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Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival Opening Weekend

by Keri-Mei Zagrobelna

The first festival of its kind in the region, Gisborne’s Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival (October 4th - 20th) is a celebration of “artists and connections to place, while welcoming the world.” It embraces a broad range of arts disciplines including music, theatre, visual arts, dance and art installations as well as, of course, Kai. This year’s inaugural festival is in the immensely capable hands of singer-songwriter (and SOUNZ composer/Board member) Tama Waipara, Festival Director. SOUNZ’s Kaihautū Puoro Māori Toni Huata and I attended the festival’s opening to support the artists and SOUNZ composers who were present for what was an exciting, rich and eventful opening weekend.

Te Tairāwhiti’s opening night commenced with a Kai street food festival - an awesome opportunity to sample some of the local cuisine ranging from decadent hangi spring rolls to fresh seafood chowders and spit roasts. Friends and whānau gathered on picnic blankets in comfortable riverside spots to watch the local performance acts on the mainstage while others assembled across the river on Lawson Field, where pop up performances and art installations were held.

While standing on the bridge and absorbing the atmosphere, Toni Huata chatted to Teina Moetara, local creative powerhouse and producer of Maui Putahi, the festival’s main opening act: 

“Maui Putahi is about celebrating and coming together in the name of the Arts…. Māui Pūtahi is about the story about Maui and the qualities of what it means to be an artist.”

As the evening settled and all went dark, multi-media performance piece Maui Pūtahi began. Four bollard stages spaced across the field, each hosting its own performer within the play of Maui Putahi, lit with stunning digital imagery. First was SOUNZ composer Maisey Rika who set the stage with her hit song Tangaroa Whakamautai, singing from above as white-clad performers wove through the crowds with albatross sculptures held high, ebbing and flowing through the air.

Other performers followed - playing, singing, reciting and dancing their part in the story of Maui Pūtahi. Towards the end a face, projected onto a water fountain, rose out of the river proclaiming the opening of the festival. It was a truly beautiful and wonderful way to open the Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival.

A warm and sunny Saturday dawned on the ‘Up, Up and Away! Manu Aute Kite Day’, held at Gisborne Soundshell. Driving towards the soundshell we were greeted by a giant Toroa (whale) which swam through the sky in hot pursuit of an octopus. Local acts bounced with vibrant energy on the stage and the audience was treated to a special performance by Anika Moa as Songs for Bubbas rang out across the crowd.

Children who had constructed their own manu aute (kites) in the tamariki arts and craft tent circled around the edges of the crowd catching the breeze. Fresh fruit ice creams, packed picnic sandwiches and harakeke hats were the theme of the day at what was a lovely whānau event for all.

Early Sunday morning saw us whisked off to the Lawson Field Theatre to talk to SOUNZ’s Mere Boynton about her involvement with the festival. We sat with Mere, surrounded by Lina Marsh’s VAI exhibition which, in addition to a number of other events, Mere helped curate as the festival’s Line Producer. Mere says,

“The festival has brought some light into the space, giving people the opportunity to enjoy the artists from Te Tairawhiti … the kaupapa is stories of our place and our people and that’s what we are trying to achieve in the arts festival and I think we have done that.”

You can view her interview here:

Later that evening, we returned to the Lawson Field Theatre for the world premiere of Witi’s Wahine, a stunning, moving play written and directed by actor/playwright Nancy Brunning. The play was beautifully crafted from excerpts from Ihimaera’s novels and short stories, primarily focusing on the author’s female heroines. Performers Mere Boynton, Roimata Fox, Ani-Piki Tuari and Ngapaki Moetara took us on a powerful and loving journey through history, mythology and culture. Fiercely and proudly they bore the audience witness to the strength and warmth of the wahine from Ihimaera's books. Threads of passion, truth and the spirit of mana wāhine wove throughout the play.

On Sunday evening we headed back to the Gisborne Soundshell for ‘Under an East Coast Moon’, a concert named after Tama Waipara’s eponymous song. The concert featured stellar performances by SOUNZ composers TEEKS, Rob Ruha and Maisey Rika as well as Dave Dobbyn, Anika Moa and Annie Crummer.

The moon shone brightly on a crowd of about 2,000 souls, all snuggly wrapped in blankets or on their feet, dancing and singing along to some of our most-beloved kiwi anthems like Slice of Heaven and See what Love can Do. Highlights of the concert included a gorgeous duet performed by Dave Dobbyn and East Coast local favourite Rob Ruha, and a special guest appearance by contemporary Hawaiian musicians Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole and Shawn Pimental.

What a wonderful way to end an entertaining and delightful opening weekend of the Te Tairāwhiti Inaugural Arts Festival - celebrating what it means to be of Tairāwhiti and of Aotearoa, reflecting and celebrating the people of the Gisborne region and of the East Coast. We can only hope that this is the start of a long and enduring tradition.