ranging from agriculture, energy, and construction to the arts. When the island was annexed by Chile in 1888, the continuation of Rapanui culture was threatened. Until the late 1990s, the Rapanui people were not officially permitted to speak their native language, and Spanish was required for public sector jobs and education. Over the last two decades there has been a gradual move towards the revival and promotion of Rapanui language and culture, an agenda now taken up by Toki and suggested in its tagline, “Legado Viviente,” or “Living Legacy.” The Rapanui people are also starting to take back control of their ancestral land and monuments. In November 2017, for example, the Chilean president granted joint administrative rights to the Rapa Nui National Park.

Toki was founded in 2011 by a small group of young Rapanui people, including the concert pianist Mahani Teave and her husband Enrique Icka, a construction engineer and well-known singer-songwriter. Previously, no formal music tuition was offered on the island, not even as part of the school curriculum. Traditional musical skills and repertoire were usually passed down through families as part of an oral tradition.

In 2012, Ms. Teave secured a donation of classical orchestral instruments for the island. At first, the music school had no physical base and lessons took place in the homes of teachers.  In 2014, construction began on the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts, a building that Toki describes as the first completely environmentally sustainable music school in Latin America. The School of Music and Arts is now at the heart of Toki’s activities, along with the organization’s agricultural activities.

To create a music school building in line with the organization’s environmental aims, founders of Toki contacted the American architect and so-called “garbage warrior” Michael Reynolds, the founder of Earthship Biotecture. Earthships are constructed using basic materials such as cement combined with recycled elements, such as aluminum cans, glass bottles and tires. On land donated by Mr. Icka, hundreds of volunteers from the island and further afield helped to build a home for Toki that is completely self-sufficient, using sun, wind, rain and earth for processes providing electricity, water, heating and cooling. In a November 2017 presentation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn, Germany, Mr. Icka described Toki’s ambitious goal to make Rapa Nui a fully environmentally sustainable island and consequently a small-scale model of environmental change for the rest of the world.

As of early 2018, Toki’s music school offered tuition in both classical and traditional disciplines, including violin, viola, cello, trumpet, piano, ukulele and ancestral song. Tuition in traditional dance and body painting is also available, and it is hoped that the scope of art forms offered by the school will continue to expand. Since 2014, Toki has presented an annual concert at Tapati Rapa Nui, the island’s festival of culture, which has taken place since 1968. For the Tapati performance on February 5, 2018, Toki formed — for the first time — a small orchestra, which performed a suite of Chilean children’s songs arranged by Toki’s piano teacher Ximena Cabello, and arrangements of two traditional Rapanui songs.

As of early 2018, Toki has approximately one hundred children registered, half of whom attend classes on a regular basis. Some students have attended the school since it was founded, while others have joined more recently as part of an ongoing recruitment drive. The Toki building acts as an after-school hub for these children and their families; it is not only a place to take lessons but also a place to congregate, socialize and eat. Students pay little or nothing to attend the school and instruments and tuition are funded by private donors, foundations and the Chilean government. Toki employs a minibus driver to transport students 1.5 miles to the school from the center of Hanga Roa, the island’s only town, and parent volunteers use the kitchen at the school to cook for students and staff with produce grown on Toki’s land.

Both the Fundación Mar Adentro, a Chilean foundation that supports the arts, education and nature, and ENAP (Empresa Nacional del Petróleo), a state-owned Chilean oil company, finance music classes at the school. In addition, the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura de las Artes de Valparaíso (the National Council of Culture and the Arts in Valparaíso) financially supports tuition in certain traditional Rapa Nui art forms, including hoko (a tribal war dance) and takona (body painting). Parents pay a small nominal fee annually, in part to assist with operating costs at Toki but also to help ensure regular student attendance. While the majority of the organization’s income is obtained through contributions, a small proportion of revenue is earned through the sale of produce grown on Toki’s land and of eight-stringed, Toki-branded Rapanui ukuleles made on the island.


While Toki Rapa Nui as an umbrella organization has a broadly defined mission of environmental and cultural sustainability, the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts lacks its own clear identity and goals. For example, some teachers see the school as offering children the chance to experience a new hobby in an informal and sociable environment while developing extra-musical traits such as empathy and the ability to cooperate, while others believe that students should prioritize music practice in order to attain the highest artistic level possible. In addition, Toki must decide how the evolving cultural make-up of the island (many recent immigrants are from continental Chile) will influence the organization’s definition and presentation of Rapanui music. A clear mission statement and corresponding goals would provide guidelines for defining and measuring success at the school and allow teachers and administrators to work effectively towards Toki’s larger mission of resurrecting, sustaining and promoting culture on the island.

The first challenge would be for stakeholders to agree on an interpretation of “cultural sustainability.” Should the moai and other points of archaeological and natural interest be maintained in their existing condition like artifacts in a museum, or should these sites experience organic change through the natural processes of weathering and even through controlled tourism? Similarly, should traditional Rapanui music be preserved fully and frozen in time? If not, then to what extent should other musical styles, including classical, influence traditional music? For instance, according to Ms. Teave, she used to believe that it was the duty of the Rapanui people to focus their efforts on the preservation of historical sites. More recently, however, she has come to believe that more resources should be channeled into the long-term protection of the physical environment, allowing culture to follow and morph in its wake.

One of the most successful current artists from the island is the singer Yoyo Tuki, now based in Australia. He always sings in the Rapanui language and cultural roots are at the forefront of his work, but his music also has pop, reggae, Afro-Pacific, folk and roots music influences. During Toki’s concert at the Tapati festival in February 2018, ukulele students relished the opportunity to perform one of Tuki’s songs, “Nanue Para.” Their enthusiasm for new music sung in a language that was all but lost two generations ago suggests that Toki might take this experience as an inspiration for future activities and programming.

“In addition to transparent and inclusive decision making, the generation of a sense of ownership and pride at Toki is important for cultural sustainability”


The following “SWOT” analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) for the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts is based on fieldwork observations and interviews:


  • A passion among Indigenous people to preserve Rapanui culture
  • A palpable sense of Rapanui identity across the island
  • The potential for a small, remote island to provide a model of sustainability to the rest of the world


  • A lack of collectively agreed-upon specific goals with quantifiable outcomes
  • Teachers with different expectations and philosophies of education
  • A lack of clear strategy, structure and discipline within the school


  • To present Rapanui culture to a younger generation, to visitors, and to a global audience
  • Fusion of Rapanui music with classical instruments and other musical influences may widen its reach and appeal
  • To use music and other art forms to raise awareness of the environmental work taking place on the island


  • Limited funding
  • Difficulty recruiting high quality teachers on a long-term basis
  • Increased tourism and immigration may challenge traditional Rapanui culture and way of life


The following recommendations are based on two principles: first, that decisions are best made by those within Toki, and second, that clear and inclusive communication is key to positioning Toki’s School of Music and Arts as a model of cultural sustainability for Rapanui culture.

It is recommended that the Toki co-founders first clearly articulate the organization’s overall mission, and then create a committee to develop a mission statement and specific outcomes for the music school. This committee should be representative of all stakeholders at the school, including co-founders, teachers, staff, volunteers, students, parents and funders. The committee should address two principle questions:

1.What does cultural sustainability mean in the context of the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts? To what degree should Rapanui culture be open to outside influences and to what extent should the music school seek to share Rapanui culture with immigrants, tourists, researchers and/or international audiences?

2. What is the primary purpose of the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts? Does the school offer music lessons primarily as a recreational activity or to develop a specific skill set among students? If the latter, should the school focus primarily on musical or extra-musical skills? To what extent, if at all, should traditional Rapanui music and classical music intersect and interact at the school? Should the introduction of classical instruments, repertoire and tuition to the island be treated as separate from the agenda to promote traditional Rapanui culture?

Following the development of a mission statement and specific outcomes, it is recommended that the committee work backwards from possible desired outcomes or social impacts to create a “theory of change” for the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts. The following table provides an example:


Teachers and visiting artists


Classes/workshops featuring composition and improvisation


Student compositions inspired by traditional Rapanui culture

Social Value

A new generation of creative Rapanui musicians with knowledge of traditional, classical and other genres

Social Impact

Empowerment of the Rapanui people to present their living culture on a global stage

In addition to transparent and inclusive decision making, the generation of a sense of ownership and pride at Toki is important for cultural sustainability. If stakeholders do not feel that they have ownership of, and control over, the music school’s activities and physical spaces, then attendance, artistic progress and motivation may suffer, ultimately leading to difficulties in securing funding and recruiting students and staff. For students, ownership not only of their culture, but also of the space in which it is transmitted and nurtured, can be cultivated through the implementation of small practical changes. These include:

  • Maintain the instruments provided by Toki so that students feel motivated to progress. The NGO Luthiers sans Frontières (Luthiers without Borders), for instance, might be willing to send volunteer luthiers to Rapa Nui to repair string instruments and maintain bows, at no cost to Toki.
  • Identify spaces within the Toki building where students can store instruments, sheet music and instrument accessories. This would encourage students to care for their instruments and would reduce time spent looking for misplaced shared sheet music.
  • If Toki decides to offer guided tours of the music school building, encourage students to give short, informal performances while visitors are being shown around the site. These tours would not only generate revenue for the school and promote its activities to a wider audience but would also increase pride among students and offer them additional performance experience.

Finally, it is recommended that the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts create opportunities for students to take part in high profile performances or recordings. For instance, in February 2018, students from the Artistic Conservatory of French Polynesia (Tahiti) visited Toki and performed at the music school. The Tahitian students demonstrated clear pride in their own culture and a desire to share it with others. If students at Toki were given similar opportunities to share their music beyond their remote island, they might begin to identify further possibilities for their art and feel the benefits of connection between cultures.

“Ultimately, a network of likeminded organizations might share best practices and even collaborate artistically to give new life and perspective to their own cultures.”


The unique culture, history and geography of Rapa Nui must always be considered when addressing challenges specific to the island. Recent efforts to revive and promote Rapanui cultural expression instill both optimism and a sense of responsibility in the island’s Indigenous people. The young and ambitious organization Toki Rapa Nui has the potential to harness this palpable, island-wide desire for cultural sustainability. Through effective consultative leadership, Toki has the opportunity to establish a unified concept of what it means to participate in and nourish Rapanui culture in a constantly evolving environment. It is recommended that Toki create a committee to develop a mission statement and specific outcomes for the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts. This committee might also develop a theory of change for the school: a succinct graphic representation of Toki’s newly defined mission and corresponding plan of action. For students, a sense of ownership and pride in their practice, identity and environment will help to ensure cultural sustainability for generations to come. Toki holds the key to creating a cultural image and living legacy for Rapa Nui that goes far beyond the preservation of its stone facades.

A successful model for cultural sustainability at the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts could be adopted elsewhere by organizations seeking to sustain and promote their own culture through the arts. Ultimately, a network of likeminded organizations might share best practices and even collaborate artistically to give new life and perspective to their own cultures.

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