Taking Cook Islands culture to the world

Saturday November 02, 2019 Written by Published in Weekend
Papatua Papatua. Papatua Papatua.

Papatua Papatua is one of Cook Islands best-known faces; certainly one of the country’s best-known voices – but his latest work sharing islands tradition with our people across the ocean was new and special even for him. 


Master of culture Papatua Papatua got the call from the Mangaia performing arts team in New Zealand. They wanted him to compose their kapa rima (action song) – and he was honoured to help them.

The theme of the kapa rima was based on the selection process of the Ariki.

When an Ariki dies, the successor is selected by the six kavana on the island, and nobody else, he says; the song included the preparation, investiture and celebrations of the Ariki.

Papatua could have recorded the song and sent it to Auckland, but he didn’t want to do that.

Papatua personally delivered his composition to the Mangaia group. If he was to share such a treasured piece of tradition, he would do it in person.

Last month, Papatua travelled to New Zealand to teach the song to the Mangaia dance group.

They were grateful. Soon, they asked  him to compose their ute and imene tuki, as well.

Even for Papatua, the man who is the face of Te Maeva Nui, this was a first: he had never created an imene tuki. “It was fun and an experience,” he muses.

Papatua was moved by the passion and pride from deep within Cook Islanders at the spectacular New Zealand Te Maeva Nui 2019.

“I felt the beauty of everybody, the passion portrayed in their items was so high, it was powerful, everyone going for it.”

A composer, dancer, a master of ceremonies and much more, he felt privileged to attend.

“I saw the passion and love for our culture,” he says.

“It was amazing and wonderful to see our New Zealand-born children, it was so good to see them caring, and putting their hearts into our culture.”

Born in Mangaia, Papatua Papatua moved to Rarotonga at the age of 12. He was one of 35 students that had earned scholarships for the Tereora College national entrance exams.

From 1979 to 1989, he embarked on a career teaching at Avatea primary school.

Later, he was transferred to the Ministry of Culture to assist the organisation for the 1992 Festival of Arts, as co-director. Papatua then moved to Cook Islands Tourism, where he spent the longest period of his working life, for 24 years.

Officially, he “retired” in 2016. But that is belied by his presence at every public event. He keeps busy as both an interpreter in Parliament, and as a promoter of culture.

He hosted International Dancer of the Year, in May. But on the opening night of Te Maeva Nui New Zealand, Papatua had one especially humbling task.

The festival opened with 2000 people a black-tie awards ceremony to recognise Cook Islands’ Vaine Rangatira – and he was called up to accept his wife Nga Teao-Papatua’s recognition, admitting her to the awards’ hall of game for her lifetime contribution to the community.

 “It was a beautiful evening with over 100 women acknowledged,” he remembers.

The recognition awards were significant: mamas from both New Zealand and Cook Islands were recognised for their contribution locally, regionally and international in all facets of the community. 

Secretary of the Ministry of Culture Development Anthony Turua says, with over 65,000 of our Cook Islands people in living in Auckland, it is inevitable to continue and maintain and sustain our cultural heritage for the benefit of our younger generation.

“It is also to deliver the status of our identity and heritage among our Cook Islands living in New Zealand with the focus of retaining our language.”

Onlookers would never have realised the care the teams put into perfecting their cultural items.

Sessions were held to explain the meaning of the Maori words in the ute, that were difficult to pronounce. With perseverance they got it, says Papatua, though some of the words were very old and hardly used these days.

“More of our young people are now wanting to know of our language and culture they are prouder, more passionate.”

Papatua was amazed at the overwhelming number of people wanting to participate – on Rarotonga, teams struggle to find dancers.

“Dancers are so eager, they turn up 30 minutes before rehearsals begin, waiting.”

Culture is the focus in New Zealand: the parents accompany their children to the practices, no matter how far the drive is, they want their kids to be proud and take part, he says.

Not wanting to turn anyone away, everyone who turned up to rehearsals was allocated to an item.

Dancers and performers were split into each performance, so every person had the chance to be on stage.

Papatua was asked to represent the team on the panel of judges – each team puts a name forward for the panel. “It was an honour,” he says. “The quality of the performances were brilliant, just amazing.”

He was pleased at the pre judgement of the costume section (imene tuki, ute, kapa rima and the ura pau), a week prior to the actual show. Each group had models parade and display their costumes.

“The heartfelt shows by the groups were so strong, they were so proud to take part. Their spirit and energy in the pe’e, their presentation and choreography is there.”

Speaking on the new dance techniques, he says, you cannot ignore these, it’s not so much different than on Rarotonga.

Papatua doesn’t hesitate to always give back to our culture when needed.

“Culture is me, it’s my life,” he admits.

“I was born with it, it’s within me all the time, I can’t ignore it. Our culture belongs to us and we own it.”

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