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Goodbye prison – back to reality

The final report (#7) from LOOP correspondent Sarah Hunter, in Noumea with the New Zealand Pacific Island delegation for the Pacific Festival of Arts.

Back to life, back to reality... the 8th Festival of Pacific Arts wound up over the weekend. The Cook Island and Hawaiian delegates were on the Air NZ flight that left Saturday morning with Maori and NZ PI delegates aboard, and the rest of the Maori/PI delegates arrived in Aotearoa yesterday (Sunday).

The Cook Island team were playing a number on the ukelele, basically a song about being happy to be going home and the feeling was shared by many of the performers and artists who were at the Festival for the past two weeks. "Goodbye prison," was one comment as the plane wheels lifted off from the Noumea tarmac.

The 'hang loose' motto in Noumea worked most of the time, but the French, who have the richest island in the Pacific, really tried their best to wreck the Festival flow with their arrogant attitudes and lack of organisation. There were sights and sounds to cherish, and networks gained, but there were also many frustrating moments that took away some of that joy. The heart of the Festival comes from the Pacific people putting in the sweat and tears for their performances and art.

That said, the final few days... how were they?

The rain held out for the performances on Thursday night when the kapa haka crew from Rotorua and the MAU dancers were doing their last shows. The timing for kapa haka was lousy. The programme was about two hours behind schedule which meant they weren't on until after 10pm – and the audience who were there to see them had to stay awake through heaps of other acts. The beautiful and melodic Hawaiian group were badly placed, just before the action-packed kapa haka, and should have been on earlier. The Amerikan Samoa performance was also before Aotearoa, and was cheezy, too long, and the synthesiser was too loud. They were like Samoans on speed with the fast pace of their dances and songs. At one stage they announced they were taking a break and this dude came out and was telling everyone. "Moses said take off your shoes in the sacred land – so I'm going to take off my shoes now." and there were some in the crowd who were wanting to take off their shoes and biff them at him.

Highlight of the evening was finally catching up with the famous Futuna crowd, who have beautiful costumes and a great drumming/singing group led by these old guys who kept debating which tune to do next. Some of the dancers were not so keen on that system but what a sound when it happened! Earlier in the day Vanuatu appeared with a sacred dance or two, and their hats with fish painted on them were way cool. They had the biggest log drums, propped up against a tree, and the shortest dances.

Overall traditional dance continues to dominate these festivals: it is the stuff that the island groups are wanting to maintain and keep alive and it's so visually compelling and the beats and rhythms so intoxicating.
However there is a feeling that the contemporary performances coming from the Islands – Vanuatu, Hawaii, NZ PI and a Kanaky group among the cutting edge theatre practitioners – need to be better recognised and respected.

The Pacific art on show was generally out there in direction, and the weaving and moko/tatau continue to work off traditional design and technique.

The question of future directions in the Pacific was debated in various meetings but they often felt removed from the ambitions of the general population, as they took place away from the action or on an intellectual level. For example, in debates about art, people got wound up about what are appropriate titles for exhibitions by Pacific artists (the "should we use Western titles?" drama). One artist commented later, "I don't care if you call it 'Stone Fence', just put the art out there for people to experience."

The final day of the Festival was a disjointed affair but the hang loose team had a cool time.

The Festival Village was closed to the public and media while VIP delegation members were given a Kanak lunch (somehow squeezed in on that and sat at a table with Hirini Melbourne and the waka captain from Te Aurere which finally made it to Noumea after three days of wrong winds kept them from landing).

Performers were fed back at their respective schools, then each Island presented gifts to the Festival, and after hours seemed to have passed there was a parade down the street at sunset.

Our friends from Tindu School had arrived at lunchtime and were turned away from the Village. They were hanging loose on the beach across the road in their festival shirts they had painted and sewn when we hooked up again. They sang their favourite Samoan song and whenever a delegation went by we encouraged them to come and share a song. Managed to have some opera from Robert Wiremu, a haka and waiata from some of the Maori delegation and some great songs from some young cats from the Wallis group. A passionate little festival on the beach in the sunshine with the mini surf rolling – it made us all smile.

The evening went by quickly. The Festival finally got together a big outdoor venue but the acts on stage were few and then they played some dance tunes over the sound system and shut shop by 10pm. Five truckloads of police nearby! Dread locals out dancing and hanging and smoking.

Some of the NZ PI crew gatecrashed the VIP cocktail partee and scored big time on drinks and food and music and had a great time.

Not much sleep at the school or 'prison' before catching the plane outta Noumea. Radio Maori played through the night at the school – the "kaching kaching" guitar and vocals – and it was time to go.

In four years time the Festival happens in Palau. Some people are already wondering how the little island will cope, but fingers crossed, eh – and the French won't be in charge!

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