The Cook Islands is a country divided by ocean, a 1.8 million square kilometers mass of water separating each of the 15 islands. But each year in a special event, that vast distance ceases to exist, when the far flung islands come together for a festival to celebrate nationhood.
The Cook Islands gained independence in 1964. That historical event is commemorated with the Te Maeva Nui Festival, a week of outstanding cultural performances, sporting events, trade and food shows on Rarotonga, with each island showcasing their uniqueness.
Held most years at the beginning of August, the northern and southern islands travel to Rarotonga to participate in Te Maeva Nui, with new performances especially prepared to fit in with the annual festival theme, set by the Ministry of Cultural Development (MOCD).
The performances are held in the National Auditorium which has seating for 2000, but with capacity crowds every night MOCD squeezes in more seating at ground level. Each night the audience experiences stunning, resplendent costumes made from natural fibres, dancers and singers who exude vibrancy and pure joy to be performing before their people, and legendary Cook Islands drumming. Visitor’s come away feeling elated to have experienced outstanding indigenous cultural performances and locals leave proud of their culture.
There are six different categories of cultural performances: the fast, upbeat ura-pau or drum dance, it is electrifying to hear the pulsating rhythms and watch the sheer energy and stamina of dancers.
Next is the kapa rima, an action song which is slower and showcases technique and grace.
The pe’e section is where the main male performer will lead with a traditional chant which is followed by a theatrical performance, usually based on a well-known legend or theme that falls in line with the overall festival theme.
The ute or chant is when the entire group is on stage, with women sitting in a U-shaped formation and the men standing behind – as the ute progresses, it becomes livelier with members breaking into dance.
The imene tuki is the traditional hymn sung with gusto and passion – it is unlike any other church hymn. Women reach incredibly high pitches with bass backing by men. This also gets very lively and performers express their joy with impromptu performances throughout the hymn.
A separate drumming competition, the tangi kaara, is also held during the festival. This is a thrilling event that is just pure Cook Islands style drumming.
Without a doubt, Te Maeva Nui has developed over the years into a stunning festive occasion for an entire island nation, and one that is gaining international repute as an extraordinary event to witness. But it wasn’t always like that.
Previously known as the Constitution Celebrations back in the 70s and 80s, it was more of a political celebration – the government of the day reveling in being in power and rewarding outer islands who had helped vote them into office, by bringing festival teams to Rarotonga entirely made up of supporters. That resulted in the songs and dances being composed praising the ruling party or politicians in power.
“It was a celebration of a particular government being in power, when it should’ve been a celebration of nationhood whatever government happened to be in power” says MOCD. “Those factors affected the morale of the communities and there was a lot of resentment in those days, so we decided on setting an annual theme to change it to a truly cultural event, one where people would focus on our culture rather than being sidetracked into politics.”
It was a decision that brought excellent results for the commemorative festival. “All of a sudden people starting looking into their own island culture, to research their specific history,” rather than focusing on political praise to earn kudos from a government.
Sonny Williams, past director of MOCD, explains that he chose to start the theme at the very beginning hence “Te Kapuanga o Toku Mata Kainanga” – the creation of my homeland. Subsequent themes like “Te Aka’nooanga o Toku Mata Kainanga” – the settlement of my homeland, have followed each year, allowing for performances to express the progression and development of each island from ancient times to present day.
“The idea is that if we are selective in these themes, in 20 or 30 years time we will have a complete historical account of our communities, where none exists at the moment. The important thing is to bring it out and teach it to the young people – when these young people perform a legend, a song or a drum dance, it sticks in their mind and they learn their culture and history.”
With many teams performing, the logistics and expense of bringing hundreds of performers to Rarotonga is a huge annual undertaking for successive governments and the country, where strings on the national purse are always tight. The likelihood of every island being subsidized to allow participation, on an annual basis in the future, is very much in question.
Chartering a ship to bring teams to Rarotonga puts a considerable dent into the annual budget of this small Pacific island country. However, many believe because the festival brings the country together celebrating independence from colonialism, showcases some of the best talent, improves the quality of cultural performances, records and teaches culture and history, it’s well worth the cost. As Sonny puts it, “the focus is always on the future, but also maintaining a theme ensures there will continue to be an historical account of our cultural heritage documented.”
He also makes the point that by engaging so many individuals in the festival, by bringing in outer islands teams each year, is a sort of “mass preservation of our culture – this is the idea - keeping all the islands and as many people as possible involved ensures this.” The DVDs of the Te Maeva Nui performances produced each year by MOCD is a good backup record that gets distributed through sales, “our people overseas use them to teach their young ones.”
MOCD is pleased with the overall outcome of the festival. The success of the Trade and Food Day with the “Buy Local” theme has also reassured its continuation and management by the Business Trade and Investment Board. “We were very pleased with the outcome because a lot of people benefitted – a lot of people in the outer islands couldn’t make this kind of money in such a short time.”
There is the popular view that, with its growing international popularity and associated financial rewards for the country, the Te Maeva Nui festival is developing into more than a cultural and commemorative celebration. It is, without doubt, a great time to be on Rarotonga.
The sheer joy on the faces of the dancers, singers, drummers and actors while on stage performing their culture before their people, is proof that Cook Islanders have always, and will continue to cherish their performing arts.
And it is through the performing arts that this small country delights in celebrating its nationhood.