ASB Polyfest is the world’s largest Polynesian festival, but the face of it is changing. Photo: Tim Murphy

ASB Polyfest is the world’s largest Polynesian festival. Beginning tomorrow at the Manukau Sports Bowl in South Auckland, around 100,000 people will turn up to see schools compete on five Polynesian stages (Cook Islands, Māori, Niue, Samoa and Tongan) and the Diversity Stage. 

The festival originally involved a handful of schools and was held in 1976 at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in Otara to preserve and celebrate Polynesian cultural traditions. In 2019, more than 70 schools are involved in over 250 performances. 

Yet Polyfest is changing. The largest number of performances this year will be on the Diversity Stage. Reflecting Auckland’s changing population, the Diversity Stage caters for cultural groups not included on the five Polynesian stages.

In 2019, there will 84 performances on the Diversity Stage, representing more than 20 different ethnic groups. The largest representation of performance groups will be Indian (17, including three Punjabi groups), then Filipino (nine), followed by Chinese (eight), Fijian (eight) and Korean (seven). Groups as diverse as Mongolian, Tibetan and Mexican will also perform, as well as smaller Pacific groups such as Tuvalu, Tokelau and Kiribati.

Yet while the popularity of such an event appears to know no limits, what impact does the festival have on performers and what role do festivals play in New Zealand society today?

These were the questions researchers from Victoria University of Wellington asked at last year’s festival where they spent time observing Diversity Stage performances and talking with performers.

They found that the Diversity Stage was an important place to celebrate culture, build new friendships and find community. As one young Filipino performer from Waitakere College put it: “Polyfest is the best thing to happen to our culture, we can all celebrate together in one space.”

A Japanese performer from Avondale College explained that: “Outside of Polyfest, we don’t have much chance to get together – we are very scattered [around Auckland]. So Polyfest helps us to come together, make friends, dance and have fun.”

Mt Roskill Grammar School’s Ethiopian performance on the Diversity Stage in 2018. Photo: Bronwyn Wood 

The researchers also found the Diversity Stage was a vibrant space that enabled ethnic groups not only to maintain older cultural traditions, but also create ‘new’ cultural identities in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Importantly, this was often expressed through a fusion of traditional cultural elements with contemporary ones. For example, one performance employed a modern Kathak Rockers (Punjabi) remix of the reggaeton hit Despacito (Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber) alongside a traditional rendition of Indian Bhangra performed by a solo Dhol drummer. 

This was ‘allowed’ on the Diversity Stage where rules are less strict than the other stages due to the openness of cultural expression the stage requires. Polyfest therefore allowed the plural and flexible identities of diasporic youth to be created, performed and celebrated.

Performance groups also enjoyed the time Polyfest gave them to build new friendships – often across cultural divides. As a group from the James Cook High School Indian group described before their dance:“We are a group of Fiji, Indian, Sāmoan, Cook Island ethnicities, and we are also Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Our dance is a celebration of the fabric of Modern New Zealand.”

Pākehā European students were also frequently involved in performances. Several the researchers talked to described how this experience was “inclusive” and a great learning experience that made them “grateful to grow up in a multicultural society”. For some, living with such cultural diversity was normal: “In fact, I don’t know any difference as it’s all I know.”

Finally, participants talked about how performing at Polyfest gave their group visibility and status and enabled them to ‘be seen’. For example, the Manurewa High School Kiribati group described how their performance was a “huge milestone for a minority culture like ours”, as it let other people “know that we’re here, we’re powerful and we’re not going anywhere”.

Cultural festivals are much more than a musical, dance and cultural sensation. The research highlighted the very important role festivals play in helping to create belonging and identity for diverse young people by profiling and celebrating their cultural expressions and emerging identities in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

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