norman miller writer and photographer
norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer

Songlines magazine

“Pasifika provides an umbrella for the whole Pacific. Even though each island has a different culture, they all know Auckland is the only place in the world where all the Pacific Island nations come together,” says Taha Fasi, a key player in gathering a rainbow coalition of tiny ocean nations each year for the world's largest celebration of Pacific Island culture.

Pasifika is a South Seas Glastonbury with celebrated its 21st year in 2013 by drawing a record 80,000 people to Auckland's Western Springs Park. Yet this 2-day free March festival remains under the radar of many visitors to New Zealand, whose experience of Pacific Island culture too often seems to amount to a tour group haka performance in a Rotorua lodge.

Pasifika covers the bases, celebrating not just music and dance but also the traditional crafts and food of widely-scattered Pacific Island communities - Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Tokelau, Tuvalu. Performers from places like Hawaii make impromptu appearances, keen to join this unique celebration of a vast ocean diaspora. 
Like Glastonbury, Pasifika started small. “10 years ago it was still community-based – we tended to have each island nation wanting to do their own thing,” says Fasi, a native of tiny Niue, 1500 miles from where we're sitting. “It would have been a huge effort to mobilise different Pacific Island communities to do something like this.” But whole-hearted support from Auckland city council – logistical and financial – has seen the festival develop and strengthen. “Now they all automatically come to the party,” he says simply.

Pasifika's head honcho is Stan Wolfgramm, whose recent focus has been on bringing the festival  back to proper roots after signs of drift. “Many events that start off with cultural beginnings get commercial – and we started to get fish and chip stands plus people selling stuff made in China,” he explains. “But now it's about people re-engaging with their culture and languages.”

A sense of engagement certainly runs through Pasifika, including commendable stalls promoting campaigns for key Pacific Island health and social issues. Barriers between participants and audience are broken down everywhere. I chat to performers by various stages, and get the low-down from the makers on Pacific crafts ranging from tapa (bark cloth) covered in animal and geometric motifs to bone jewellery and gorgeously decorated instruments. “I am a master in wood, I can carve anything,” says Samoan carver Faavae Lepule with simple pride, proffering evidence that he might be right.

I also get to try food from places I can only dream of visiting. Hovering around hot plates and boiling pots, I ask about almost everything on each menu - faiai eleni (fish cooked in coconut cream), fai (Samoan octopus), lovo (Fijian fish and meat cooked in the ground) and tunu puaka (roast pig). Even a late afternoon pick-me-up doughnut seems special when it's a Tuvalu version.

Saturday features the more intense action, with Sunday quieter as a handful of islands pull out of performance due to religious beliefs that this is a day of rest – though absent 'villages' are replaced by Pan Pacific stages offering a mash-up of performers.

I'm hooked within minutes of my Saturday arrival, charmed by a giant Fijian bloke cradling a tiny uke as he strums sweet toe-tapping melodies, followed by a fabulous Tahitian string band. I curse myself for missing the Cook Islands ukelele symphony orchestra thanks to a wrong turn on a park trail and a laissez-faire gap between stated start times and actual start times. But hey, this festival runs on Island Time.  

But I still experience plenty of highlights, from Fijian war dancers to an enthralling Tongan brass band – smartly-dressed teens and  20somethings lighting up Sunday afternoon with spine-tingling crescendos of brass augmented by choir in a beguiling mix of church and colliery.  Musicologists say Tonga took a shine to brass courtesy of northern English Methodist missionary influences mixing with local love of island woodwind such as conch-shell shawms – and it's a cultural union to cherish.

Perhaps my favourite moment comes courtesy of Tuvalu (one of the world's smallest nations, 2000 miles to the north). The stage slowly fills until about 50 people stand before a pretty woven backdrop – men, women, old and young, some standing in bright costumes, others sat looking relaxed in simple T-shirts. Then the singing and slow traditional swaying begins, traditional forms known as fakaseasea and fatele. The hairs on my neck rise as high harmonies fill the hot Auckland air, each song (either a story or repeated short poem) picking up pace then stopping in a heartbeat, leaving behind a shimmering acoustic memory. This is music that touches the soul, and I make a note to seek out the renowned 1960s Tuvalu recordings made by Gerd Koch.

But Pasifika is about more than just entertainment, as Cook Islander Bernard Tairea explains the next day as we perch on a low tree branch near his nation stage. “In our history, people have learned to dance before they can walk, and sing before they can talk,” he says, before highlighting Pasifika's role in cultural education for young performers as well as the audience.

“Opportunities are being lost as elders are dying, and we have to grab new opportunities,” argues Tairea, who cites language as a key battleground. “You don't need to be able to speak the language to sing the songs,” he says firmly. “Festivals like this help to strengthen what we have left in our culture. Our language is preserved through music.”

“It's so important here that you have a melting pot, and Pacific Island culture is very strong.” he continues. “In my country we only have 15,000 people – but there are 75,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand. So a festival like Pasifika is important for us to keep our identity alive.” And that's not something you'll ever hear about Glastonbury. 


Pasifika takes place early March each year in Auckland. Details:


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