Where the sun begins
Festival director, Tama Waipara. Image: Strike Photography.
By Keri Malthus
He may look relaxed in bare feet and smiling on an East Coast beach, but there is a lot at stake over the next few months for the inaugural director of New Zealand’s newest arts festival. Gisborne’s Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival opens in early October, offering a ‘rich and diverse’ programme with hundreds of performers in nearly thirty headline acts.
Musician, composer, producer and now festival director Tama Waipara admits to a bit of nervousness with so much riding on the turnout. “We’re days from the last bits and pieces so it’s crazy, getting crazier.”
But the just-announced programme has much that is likely to encourage people to travel - to what may shape up as this country’s most unique arts festival experience.
From the free-to-attend opening event on October 4 at the confluence of the Taruheru, Waimata and Turanganui rivers, to the 16 days that follow with music, concerts, dance, installations, poetry, theatre including two world premieres and many other creative experiences. “I’m certainly no stranger to the type of work involved, but this is definitely the first time I’ve had to test, I guess, a lot of the learnings of the last 10 years,” says Tama.
“We’re a new festival so the biggest thing for us is to get the word out - about what makes it special, what makes it different and why people would want to come and visit Tairāwhiti as a place.”
1. Festival director, Tama Waipara. Image source: Strike Photography
2. The historic Toko Toru Tapu church in Manutuke just out of Gisborne. Image source: NZIA/Brennan Thomas
It’s been special from the start.
Not many festival directors, for example, get to launch in one of New Zealand’s most important Māori churches. The historic Toko Toru Tapu Church at Manutuke, just east of Gisborne, was the venue for the karakia and celebration to announce the full programme.
It is also the church where Tama Waipara was christened.
“My dad is from Manutuke. It’s a really special place and I guess what I’m trying to say subtly, or not so subtly, is that our region Tairāwhiti is full of these really special places,’ he says. “Coming to this festival will not be just about coming and watching a show. It’s about participating in a place, and the people who bring that place to life.”
This man, who spent nearly a decade of his early career studying and performing in New York, gets a little emotional talking about being home – not just in Aotearoa because he’s been back for a while, but home on the East Coast. “It’s a privilege to be able to work on this kind of thing, at home. Particularly being of this region, being Ruapani, Rongowhakaata and Ngāti Porou,” he says.
“Having a chance to link back into home, in a way that brings the skills and experience that I’ve had elsewhere to the very people who gave me the opportunity to gain them.”
He means both the wider community, and his immediate family, who will be attending festival events. His strong whanau background plays a big part, he says, in ‘everything’.
“Both my parents are still around. I have five aunties who are still with me of the seven I had growing up, Dad’s sisters. Two older brothers. So, I’m very lucky. They’re incredibly supportive and I feel their support, their strength, and also their guidance - certainly in terms of whakapapa and understanding all those connections and links.”
1. The stars of Witi’s Wahine –(l-r) Ngapaki Moetara, Ani-Piki Tuari, Roimate Fox, Mere Boynton
2. Witi Ihimaera (centre) in March this year with Tama and Associate Arts Minister, Carmel Sepuloni. Image Te Tairāwhiti Festival: Eu-Lee Teh
"A lot of the strength of the programme is built from either stories of the place or from artists who connect to the region and experiences that can only happen here.”
Connections are important because of what the festival is trying to achieve. “For me, the thing that is most significantly different about our festival is that our kaupapa is of the place and its people,” says Tama.
“We are arts-led, and we are a platform for connections. A lot of the strength of the programme is built from either stories of the place or from artists who connect to the region and experiences that can only happen here.”
Of place and people
He says the free opening event, as an example, will be a ‘big deal’ and is about ‘welcoming the community to the first statement of the festival.’
Called Māui Pūtahi, it will be directed by Teina Moetara, a creative ‘powerhouse’ of the region.
“He’s an educator, a composer and a director of kapa haka so he brings a very rich depth of knowledge, of not just art forms but of this place and the special significance of all of these stories that come from here.” Stories like Witi’s Wāhine.
The new work by actor and playwright Nancy Brunning is based on excerpts and characters from the writing of Witi Ihimaera and will have its world premiere at Tairāwhiti. “It celebrates one of our great artists and specifically the women who have bought his creative world to life, with four actresses who are either from the region or connect to it.”
There’ll also be the world premiere of a story inspired by one of Ngāti Porou's most prolific composers, Henare Waitoa. One of his best-known waiata, Tomo Mai e Tama Ma, was composed and arranged the night before it was first performed to welcome troops back in 1946.
In Henare, his mokopuna –playwright Hōhepa Waitoa and producer Hone Kouka - will use waiata, kōrero, and contemporary and traditional pūoro to tell his story.
“They’ll be rehearsing this around the coast and Tikitiki and then workshopping it amongst their local whanau and bringing it into town to the Lawson Field Theatre,” says Tama.
Access and affordability
The funding structure is something else that may set Gisborne’s festival apart. Not just the opening but many other events will be free of charge, and most tickets will be lower cost, with some exceptions, around $20 to $25.
“It’s an attempt to try and get bums in seats,” Tama admits. “It’s about trying to create opportunities for all walks of life to have that arts-related experience”
It’s largely been possible because this inaugural festival for 2019 has enviable $1M funding from the region’s Eastland Community Trust.
Announcing the partnership in June, Trust Chief Executive Gavin Murphy talked of the positive economic and wellbeing impact the festival could bring. He expressed the hope that the festival would be one which “arts lovers and culture enthusiasts all over the country will put on their bucket list for many years to come.”
Tama Waipara says that level of support and belief from an independent funding source is kind of unprecedented. “To have that level of commitment to arts in community is really amazing. There’s a huge level of gratitude there, for the funding and also the leadership and forward thinking on how we support arts.”
Trust chairman Paul Reynolds says they are very proud to support events, and initiatives that enable Tairawhiti Gisborne to prosper.
“This festival does just that. It creates local jobs, facilitates opportunities for our people and our country to connect and share meaningful and educational experiences, as well as celebrating Aotearoa’s diverse people and rich cultural history.”
Eastland Community Trust Chief Executive Gavin Murphy (l) with Trust chairman Paul Reynolds. Image: ECT/Keepa Digital.
For Tama planning the festival and using his experience of the past decade has meant a lot of thinking about what determines a venue.
“We tend to get stuck on a venue as a place with a bunch of seats, and a specific format, and we go in and we sit down and we do what we are told for 60 to 90 minutes and that’s what an arts experience is, and it costs a lot of money,” he says.
“Because our principal sponsor is a community trust, I’ve been very interested in how we can improve and increase access to arts experiences. Where we can, we want the experience to start before you sit down in the seat.”
George Nuku and his Bottled Ocean exhibition. Image: supplied
An example is a work planned by artist George Nuku as an evolution of his 2016 Bottled Ocean exhibition.
For Te Tairāwhiti he will work with school children and volunteers to gather recycling plastic and over time install a new work of art that makes more commentary about the state of our oceans and our use of plastic.
Under an East Coast moon
There is one high-profile local talent who won’t be on this year’s programme. That’s the director himself - despite his skills as an artist and performer.
“You know, with a community like ours I suppose in some sense you end up doing what you are told, so I won’t be performing intentionally,” Waipara says. “But I’m not ruling anything out!”
One signature event, a concert including Dave Dobbyn, Annie Crummer, Rob Ruha and Teeks, has been named after one of his original songs. There’s little doubt the track will feature on the night, and the lyrics are definitely fit for purpose.
“I know a place where the sun begins. Starts each day with a face full of good living. Throws a line from the sea and reels me in and I stay, there I stay.
People know what it means when the tide is in. It’s the best place to learn how to sink, or swim. Throw a line to my heart and reel me in. This is good living.”
Tama Waipara, Under an East Coast Moon