Festival in danger of losing the very thing that made it a celebrated success — its cultural authenticity

For almost a quarter-century, the Pasifika Festival has provided Aucklanders with an annual opportunity to glimpse the sights, sounds and tastes of the islands. Their response has underlined how much this is appreciated. Last year, the two-day festival drew some 80,000 people to Western Springs Park.

There will be a different location for the 23rd edition this weekend. Hayman Park in Manukau is being used because of the discovery of Queensland fruit flies in the Grey Lynn area. That switch, at short notice is, however, far from the worst of the problems afflicting the festival.

Some of those who got the festival off the ground all those years ago are now disenchanted with what it has become. They have taken to social media to say they believe it has become too commercialised, too regimented and very expensive for small stall-holders, all a far cry from what it set out to be.

There is also talk that it no longer provides an authentic cultural experience. This prompted the exit of well-known Pacific identity Stan Wolfgramm, who was contracted to run the event in 2013 and 2014 by Ateed, the Auckland Council's tourism, events and economic development agency.


These are worrying developments. The Pasifika Festival is billed as the "biggest celebration of Pacific Island culture and heritage in the world". It has been able to claim that status in large part because it is viewed as genuine. Few are hoodwinked when a cultural event starts to lose that trait and, with it, much of its uniqueness and charm. Mr Wolfgramm indicated last year that he feared this was happening. "We're trying to make Pasifika really and truly authentic in its crafts, performances, dances and foods," he said. "We've been sorting out the toffee apples and the candyfloss."

Obviously, things did not work out as Mr Wolfgramm hoped. Now, Ateed has outsourced the staging of the event to a "palagi" PR company, Orange Productions. Orange, it is claimed, has not consulted Pacific leaders about this year's festival. Equally, some small stall-holders have indicated their disillusionment. They cite strict rules, such as only stalls with council-supplied tents being allowed. Additionally, Tip Top, a major sponsor and something of an anomaly in this cultural setting, is said to have brought sales restrictions with it.

Ateed denies that the authenticity of the festival is being lost. Spokeswoman Charmaine Ngarimu said Orange Productions held regular meetings to ensure this was maintained. The outpouring on social media suggests something different, however. Some of Pasifika's originators have gone as far as to threaten to boycott the event.

That would as good as signal Pasifika's demise. It was these people who developed the event from scratch and made it such a great success. They hit on a formula that resonated with the people of Auckland. Ateed, which has been involved since the formation of the Super City, might have been expected to acknowledge as much and to keep its tinkering to a minimum. Instead, it seems to have sponsored festering ill-will.

Clearly, Ateed must ensure the festival meets certain council rules and regulations. But it makes no sense to be tampering with a winning formula by imposing excessive commercialisation and regimentation. All too soon, not only the event's founders will be questioning its authenticity. And Aucklanders will begin walking away from one of the city's great success stories.

13 Mar, 2015 9:00am
2 minutes to read