Thousands gathered before dawn at Ranandi Beach, Honiara. Fireworks farewelled the stars and drumming welcomed the sunrise in air redolent with the fragrance of coconut oil and the distinctive rattle of seed-pod anklets. Scores of canoes from the province of Malaita mingled with a great fleet of ocean-going waka, which had travelled from distant islands to attend an event that has become one of the institutions of the Pacific region.
Every four years, the Festival of Pacific Arts is hosted by a different nation, with cultural delegations from up to 28 countries and territories participating. The 11th festival was hosted by Solomon Islands in July this year, and transformed Honiara from a small, challenged capital into a vibrant city of performers and artists.
That evening, the stadium throbbed with attendees of the pageant, with huge masks and headdresses representing animal and bird species of the Solomons. (A sudden power outage plunged the venue into darkness, yet, within seconds, a galaxy of mobile-phone screens lit up the crowd. There appeared to be a tinge of regret when power was restored.)
Over two weeks, performances were given at half a dozen Honiara locations, particularly the Festival Village, where a house for each country attending displayed indigenous crafts and other venues offered seminars on everything from copyright to traditional navigation. Artists were also transported to five satellite locations for performances—Doma in Guadalcanal, Auki in Malaita, as well as Northern, Western and Temotu Provinces.
In Honiara, one group from Malaita performed a sequence of dances to pan-pipe accompaniment, holding dance-shields carved as hornbills. Belts and bandoliers of shell money and feathers conferred prestige, finely woven skirts of bleached pandanus contrasted with dark patterns of dyed decorative bands, and long strings of seed pods were strung around the dancers’ legs to provide a distinctive percussive rattle with every rhythmic movement: a variety of materials that echoed the 2012 festival’s chosen theme of “Culture within Nature”.
In the midst of the performance, an older man with wild hair and piercing eyes sprang into view behind the dance group, brandishing a spear and declaiming a message in rapid Malaitan. A public announcer explained the performance: “This is the group’s leader. He’s warning that these dances are endangered. It’s hard work and it’s costly, but must be maintained. That’s how they show who they are.”
That fevered message was probably relevant to every performance at the festival. Apart from Easter Island, Pacific cultures did not have written language prior to European colonisation. The detail of their rich history is preserved in oral and material culture, and also encoded into dance in the same way that motifs in a carving can map the genealogy, stories and traditions of a people. Every movement has a meaning and a provenance, as recognisable and memorable to the choreographers as writing on a page.
In time, through a process of repetition and explanation, some of these patterns of movement and their corresponding meaning may become obvious to the performers as well, and thus the cultural capital of one generation survives to the next. Other lore embedded in the movements, esoteric or secret, may never be fully understood but remain encoded within the dance for generations.
The continuity of these traditions, if not the very survival of the rich and varied cultures of the Pacific themselves, was fundamental to the inaugural festival hosted in Suva, Fiji, in 1972, and has remained a constant theme since.
The following evening, a group from the far north of La Grande Terre, New Caledonia, performed lullabies. The woman introducing the songs defined a lullaby as “a gesture, a cradling, a hush, a word, a sentence, a song”, and followed with a bracket of exquisitely gentle singing, the rustling sounds of coconut-frond fans and a rain stick keeping time, and holding time.
The small dependency of Tokelau sent a group from one of its three atolls—each takes a turn to attend the festival once every 12 years. This year, a troupe from Fakaofo performed fatele—songs performed with movements of the arms, hands and upper body while kneeling or standing—that were at first beguiling and then exuberant. Like many performances that used traditional forms as a commentary on modern events, the Tokelau ensemble’s final song celebrated the adoption of 100 per cent solar power in the archipelago, a world first.
Despite the big turnout of nations, there were some notable omissions—Tonga was in mourning for its king, and cited economic factors, as did the Cook Islands and several Micronesian groups. However, a small group of Banaban dancers from Rabi Island were included in the Fijian contingent, a sign that ethnic minorities are being reinstated in that country’s representation. New Zealand sent 120 artists—led by Te Matarae i Orehu from Rotorua—featuring clayworkers, puppeteers, carvers and performers.
The closing ceremony looked forward to the next gathering in Guam in 2016. All of the performers, bedecked in diverse costume, danced the dances of their island homelands to the same beat, rapped out in the percussive dialects of hundreds of drummers. Tens of thousands of Solomon Islanders responded in kind, dancing their thanks and farewell to the visitors setting off back across the great ocean Maori call Moana nui a Kiwa, to the places that they each think of as home.