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December, 2015

Passage Note #84 - Matava'a - Marquesan Cultural Festival

Cultural Renaissance


The Matava’a (Marquesan Festival of the Arts) was the most spectacular cultural event we have ever seen in all our travels. 


 Four days of dancing, music, chanting, drumming, demonstrations, artisan fairs, eating and socializing was not a show, not a tourist performance, not mere entertainment, not a competition, but something much more profound.  It was a serious and wholehearted cultural revitalization in order to recover a people’s lost identity  - an identity which was virtually obliterated by missionaries and French overlords who outlawed ancient traditions and a way of life.  In the early 1800’s Marquesans were forbidden to wear flowers, to dance, to speak their own language, to tattoo, and to carve and sing (except when pressed in the service of Jesus Christ).  As the older generations died and oral traditions disappeared, the culture unravelled and nearly vanished.  The Matava’a was like watching the phoenix rise from the ashes.  We did not feel like spectators, but more like witnesses. There was something very significant unfolding before our eyes and we felt it an honor and privilege to be there.

The Matava’a is mounted by the Marquesans for the Marquesans, not for outsiders.  It happens every four years rotated among the three larger islands with mini-festivals occurring at the three other islands in between every two years.  We were lucky to have arrived this year when the 10th Marquesan Festival of the Arts took place from December 16-19 in Atuona on Hiva Oa.  All six inhabited Marquesan islands sent delegations of about 100 people each.  In addition, three Marquesan dance troupes from Tahiti arrived (there are as many Marquesans living in Tahiti as there are in all the Marquesan islands combined which is about 9,000).   Because “opportunity is also given to promote Polynesian peoples, cultural closeness and their common origin”, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Rikitea (from the Gambiers Islands) also participated.

As to the origin of the Matava’a, there is a storyboard at the Temehea Tohua (ceremonial space) in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva which explains:  “In 1979, Bishop Le Cléach of the Marquesas Islands, Georges Teikihuupoko (known as “Toti”) from Ua Pou as well as other Marquesans created the cultural association Motu Haka (the Gathering) to defend the Marquesan identity.  At the time, Tahitian language, for instance, almost replaced Marquesan in schools.  As they became aware of how important was their identity, the islands decided to hold their own cultural celebration.  The first art festival of the Marquesas Islands was held in 1987 in Ua Pou.  Besides the language, it aims at reviving the chants, the dances, the legends, the tattoos, ancient sculptures and wood carving.”   In this way they gather to share and impart to each other what they could reconstruct of their ancestral society as best as the elders could recall, archeologists could determine, oral histories could recount.  It is a pathway to overcome a tragedy and injustice to a distinct people.

Toti, a former school teacher, was there in person to officiate and gave an orientation to us cruisers at a special barbeque the night before the festival began.  He taught us the chant we were to hear repeated often each day:  “Boo, boo, booyah!!”  Debora Kimitete, the widow of Lucien Kimitete who was another founder of the identity revival movement, was also there. They explained the theme of this year’s Festival was “Back to the Roots” and said that each island tries to teach something to the other islands every festival to combat the threat of cultural extinction and overcome the wounds of colonization. 


For example, he continued, Nuku Hiva would perform a kava ceremony (a drink made from the kava root),  Ua Pou was going to present a dance about an ancient game using a string twisted around fingers something like our “Cat’s Cradle” (which was going to be introduced in the schools to help teach math), Fatu Hiva would demonstrate how they make tapa (cloth from pounded bark), Tahuata would show a burial preparation, and Ua Huka would show the building of a pae pae (traditional house platform). 

We would also see the preparation of popoi (a traditional mashed breadfruit food staple).  They did not mention however a few dances that turned out to be real surprises and crowd pleasers - a religious one that showed the expulsion of a missionary (his cross was flung across the field!!!) and the re-consecration of a tiki, and another, quite erotic, demonstrating the amorous effects on men when women apply fragrant monoi oil (Marquesan perfume made of natural oils like coconut, ylang ylang, tiare gardenias, and sandalwood) on their bodies and hair.

Some weeks later, when Chuck and I had dinner with Debora Kimitete in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, she made some interesting comments about the history of the Festival.  When Bishop Le Cléach arrived in the Marquesas from Brittany, France, he recognized the injustice and cultural tragedy that happened to the people.  He empathized with their plight because his own French ancestors had experienced similar cultural suppression under English rule. His sympathies were in the right place and he had the power to do something about it.  He decreed that all catholic masses be conducted in the Marquesan language and was a cofounder of the Motu Haka association with Lucien and Toti in 1987.  The Bishop was held in great esteem for his contributions and he is buried on the grounds of the Nuku Hiva Cathedral in Taiohae.

Also, it was Debora’s husband Lucien, a highly respected cultural revivalist, who was largely responsible for the reintroduction of the two most famous dances performed today - the sensual Bird Dance (Haka Manu) and the masculine Pig Dance (Haka Pua).  Although the Haka Manu is thought to originally belong to clans from Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, each island has their version of it and is even found in the Tuamotu Islands; considered as a dance for men in Hiva Oa, it is very often danced by women (who were traditionally often relegated to sitting on the ground and chanting or clapping rather than standing up to dance).

Tauhauki Harbor and Welcoming Parties


We were bow and stern anchored in Atuona’s protective Tahauku harbor, squeezed cheek to jowl with 35 other boats, about maximum capacity for the small anchorage.  Still another 40 were outside the harbor breakwater on a single hook and at Motu Anakee near the village.  Most of us flew our dress flags so our boats looked festive for the occasion; indeed the harbor looked quite decorative and colorful. 

Most Marquesan delegations arrived in Hiva Oa by sea, mainly in large boats like long-distance island ferries and even Navy vessels which stood outside the harbor and transported the people in by tender.   For each delegation, a sizable welcoming party of their hosts waited on shore by the dock to greet them with chanting, dancing and drumming: “Maevai mai” (welcome) and “Ka’oha nui”  (hello).   Buses were waiting to whisk the guests away to their festival quarters at the school, church, or recreation hall where they would set up temporary group camp with rolls of mattresses, pillows and coolers they had brought with them from home.

The seaside reception culminated when the new, bigger and better Aranui 5 arrived on her maiden voyage to attend the Festival with dignitaries and the owner aboard among the paying passengers.  Festival participants wearing traditional dress lined the shoreline, the breakwater, and congregated en masse at the main quay to welcome them as they disembarked.  It was quite a sight!


Space in the harbor now at a premium, there had been a lot of consternation and concern among us yachties regarding how much room the new Aranui would need to dock and whether any of us would have to move to accommodate the larger ship.  Most of us were behind the newly drawn “line” but four sailboats were forced to move. All went smoothly as the giant behemoth dropped its anchor in front of Jacaranda and, using its bow thrusters,  propelled its way sideways to tie up to the quay to unload its human cargo and freight.

Full days of Activities


The opening ceremony was held in the long slanting light of late afternoon in the stadium at the football field.    A procession of each delegation ceremoniously entered the field and took their places in front of the seaside venue.  The President of French Polynesia and other dignitaries addressed the crowd and Hiva Oa started things out with a “Ka’oha Nui” welcoming dance. As is typical in the tropics, dark clouds began to form and a sudden downpour occurred toward the end of the evening, only marginally marring an otherwise perfect beginning.

Most of the Matava’a activities occurred in the middle of Atuona, in the main tohua, a large grass-filled open square with three traditional thatched “lean-to” structures elevated on pae paes (stone platforms) and carved tikis around the periphery.  There was a full schedule of events from early morning into the evening:  dancing, music (mostly drumming but Rapa Nui included ukeleles), artisan displays of carvings and traditional crafts, sculptors creating Moai (Rapa Nui) and tikis (Marquesas), lectures on tattoo symbology and archeological findings, demonstrations of ancestral rituals of tattooing, and traditional games and special performances by the children called a “tapatapa” - the important link to the future. 

However, some of the dances were scheduled to take place outside Atuona in two ancient sacred spaces - Upeke at Taaoa (7 km southwest of Atuona) and Iipona at Pua Mau further out on the east coast of Hiva Oa. These often mystical sites offer a more authentic ambience where it is easy to connect to the spirits of ancient times -  absorb the “mana” (spiritual power) of the place - and therefore added greatly to the feel of the presentations.

Everyone’s traditional dress was made of natural materials - mainly tapa (fabric made of pounded bark), leaves, woven vegetation, skins and feathers and embellished with such things as seeds, bones, and even a shark jaw.  Men and women also wore crowns and head pieces of flowers, pig tusks, shells, feathers and other natural materials.  Personal adornments consisted of the most amazing tattoos ever, body paint, exquisitely carved ornaments, and jewelry of seeds, bone, wood and pig tusks.   When asked who devised the ensembles that would have given professional costume designers a run for their money, we were told that each island made a communal decision and each participant created their own.   It is strange that such simplicities of natural harmony seem like extravagances in today’s world.

The traditional drums deserve special mention.  Constructed out of huge sections of tree trunks and often elaborately carved, a “pahu” often stood 5 feet tall, requiring the drummer to stand on a stool to reach the goat-skin top and necessitating several people to move it from place to place.  Tuning the drum could be done by adjusting lines running from the top skin to notches carved into the drum, often in the shape of tikis.  Nuku Hiva alone brought 27 of their drums.  Another percussion instrument consisted of a horizontal piece of bamboo or hollow log hit with a split bamboo stick.  Drummers came in all shapes and sizes but we were intrigued by an excellent 12-year-old drummer boy from Hiva Oa who pounded trance-like, face pointed skyward, and the contingent of women drummers from Tahuata (the only female musicians).

MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #83

We had been excitedly anticipating the day of the umu - a lunch feast of Marquesan foods cooked in a traditional underground oven.  Deep pits lined with red hot stones were dug into which were placed large rectangular metal “cages” filled with fish, crabs, pig, goat, chicken, bananas, and breadfruit in baskets of banana leaves, covered with more hot stones and then allowed to smolder and cook. Every island supplied food for the umu which was served in large carved wooden bowls under bright red, white, and yellow striped canvas tents. It was a buffet that was free for all in attendance - over 1500 people -  with one caveat - you had to bring a plate made of natural materials. Everything was eaten with the hands.   No paper, plastic or styrofoam --- no garbage problem to deal with afterwards.   Our friend Leslie on svKandu had learned how to weave palm fronds and she taught Linda how to make some plates for the umu and a hat.  People brought plaited palm plates like ours as well as split lengths of bamboo and coconut shells.

We delighted in recognizing so many of our friends and acquaintances from other islands and seeing countless familiar faces from our journeys throughout the archipelago.  After sitting in on the practices held in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva and watching the rehearsals in the rain in Atuona, Hiva Oa, we were pleased to see the final results.  It was also great fun to observe the camaraderie of these Polynesian brothers as they fist bumped, laughed, and posed for selfies with one another.

There is great irony that the American TV show “Survivor” was filmed in the Marquesas - in Daniel’s Bay in Nuku Hiva - when the entire civilization is playing out a much more dire Survivor scenario - not a game but one for keeps.  Indeed, today’s Marquesans have referred to themselves as Survivors  - in the true sense of the word.  The Matava’a and Motu Haka will ensure that the Marquesan heritage will live on and be transmitted to future generations.  We hope to return some day to witness more of this breathtaking renaissance.

MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #84

Watch some great VIDEOS - action makes the Matava'a come alive!

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