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The Pacific People Celebrate Tradition

September 18, 1988|LEWIS SEGAL

TOWNSVILLE, Australia — In the final moments of the 5th Festival of Pacific Arts, the playing field of the city's Sports Reserve has suddenly erupted in a wild, spontaneous celebration.

Carrying an enormous banner, a man from the Cook Islands runs recklessly through thousands of people, outpacing the more timid flag-bearers from other island nations. Tahitians are kissing everyone they can find. A group from Papua New Guinea is huddled together, singing intensely about the greatness of that country. And, in the midst of it all, an Australian Aboriginal youth, resplendent in white body paint and not much else, stands watching, his smile as wide as the Torres Straits.

A few moments earlier, the Festival had attempted a more sober finale: one of those everyone-join-hands-and-sing rituals reeking of forced piety. But most of the 2,000 assembled Polynesian, Melanesian, Micronesian and Aboriginal participants had hung back, obviously not in a mood of solemn restraint.

Who could blame them? During the two weeks of the festival they had performed outdoors in blistering heat, heavy rain, high winds and bitter cold and now they needed to cut loose. So, in one last example of the festival's remarkable ability to correct its own mistakes, Apollonian intentions yielded to Dionysiac drives and the will of the people prevailed--deliriously.

Held every four years in a different country, the festival is a unique event. To begin with, it was not created for the diversion of locals or tourists (though it certainly accommodates both groups), but to foster a sense of cultural solidarity among the participants--the indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

As a result, traditional (and increasingly endangered) forms of music, dance, craft-work and language skills remain the festival's focus--though the visitor to Townsville could also attend rock 'n' roll concerts, art exhibits, a film and video series, contemporary theater and dance performances as well as highly politicized lectures and discussions.

All these events were free, and many of them took place outdoors, held across this scenic, tropical Queensland city of 120,000 and on nearby Magnetic and Palm islands.

The cost: 4.8 million Australian dollars in federal funds plus private contributions and heavy subsidy of their delegations by the 24 other participating nations and territories.

In return, Australia got an event that made its neglected black population absolutely central, a festival that is not only likely to be replayed worldwide on television for years but will affect what audiences in Los Angeles, New York and other cities far from the Great Barrier Reef will soon be seeing on their own stages. Today Queensland, tomorrow Queens or maybe even the Town of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels. . . .

A typical festival day started about 9 a.m. and lasted 14 hours. You could find exotic performance events in such mundane, citified locations as Flinders Mall (Townsville's shopping center) and the 1,066-seat Civic Theatre. They were also scheduled in such atmospheric venues as Queen's Park (at the base of craggy Castle Hill), the Craft Village (on the banks of the narrow, winding Ross River) or the Rock Pool (on a platform-stage built over the water across from Magnetic Island).

Some of the groups at the festival had performed all over the world and were used to feeding foreign audiences' expectations. Other performers had never even been seen outside their own villages; a government commission spotted them, and the next thing they knew they were in Australia being obsessively videotaped by tourists, visiting scholars, Townsville residents, other artists, major media teams and the festival's own official in-house documentors.

If they sometimes seemed bewildered, so did we: This festival proved long on photo opportunities, short on context. Although much Pacific dance is intimately related to song- and chant-texts, only the Hawaiians provided translations, and some groups told us nothing but the names of their islands. Thus much dance that seemed startling or even profound remained a tantalizing enigma--something fully experienced, perhaps, but certainly not fully understood.

Exactly what ancient rite, for example, were those Vanuatu men re-enacting in their bark-belts and penis-sheaths? What songs roused the men of Tuvalu to such sensational, coordinated box-drumming and the women to such memorably pungent vocalism? When those massive, middle-aged Aboriginal women loped smoothly across an open field, their movements as easy and authoritative as an animal in its native habitat, what did the spare inevitability of their journey mean to them? It would make a difference to know. . . .

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