Friday, September 30, 2016

On the reef island of Ranui

It was marvellous to wander into Ranui library yesterday and discover women crocheting the psychedelic costumes Tuvaluans call gatu kolose, and kids donning those costumes and performing dances and songs. Ranui is the capital of New Zealand's Tuvaluan community, and this is Tuvaluan language week. 

I got talking with broadcaster Marama Papau, who had helped organise Ranui library's celebrations, and was delighted when she told me she had read and enjoyed my review of the exhibition of kolose that she and Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai organised back in 2014. Like many of the Tuvaluans living in New Zealand, Marama comes from Niutao, a reef island in the north of the archipelago. 

Marama told me about how determined Tuvaluans are to make West Auckland into a stronghold of their culture. The community runs art groups, reading groups, and several churches. We talked about Gerd Koch, the German ethnographer who came to Niutao in the early 1960s and befriended a pagan carpenter named Saipele, who offered him lessons in magic as well as woodworking. 

Koch made a series of black and white films that unobtrusively documented islanders' martial skills and dances. He coaxed some of the elderly men and women of Niutao to perform their ancient songs, and recorded them. 

I found a copy of Songs of Tuvalu, a magnificent bilingual anthology based on Koch's work at Niutao, in the Otara Public Library last year. One of the CDs that accompanied the book had, alas, been removed from the sachet in the book's back cover. Perhaps not coincidentally, the missing CD contained the magical, pre-Christian songs Koch had recorded. 

After we'd talked about Gerd Koch, Marama Papau introduced me to an elderly woman who had appeared, along with her twin sister, in one of the ethnographer's famous films. Fifty years ago she had been a dancer in a gatu kolose; now she was watching a new generation dancing. Inside Ranui's library yesterday I felt transported from a drizzly, funereal Auckland to a bright and noisy tropical island. 


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