Banaba marks 75 Years of transition from their home with joyful dances depicting stories of faith, leadership and empowerment.
Written by Alex P McCarthy
Photography: Raymond Sagapolutele
Pacific melody fills the air as I enter the West Auckland Community Hall. Ushered across the foyer by song I arrive at a large room as a boy finishes his dance to applause. He fervently listens and takes in the direction from 3 overlapping voices willing him to improvement. This is simultaneously taking place with the usual banter and hum of laughter you’d expect of any group of Pacific people. I remove my jandals and sit cross-legged on the outer edge of a mixed group of adults and a single ukulele player. Now standing opposite facing us is a single row of young women.
In front of my left, an elderly woman turns around gesturing her hand in a familiar downward motion. She speaks ‘Gilbertese’ (the language spoken and used by Banabans today is Gilbertese, this is because the original Banaban language was lost during the period of invasion) her open face and eyes cause me to smile and yet I know intuitively she’s correcting something I’ve overlooked. A male voice from the centre of the group cuts across the friendly commotion. It belongs to Rae (Bainteiti) he gently admonishes me “she said to sit on the mat…move in – please join us” I shuffle forward. Without warning a chorus of voices animate the room along with accented claps the dancing commences. My new Banaban Mama taps my knee, smiles and sings without reservation. I attempt to mouth the phrases I hear, careful to keep my volume just above a whisper.
The dances over the next half hour are happy, pleasant and fun with a familiar building crescendo in tempo and volume. The modest dancers have generous smiles their movements are seamless, uncomplicated and reflect the humility and happiness I come to understand more with each expression of joyous movement.
Tuesday the 15th of December will mark 75 years since their six square kilometre Pacific home was annexed following World War II and their people forcibly relocated to Rabi Island in Fiji.
Te tia katei (choreographer) has a lot of pressure; with only a fortnight remaining, we agree about an urgency to ensure that specific dances are learnt and remembered by the young so it’s comforting hearing the laughter that accompanies the end of each dance. I am reminded 3 times that they are a newly formed Banaba collective. Their recent formation and the tight timeframes have meant a shared responsibility by all with the fine-tuning of choreography.
I read recently, Dance as an artform is transcendental It means you don’t have to be part of a culture or speak a foreign language to understand its expression- it talks to the human that we all are.
Banaban’s take great joy in their expression of dance! Past down with faithful urgency for generations, there’s an innate honesty and openness. Creatively it shares the Polynesian tradition around rhythm, timing and melody. I’m reminded of the posterity of these unique movements, steps and lifts accompanying lyrics, gestures and phrases of pastimes.
Banaba History’s laden with tragedy and injustice! And to be fair the list of perpetrators is largely European but do include Pacific people also. Once rich in mineral deposits decades of phosphate mining has left the surface of Banaba (also known as Ocean Island) covered with coral pinnacles.
The people will never forget what happened 75 years ago- yet their diaspora fuels them not to cultural activism but rather a preservation. Remembered for centuries, dance and song tell of the simplicity and their utopian life- pre-European contact. Memories of weaving, fishing and their indigenous creation story of the raised coral atoll they call home.
One dance tells of drought and had it not been for a crab, the northern wind and a woman’s nimble journey to the underground caves discovering a pure water source and in turn, saving them from extinction. This heroine’s actions elevated further the place of a woman and is highlighted with each union. A recognized custom remains that once married, it is the male who leaves his family joining the woman’s family. The most exciting dance which is preserved with great pride is ‘Te Karanga’ stick dance. Not only are the sticks and traditional wear kept similar, but the dance steps, as well as old traditional Banaban language, is still used, even though ironically the meaning of the words are now lost.
Throughout my time with them, I’m told that dance is central to them as people. That they dance to celebrate special occasions! to remember our home! We dance for each other and visitors, we dance to connect with our past, remember and learn from those who came before us.
I ask the leaders if being displaced for 75 years ensures the extinction of a language and culture -identity? I am told that singing, dancing and mime and are constantly updated to include more contemporary issues which affect the community today. All mention the importance of faith and leadership. Others mention prophecies passed down as comfort. One shared of miraculous interventions during the Japanese occupation. One tertiary student spoke of the support and provisions available in Education from Fiji and how being in Auckland there is far greater acceptance and opportunity to exercise and preserve their culture and language.
“For most of us in the back of our minds, there’s a desire to return back there, to go and see Banaba.” Maggie Kaipati elder
Embraces and hugs mark the conclusion of my 90-minute visit. I leave the hall that evening- trying to reconcile what I had just experienced. I can only describe it as a kind of medicine for my soul. If culture is surmised in dance and song- then JOY is to be Banaban. Elders and Parents alike were unanimous in the objective of December 15th gathering. To solidify, empower and equip the young to face the future with strength and courage. Whether it’s 25th 75th or 100th year may the joy-filled Banaba dance and song echo across the Blue Pacific Continent.