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Geography & Topography

Capital: Tarawa

Area: 811 km2

Population: 101 093

Language: English, Gilbertese

Religion: Roman Catholic, Protestant

Currency: Australian dollar


Kiribati, officially the Republic of Kiribati is an island nation located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean. The name Kiribati is the local pronunciation of “Gilberts”, derived from the main island chain, Gilbert Islands. The capital of South Tarawa consists of a number of islets connected through a series of causeways, located in the Tarawa archipelago. The native people of Kiribati are called I-Kiribati.

Ethinically, the I-Kiribati are micronesians. They speak an Oceanic language called “Gilbertese”. Although English is the official language, it is not widely used outside the island capital of Tarawa. Kiribati society remains conservative and resistant to change; ties to family and traditional land remain strong, and conspicuous displays of individual achievement or wealth are discouraged. The building and racing of sailing canoes is a common pastime. Musical composition and dancing in customary styles are regarded as art forms and are the basis of widespread competition.


Performing Arts


Kiribati folk music is generally based around chanting or other forms of vocalizing, accompanied by body percussion. Public performances in modern Kiribati are generally performed by a seated chorus, accompanied by a guitar. However, during formal performances of the standing dance (Te Kaimatoa) or the hip dance (Te Buki) a wooden box is used as a percussion instrument. This box is constructed so as to give a hollow and reverberating tone when struck simultaneously by a chorus of men sitting around it. The principal instrument in Kiribati is the human voice. Historically the only musical instruments were the boaki (large wooden box), biscuit tins, and the sound of the hands slapping the fine mat garments. First introduced by Europeans, string instruments such as ukulele and guitar are an essential part of music making today.



I-Kiribati always sing while they dance. Gestures of fishing, sailing, and the martial arts are illustrated through outstretched arms, quick movements of the head, and movement through space. Verses are punctuated by the sound of hands slapping fine mats, foot stamping, and clapping.

Costumes are an important part of aesthetic expression. All costumes are hand-made with love and care by each performer from local materials found on the islands. The long, wide, saw-like leaves of the pandanus are softened into a pliable material fit for the artistic demands of performance. The fibers of the pandanus are used to create the “grass” skirts, woven tops worn by women, and fine woven mats worn by men.

The body can be decorated with arm bands, belts, garlands, sashes, and crowns made of flowers, leaves, shells, beads, and pandanus. The swish of the skirts and muffled slaps to the thighs offer contrasting timbres that enhance performance.

Examples of traditional I-Kiribati dances are:



Ruoia:One of the oldest forms is called the Ruoia. The style requires the dancer or dancers to move in time with a chorus of singers standing behind. Te Ruoia usually has three verses each sung with increasing tempo. Within the rouia there are three subtle forms; te kemai (usually performed by men), te kabuti (performed only by woman) and the third is unique to Abemama atoll where it is greatly stylised. This is called te wa ni banga. The musical origin of this form of dance is not clear.




Kaimatoa: The most widely practised dance in contemporary Kiribati is the Kaimatoa, literally meaning the dance of strength. The dance tests the dancers physical endurance to outstretch their arms for long periods but it also test the dancers emotional endurance. The music and rhythm is often very emotive and it is not uncommon to see dancers weep throughout the dance. The kaimatoa can be performed by both men, women and children.



Some interesting facts:

  • The flag of Kiribati: the upper half is red with a yellow frigate bird flying over a yellow rising sun, and the lower half is blue with three wavy horizontal white stripes to represent the ocean.
  • The main island groups in Kiribati are the Gilberts Group, the Phoenix Group and the Line Islands Group.
  • The islands of Kiribati span a vast area in the Pacific Ocean and lie across the Equator and the International Date Line.


I-Kiribati Community in Australia:

More information on the I-Kiribati community: