This Marquesan Arts Festival is an amazing cultural event which occurs every four years. It is a way for Marquesans to reclaim and revitalize the culture of their ancestors and share their rich history with the children and future generations. The Marquesan history was almost lost in 1815 when the French colonized them and forbade anything related to their heritage and traditions. This included dancing, singing, and tattooing. We were lucky enough to be here for the pre-festival celebrations.
There will be 9 groups. Each of the 6 Marquesan islands will be represented including Hiva Oa, Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Fatu Hiva, Tahuata, and Ua Huka. In addition, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Mangareva (Gambiers), and Tahiti will send dancers and musicians to perform for each other. Artists start practicing six months before the event providing visitors an opportunity to enjoy their beautiful voices and drumming ahead of time.
It is a rare treat and a huge honor to be able to witness this spectacular celebration. We specifically, planned our schedule to be in Ua Pou to participate in this event which only occurs every four years. Each time it is held at a different island.
As we mentioned in the last blog pos, it was a tight squeeze to get into the anchorage (see How did we do that in Hakahau”). With only 10 boats allowed to anchor in a limited space. So, once we got settled and were confident the boat was safe, we headed to shore for an hour to fly the drone. We wanted to capture the tight quarters from the sky – but guess what? We are in a no-fly zone (again) as the airport is in the next bay over – 5 miles away! Ugh. Luckily Matt was able to get an exception so we will have more drone shots soon.
We did find out that a pre-festival dress rehearsal was being held later in the evening. Awesomeness! Our French friends determined when, where, and how to get a table and we were set! We met at the dock later that evening and walked the mile to the sports center where the event was to take place.
Dress Rehearsal – Pre-Festival Celebration
We were arrived early for the pre-festival at 1830. Music started at 1900, food served 1930, prayer, then dancing 2000. Except, it is island time so everything was running late. We were all struggling to stay awake as it was way past sailor’s midnight (2100). A nice meal was served on environmentally friendly plates. They had bamboo cutlery, recycled plates and cups. Pretty darn impressive for a small island with 2,200 people. The theme of the festival is recycling so no plastic is allowed.
When the music and dancing started, we were full of excitement. The performers had makeup and paint all over them. Their costumes are one time use so I was surprised to see how intricate some of them were for a dress rehearsal.
Costumes and Make-Up
You can see some of the men had painted their thighs black. Some was just smeared on, but others were intricate designs. The unfortunate thing was that it came off as they slapped their bodies during the routines.
The drumming was amazing and evoked all sorts of emotions. They could make you float high in the sky or feel loaded down with rocks with the pounding of their rhythm. The dancers did a great job. They still need some work over the next two weeks before the festival, but they still were pretty darn good. It is a “pre-festival” fundraiser after all. The interesting thing was that they all faced inward which gave the audience a view of their backs – no matter where you sat. I could not understand this at all, was it a mistake? Nope, all of the dances were choreographed in a way that had the dancers facing each other (like in a circle) and the audience was left with watching their backside.
The “bird dance” is a special dance performed by each group showing the rise of the phoenix from the ashes. This is the first time I had seen this dance performed (even though I had heard about it from many people). I was floored by the beauty of the dance and the feathers on the dancer. It was a truly exotic and intoxicating performance. I thought if I am this moved by one performance at the pre-festival, what will the actual festival be like?
In this little bay is the designated area for cruisers (personal boats), small dock for the local fishing boats, beach front for the canoes and outriggers and another dock for the “cruise ships.” I say “cruise ships” because they are of the smaller nature. The Tahiti Nui is the Prime Minister’s yacht and has been designated to bring all of the artists from neighboring islands to Ua Pou. So, they had to maneuver in and around all the other boats within a really small space which made it terribly exciting to watch.
In addition, there was the Ari Nui which we lovingly call the “mullet.” Why is that? Because it is business in the front and party in the rear. What the heck does that mean? The front of the boat is the supply ship with cranes and containers and the back of the boat is a cruise ship with guests. Yep, you read that right!
Celebrating the Arrival of the Participants
The really cool part of watching the arrival of both of these ships was the welcome reception. Each time a new group arrived, locals would gather at the dock and for a pre-festival festival performance. Complete with drums, flowers, and some costumes representing their island. We saw Tahiti Nui deliver at least 5 different groups. A group of dancers and drummers would gather at the pier and welcome all of its visitors.
Also, a small red ferry would bring people from Nuku Hiva to Ua Pou. They often pissed off the larger boats by zipping around them while they were trying to maneuver.