Cook Islands culture alive and well in the US

Monday June 27, 2016 Written by Published in Weekend
Ehulani’s musicians: Ehulani’s ‘Ote’a from Hayward, California. The group leader is Deanie Lum. Her mother, Ehulani Lum hosted the stranded Ta’akoka Dance group in the 1980s when they were in San Francisco and promises made by their promoter fell through. Ta’akoka stayed with Deanie’s family and their dance group “family” for over a month. 16062409 Ehulani’s musicians: Ehulani’s ‘Ote’a from Hayward, California. The group leader is Deanie Lum. Her mother, Ehulani Lum hosted the stranded Ta’akoka Dance group in the 1980s when they were in San Francisco and promises made by their promoter fell through. Ta’akoka stayed with Deanie’s family and their dance group “family” for over a month. 16062409

For THE last 13 years, Arerangi Tongia, Brigham Young University of Hawaii graduate and former director/curator of the National Museum of the Cook Islands has been spreading and sharing his love of his Cook Islands culture at the annual Foster City Polynesian Festival in Foster City, near San Francisco, California. 

 

Held every May, the festival was initiated by Tongia’s wife, Cynthia “Cindy” Atuirangi Cowell-Tongia, a former member of the Arts Commission in her home town. She is also a graduate of BYU-Hawaii.  Though the couple moved to Las Vegas five years ago, the event has become such a favorite that the mayor and city council members asked them to continue the event, even though they no longer live in California.

Every year an educational theme is selected and Arerangi teaches the crowd about different aspects of the theme. This year’s theme was based on Polynesian superstitions which included current practices from Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui. Previous themes included “Tiki and ‘Aumakua – iconic Gods of the South Pacific,” “Tapa and Tivaevae,” “Tattoos,” and “The Coconut Tree – the Tree of Life.”

Around 10 top professional Polynesian dance groups from the San Francisco Bay area participated, bringing as many as 100 dancers to perform. 

Over the years, Arerangi and his wife have taught many of these dance groups Cook Islands songs, dances and drum beats so they can perform them at the festival.  He has also written original music and chants for a number of the groups and his wife has translated many Tahitian songs for them.

In addition to organising this festival, Arerangi and his wife spend many weekends traveling around southern Nevada, Arizona and California attending other Polynesian festivals and Tahitian dance competitions.

There they meet and educate many dancers and dance group leaders about Cook Islands culture and the distinction between the drumbeats and music of the Cook Islands and Tahiti.

Many are amazed because they assumed the music was Tahitian, but when the difference is explained to them in an historical context, the recipients are very open to the new knowledge they receive and are anxious to learn more, says Cowell-Tongia.

“Though the event is a lot of work and it’s a long nine- hour drive from Las Vegas to the Bay Area, seeing the happiness of the dancers and appreciation of the audience makes the effort of sharing the beauty of Polynesian culture and educating people about the Cook Islands worth the trip!”

Arerangi and Cindy are now in discussion with the City of North Las Vegas about recreating their successful California festival in southern Nevada.

            - Cynthia Cowell-Tongia

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