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Tales from a Farr

Tales from a Farr

4 January 2011

The birth of the Tahitian ‘Heiva’ and news from Vanuatu

It was in 1881 that the first official ‘Heiva i Tahiti’ festival took place and was named Tiurai. This began a long history and a pursuit to rehabilitate Polynesian arts.

In 1946 the French colony known as Etablissements Français de l’Océanie (Settlements of Oceania) was given the status of Overseas Territory. Previously Polynesian dance had been a taboo practice, but some 10 years later, started to become recognised as an art as we know it today.

Meme de Montluc and Madeleine Moou’a were two ladies who, through their own dance troupes ‘Arioi’ and ‘Heiva’, promoted the learning of this art. From 1956, dancing and singing competitions became popular events during the Tiurai.

Today these dancing and singing competitions capture the limelight of the Heiva. Every summer more than 10 troupes of 60 to 150 artists from the entire archipelagos of French Polynesia come together to perform.

Polynesian life revolves around the Heiva festivities for nearly two months. In a symbolic gesture, the youngest performers, those who are to carry on the traditions, open the celebrations with a competition between the dance schools in what is called the ‘Heiva Tama Hiti Rau’.

The festival marks the end of many months of preparation. It is estimated that some 8,ooo Polynesians work, mostly voluntarily, to make the Heiva what it is today. Rehearsals are relentless and participants work tirelessly. Involvement of the whole family is essential, particularly in the fabrication of costumes.

The material, physical and spiritual input from all who participate relates to a pride recovered and a pride in bringing back to life what is most wonderful in the Polynesian culture. The recognition and practice of traditional arts is most definitely back in the spotlight and greatly respected.

The size of the troupes, the splendour of the costumes and the strength of the music at these competitions reveals the diversity of the ORI (dance) within these islands. The magic is further enhanced by the original character of each production.

“The recognition and practice of traditional arts is most definitely back in the spotlight and greatly respected”

The dances are unique and take around six months to complete. Based on an historical or legendary theme the text and music is written, the choreography created and a kaleidoscope of original costumes designed and prepared.

Dancers can make at least three costume changes during the performance which may last 45 minutes. Great care is taken with these stunning costumes. They are made almost entirely from natural materials and the prizes, which are highly revered, are awarded to the finest creations.

Live music and singing accompany the dancers. The orchestras are made up of five to 50 musicians. Traditional instruments are used such as the nasal flute (vivo, which is made from a portion of bamboo), marine shells and the ukulele. More recently, traditional and modern instruments such as guitars have combined.

The percussion instruments, primarily the drums as well as the famous to’ere (made from a hollowed-out log with a slim opening down its length) give the rhythm to the dance.

These performances, with a distinct presence of the islanders ancestral tradition, bring together the drama and artistry which has been compared to the Opera or Ballet. The enthusiasm and atmosphere generated from the audience gives an additional dimension to these awesome performances.


The country is made up of some 80 islands in the shape of a ‘Y’ on a north-westerly slant. The northernmost islands, the Torres group, are about 900 sq km from Aneityum at the southern tip with the whole group covering a land mass of 12,189 sq km and an ocean area of 450,000 sq km. Vanuatu consists of a young chain of rugged volcanic islands and mountains rising high out of the sea.

Located right on the Pacific Rim of Fire, Vanuatu is often subject to earthquakes. Fortunately for us the weather was kind and we found some very pleasant anchorages.

When arriving at an island, it is customary for one of the villagers to come out in their canoe and guide you through the surrounding reef into a safe anchorage. You in turn will offer a gift of Cava to the Chief. This is not the sparkling wine cava, but a root vegetation, which is ground into a paste, water added and made into a highly intoxicating drink. The Cava is shared by visitors, notable male members of the village and the Chief who all sit cross-legged in a circle on the floor and drink from the intricately hand carved, inlaid, wooden Cava Bowl which is passed around the circle.

Taken in quantity, Cava can cause numbness in the lips and fingers, with some disorientation in the use of the legs. This is a well practiced custom amongst the male populous of all villages.

It was on one such occasion that the village Chief, who, having learned I had some connection with the world of dance, offered to take me to his house and anoint me that evening with his special gift in order that I may improve my performance as a professor of dance. He went on to explain that he had discussed the giving of his special gift with his wife and the male members of the village and all had agreed, so would I like to follow him immediately. I wondered whether my wishes had been considered in this decision, and more to the point, what could this gift possibly be? Captain John, with careful discussion so as not to offend, managed to extricate me from this predicament, by saying tomorrow would be more convenient.

“Spirit of Nina loved the glorious days of sun with the wind on the stern, but then we had days with wind speeds of 30 gusting 40 knots”

Needless to say, next morning at first crack of light, the anchor was up and we were picking our way through the reef with fingers crossed. It would be a double tragedy if we ran aground now!

We were now on our way to Australia and it proved to be a mixed passage. Being a catamaran, Spirit of Nina loved the glorious days of sun with the wind on the stern, but then we had days with wind speeds of 30 gusting 40 knots and the rain driving into the cockpit. We arrived in Cairns a bit battered but none the worse for wear.

Cairns we loved and it was there that we left the boat to have some repairs and rigging checks. I came home for Examiner and ISTD meetings.

I would like to say a huge thank-you to Paddy Hurlings who invited me, during the AGM, to talk about the voyage, and our hope to raise as much money as possible for charity as I continue sailing 26,000 miles around the world. Being one of a three person crew on Spirit of Nina (a 44ft sailing catamaran) is jolly hard (unpaid) work and to say how much I appreciated the support from those who donated so generously on that day. We collected close on £500. I am sure much of that success was due to Janet Marshall and Gaynor Walters and the wonderful yellow bucket into which you threw the money. Thank you.

Deborah Capon donated the proceeds from her college production to SAILING FARR with the request it be allocated to the Anthony Nolan Trust. Please could some more Principals of schools consider participating with a fundraising activity to donate to our target. All your money plus a gift aid tax rebate will be added and go to your chosen charity.
Gillian Farr

Sailing Farr Fundraising Reminder

Gillian is hoping to raise lots of money for charity over the course of her travels. You may donate to any registered charity of your choice, including the ISTD Benevolent Fund. Please make your cheques payable to ‘Sailing Farr’ with your name and address and your chosen charity written clearly on the reverse. All cheques should be sent to Mr Ian Marshall, Charity Administrator, 27 Brizen Lane, Leckhampton, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL53 0NG. Alternatively, check out Gillian’s website, www.sailingfarr.com, and click on ‘sponsorship updates’ to download forms to donate.

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