The Log Book
Tales of an Artist Afloat
Music festivals are supposed to be grubby, and the one at Tahuata was no exception. Instead of the traditional British field of mud, we were confronted by dust (which would happily turn into mud if a handy downpour gave it the chance). Consequently, a few of my sketchbook pages have a browner tinge than I would like, but I guess I need to look on it as incorporating a little bit of the island into each image.
It took us a day to sail to Tahuata from Fatu Hiva, and there were already a few boats anchored in the little harbor when we arrived. It was a rather rolly anchorage, and the swell coming in added to the excitement of dinghy landings, bringing a high risk of getting swamped. The small quay had no breakwater, and we were forbidden to tie up to it due to a constant flow of local boats and naval tenders dropping off people, instruments and supplies ready for the festival. Initially we were allowed to tie to a rocky outcrop and use a stern anchor to keep the inflatable zodiac off the sharp rocks, but soon even this was disallowed and we were forced to anchor a distance away from the wharf and swim ashore, or brave the breaking surf to attempt a beach landing (we decided to control how wet we got and anchored out rather than risk the boat in the surf). An added incentive for avoiding the wharf was that the policing of dinghies didn’t extend to keeping the local children under control, and they often used tenders near the wharf as swimming platforms and playthings. Apparently our rubberised craft were more tempting than the local wooden or fiberglass boats- or perhaps the consequences of messing with them were rougher! The kids were always quick to help us unload bags, bike and water jugs when we came alongside the quay, so I could forgive their playfulness- though Jim preferred to anchor far enough out to remove temptation from their sights.
Watching the festival set up was entertaining in its own right. Each afternoon a naval ship would arrive in the bay with a new contingent of villagers, who were then ferried ashore along with carefully wrapped costumes, clubs and enormous drums. The residents of the village of Vaitahu joyfully welcomed each boatload of arrivals with singing, drumming and blowing horns and conches. People and packages were loaded into waiting trucks, which formed a snaking procession over the hill to the next bay, where a large hall provided communal lodgings. Soon the waterfront became home to a community of stone carvers, who set up generators and set to work with grinders, hammers and chisels. Lumps of red lava rock transformed into metre tall tiki, which visiting islands would present to Tahuata to grace their tohua- the large stone dance platform. The carvers were happy for us to watch as the features of the figures emerged- bug-eyes, grinning mouths and protruding tummies. Females are often given a long braid or a baby on their belly. Boys are easy to spot. Weavers sat in shady spots, as men and women created skirts, loincloths, tops, headwear and armbands to adorn themselves for the dances.
The festival opened in spectacular fashion, with greetings and dances given by each island in costume. We spotted some familiar faces from Fatu Hiva, garbed in yellow-stained tapa cloth and that fragrant vetiver we’d seen being processed. Representatives of other islands wore skirts of leaves or grass, which fluttered and rippled with every movement. Long hanging strands of moss made graceful tops for the ladies of one island, women from another wore intricate crowns made of ebony and carved bone. Some wore enough vegetation to cover themselves from neck to knees, others preferred to show a bit of midriff and leg. Masculine costumes were even more varied. The chiefs were the most spectacular, with towering headpieces of bone or shell, spectacular black ruffs which broadened their shoulders and thick skirts of frizzed black horsehair. The effect was to awe and intimidate, to convey mana and power- and it worked, especially when topped off with a boar’s tooth necklace, intricate tattoos and a carved war club. The other end of the scale had an equal impact- a few tufts of grass, leaves or feathers as a loincloth, a necklace of tusks or carved bone, and very little else. This minimal attire was perfect for showing off extensive tattoos (often combined with a nicely toned physique)!
Each island presented a chant, song and dance in welcome, usually led by a flamboyantly dressed chief or two and supported by the soprano singing of the matriarchs. It was an impressive sight- and sounded incredible when voices layered with the drums. In between, I tried to see how much of the Marquesan announcements I could understand- some words such as ‘pakepake’ (clap) and ‘kaoha nui koutou’ (many greetings to you all) are similar or identical to New Zealand Maori. Visiting dignitaries had their chance to speak too- but the heavens were not impressed and promptly opened, causing many of us to seek shelter under nearby marquees whilst the politicians waffled on in the deluge. The rain stopped when the waffle did, and we enjoyed the last performances with slightly muddier backsides as we sat on the tiered rocks and grass of the amphitheater.
The scheduling was definitely operating on island time. The two versions of the timetable only existed in French, differing substantially from each other and from reality. Workshops often failed to materialise if the people scheduled to lead them were too tired, location was often vague and timing was more of a guide than an expectation (a bit like bus schedules in Auckland or Basingstoke). There was no point getting anxious or cross, as the way of life here is to just go with the flow and there was always something to watch- dance and drumming practices on the tohua, bands in the artisan’s centre, wood carving, tattooing, or the young man who rode through the village with a Bluetooth speaker strapped to his horse, piping out R’n’B. When events happened, they were wonderful. One morning there was a demonstration of traditional tattooing- called ‘patutiki’ in Marquesan. The subject lay on woven mats whilst the tattoo artist sat next to him, applying the ink to his skin using a sharp rock. This was tied to a long rod, which was tapped by a second rod to incise the skin and let the ink flow in. A third man gently fanned the subject, and a forth periodically wiped the blood and ink away. It was a much messier process than the modern needles and machines that buzzed away for the rest of the festival. Marquesan patutiki artists are known for the beauty and delicacy of their geometric artwork, and were highly in demand by locals, as well as by tourists wanting a permanent souvenir. So far I remain undecorated…
I also thoroughly enjoyed the lunch put on by the islands. We were told to ‘bring a plate,’ which in New Zealand means you bring food to be shared. I started planning what I could make, figuring out what vegetables needed to be used soon and trying to decide whether curry or couscous would be better received. Fortunately Cindy from Zensation set me straight before I started cooking- the instructions were literal and we were only expected to bring something to eat off of, preferably something natural and organic. Jim rustled up some coconut shells and we climbed the hill to the next bay.
Marquees with trestle tables were set up waiting for the feast. The food had been cooked in umu- underground ovens made by digging a pit. Fires are lit in the bottom, whilst pigs, taro, plantains and bananas are wrapped in taro leaves and placed in baskets woven from long green pandanus fronds. The baskets are placed in the embers and covered with more layers of leaves, to slowly roast overnight. When it was time for lunch they were unearthed and ceremonially carried to the waiting trestle tables with chanting and dancing. The leaves were unwrapped and their contents transferred to long wooden bowls with beautifully carved handles. Platters of crabs and shellfish were spread out alongside woven banana leaf plates full of fruit and firi firi (coconut doughnuts). Lengths of green bamboo, split in half, made perfect tongs and scoops to serve the dishes, and some people used them as rather stylish-looking plates. Coconuts were also popular- though as one unfortunate soul discovered, they don’t work so well if they have a hole in the bottom…
When lunch was announced, I commenced queuing in an orderly British fashion (with only two people in front of me). It soon became clear that politeness wouldn’t fill my coconut shell any time soon- not when I was competing with an endless stream of hungry Polynesian males! So I stood my ground and ended up with a chunk of pork and some plantains in my coconut, along with a good dollop of coconut milk with onion and fish sauce. Everything was lean, tender and delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed the sweet rich plantains- though by the time I’d finished, the platters of fruit and firi firi were nothing but peel and memories! Our coconut shells went in the compost, and we spent a pleasant couple of hours chatting with Shelley and Mike from Avatar whilst I sketched the goings on.
Each evening the islands took it in turns to perform in the tohua, culminating in a collaborative dance on the third night. Offerings ranged from seated dances of sedate and elegant hand gestures to energetic performances with much hip wiggling to my favourites- the men performing high-octane cousins of the Maori haka, which sent shivers down my spine with their power. Through it all beat the drums, fast, layered and mighty, thundering as the warriors stamped and chanted with deep, throaty voices. The air was scented with sweet frangipani and vetiver, and the coconut oil that glistened on the performers’ skins. I made huge strides in my figure drawing as my hands flew across the paper, trying to reflect the mana of the performers.
My favourite performance was by the islanders of Ua Pou. Flaming torches were passed round and a fiery battle commenced. The flames whirled and clashed together, then flew as the torches were tossed between performers. No one could doubt the bravery of the warriors, energetically brandishing their torches as their grass skirts whirled about them. A quick visit to the tap by the post office was enough to sort out one young man whose costume was glowing, and a few buckets of water after the performance doused a small patch of grass which was smoldering. The next island, Ua Huka, tried to compete by including two cockerels and a live pig in their performance. The animals seemed quite unimpressed and the pig, tied upside down to a pole, vocalized its displeasure, but everyone survived the dance- although only the human cast members were invited to take a bow at the end.
The festivities were cut slightly short- the islanders from Ua Pou and Ua Huka were due to leave earlier than expected, aboard the Aranui. We left before the closing ceremony, keen to avoid the manic traffic that would accompany the departures. It only took an hour to motor to Atuona on the neighbouring island of Hiva Oa, and the Aranui arrived a couple of hours later. It berthed on the quay, and we were treated to the sounds of singing and drumming as we sat outside on Prism, watching the sunset. I don’t know when I’ll get to hear Polynesian drums again, but relished this chance to enjoy the rhythm for just a little longer.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.