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Pacific Arts Festival starts on sad note

The death of Samoan/NZ baritone Iosefa Enari at the Pacific Arts Festival has been a huge blow to the people here from Aotearoa – and of course for his family; an unbelievable tragedy.

Iosefa was a member of the Pacific Island delegation from New Zealand, a mix match of nationalities – Samoan, Niuean, Maori, Palagi – accompanying the Maori delegation.

Iosefa travelled over with four young opera singers who will go ahead with their performance later this week based on the successful Classical Polynesia concept, and dedicate it to him.

Iosefa had got up early Sunday morning to go for a run and was warming down when he suffered a heart attack. He lay down on the field and passed away. Behind him lay the Pacific Ocean; to one side an Aotearoa group practicing rakau; on the other, delegation members slowly waking up in their school dorms; while to the front people were lining up and sitting down for breakfast.

Word of the tragedy soon spread and the Aotearoa delegation gathered with him on the field, the impact sinking in, disbelief. We all sat with Iosefa as Peter from the Maori delegation gave a karakia to send Iosefa's spirit on the long journey home across the Pacific. Pese Samoa, a Samoan hymn, was sung and people kissed him farewell and a guard of honour was formed as he was driven out from the school.

It rained from that moment on, cancelling out the opening ceremony of the Festival until yesterday when Iosefa's wife, Lopa and namesake Iosefa junior arrived in Noumea to take Iosefa home to his family in Auckland.

The Pacific Island delegation hosted a moving service for Iosefa before his final flight. The Kanak paid respect with traditional gifts: packet of cigarettes, lava lava and money (Pacific francs); the Maori with karakia, hymns and gifts; and his young opera singers with an aria. Uplifting, emotional farewells in respect of a great artist.

The timing of his death meant that a hybrid of Pacific artists were there to bid him farewell. At the Lycee Jules Garnier college were groups from American Samoa, Cook Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinee, Norfolk Island and Niue.

National Radio's George Henare, who met Iosefa as a construction site worker, put Iosefa's death in perspective when he compared the impact of the loss to that of Inia Te Wiata – a talented singer taken at the height of his career.

The Minister of Maori Affairs was among a group at the Noumea airport to meet Iosefa's family. Lopa was humbling in her speech, a person who has always been 'behind the scenes' now in the front. She said that the money donated to the family would be used to establish a scholarship trust for young Polynesian, Maori opera singers – a dream that Iosefa had. The singing was continuous – a bravo performance for Iosefa.

Now it's Wednesday. The rain has pulled back and we are getting back to the Festival ahead. Last night two thousand delegates got down at a cocktail party, and it was pretty awesome as the dancing and music got underway with various groups around the racecourse breaking into impromptu performance. Very cool.

There was kai galore and drinks, though the festival hasn't been that brilliant in terms of some of the organisation – it varies wildly.

To date there is still no official programme. The official opening is rescheduled for Thursday night and every day is freeflow. Many performers are in the dark about times, dates and venues, but there is still unity and passion and laughter.

The catchcry for the PI delegation is, "When you in Noumea just hang loose", because otherwise you'd be pulling out your hair. The arts village is up and running: fale after fale with carving, tattooing, weaving, food etc on hand, and all in the expensive Pacific franc!! Dusty and hot. Crowds are local Kanak with heaps of Palagi tourists: German, Australian, American, etc.

Tonight is the opening of the biennial exhibition at the Biennale D'art Contemporain de Noumea at the Tjibaou cultural centre, with 200 Pacific artists doing their thing – a sophisticated rave.


by LOOP correspondent Sarah Hunter in Noumea

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