Where Did John Kanaka Come From? by Joe Cook

A couple of years ago, Rennie was hosting an exchange student from Bangladesh. When we had a HardTackers practice session at Rennie’s house, we sang John Kanaka, which we frequently use to start rehearsals or shows. The student later asked Rennie, “What is the meaning of the English term ‘Too-Ri-A?’” Rennie told him what we all thought at the time—that it was just a nonsense filler phrase like “Fa-la-la-la-la”or “Hey Nonny Nonny”—lazy songwriting perhaps, but quite common in sea shanties. We had learned that the Kanak people of the Hawaiian Islands were highly prized sailors known for their nautical skills and they had sailed on the ships of virtually all European maritime nations. The term “Kanak” means “human being” in their language.

Recently, I was surfing on YouTube and found Sacrée Bordée, a French shanty crew singing a French version of John Kanaka. The French lyrics gave a clue to what I believe to be the origins of the song. Where the English version says, ”John Kanakanaka Too-Ri-A” (or “Too-Li-A “ in some versions), the French lyrics say,”John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer” which is pronounced,” John Ka-na-ka-na-ka too lar gay” and means “John Kanaka only has to let everything run out.” “Larguer’ in French means to loose or pay out a rope. This means that John Kanaka, being crew boss and an intrepid sailor, chose the easy job for himself.

Braces are a system of lines attached to the ends of the yards and are used to position the sail. When hauling in the braces on a square-rigger, a large crew pulls on the windward brace and one person, or a small crew, pays out the leeward brace. This person is sometimes called the “slacker”, giving rise to the term designating a person who seeks the easiest job. Thus, I surmise that John Kanaka was the crew boss and supervisor of the operation, choosing the least strenuous job for himself. The other sailors in the large crew were complaining.

WHAT? A COMPLAINING SHANTY? Perhaps not the first or last.

Also, the phrase “Kanaka n’a que” is a bit of a linguistic pun or at least a novelty, common in French folk music. Similar puns occur in “Il n’y a qu’un Cheveu Sur la Tête à Mathieu”, a childrens’ song where there is a play on homonyms, e.g. “Q’est-ce qui a trois?, ‘Y a Troyes en Champagne” or , “Q’est-ce qui a quatre?, ‘Y a Catherine de Russie” etc. making word plays on numbers. "Trois" (three) is pronounced identically to "Troyes" (a town in the Champagne region of France), and elided "quatre" (four) forms a part of "Catherine de Russie" (Empress Catherine the Great of Russia)

The rest of the French version of John Kanaka is very much in the mainstream of shanty content: The ship is all loaded and provisioned, Hoist the sails to take us out to sea, We are looking forward to the Antilles where we’ll find rum and pretty girls, Eventually you have to go around Cape Horn, Choirs of sirens will sing for us, but we’re coming back to Brittany and drop our anchor, and so forth.

It is impossible to tell the true origins of most shanties, the folk process being what it is, but I believe that the Breton version of this shanty predates the English version. English-speaking sailors may not have understood the words, nor caught the puns of the French version, but were always ready to absorb a catchy rousing shanty, and if that meant making up some nonsense words to fill in, well big deal. A good song is a good song in any language.


Watch The Video
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CHORUS:
Tout larguer, Hé, tout larguer
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer
Tout est chargée à bord du Stanguy Everything is loaded on the banks of Stanguy
(nearAuray, Brittany)
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
La cargaison, la cambuse aussiThe cargo, and the storeroom too
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer
Chorus
On est parti au petit matinWe left early in the morning
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer
Hisse la grand voile, Ménage pas tes mainsHoist the mainsail, don’t spare your hands
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer
Chorus
Les voiles au vent nous prenons la merThe sails in the wind bring us to the sea
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
En route vers le soliel d’outre-merBound for the sunshine of overseas
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
Chorus
Nous atteindrons bientôt les antillesWe will soon reach the Antilles
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
Et vive le rhum et les jolies fillesLong live rum and pretty girls
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
Chorus
Un jour le Cap Horn il faudra passerSome day you’ll have to go around Cape Horn
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
C’est ça ta peine pour être long courrierThat’s your lot for being on a liner
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
Chorus
Malgré les vents qui soufflent de partoutDespite the winds that blow from every direction
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
Choeurs de sirènes chantera bien pour nousChoirs of sirens will sing for us
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
Chorus
Nous reviendrons au pays bretonWe will return to the Breton land
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
Et à couleau l’ancre nous jetteronsAnd we’ll toss the anchor into the current
John Kanaka n’a que tout larguer....
Chorus

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