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B-Boys/B-Girls in Cultural Classrooms

Two nights ago I was reminded that culture isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. Yes, it can be grammatically used as a noun, but we practice culture. It’s constantly in flux and adapting to how we appropriate, indigenize, and commodify it. Thursday night, I walked into a cultural classroom without even knowing it. I went with some friends to the Red Bull BC One competition where hip hop dancers competed to go into a world championship.

Photo from Red Bull BC One site

Photo from Red Bull BC One site

What I witnessed that was so interesting, however, was the large number of young kids imitating and devising their own style as they watched (wide-eyed in the front row) the b-boys compete. I thought about the transmission and teaching of culture that was happening in the space. In a way, this was a classroom. Not only for the kids, but for everyone as well. A set of three judges were determining the confines of what was acceptable and what was exceptional within this hip hop culture. I thought about how this movement reached New Zealand all the way from America and all of the teachers in between those two spaces that got it into this space.

Titus with Factious Tash and Nicki Manaj

Titus Factious Tash

Last weekend I saw an adaptation of Titus Andronicus (muh favvee Shakespeare play) by a company called Factious Tash at Q Theatre in Auckland. Even thought this is my first for this play, I’m not sure I’ll ever see a good production of Titus Andronicus. It’s almost TOO much for the stage. Especially the quadruple murder series at the dinner scene – it just becomes humorous when you see it happen. Credibility to Factious Tash, though – the energy and spirit they kept up during this exhaustingly physical piece was admirable. All the way til the end, they were intense, lively, and interesting to watch. I’ve also decided that Shakespearean language sounds better coming from a Kiwi or English person than it does from almost any American. Not sure why that is… maybe this group was particularly clear with the text. Though, again, even the text is larger than any human can fully embody. How does one pay full homage to Titus’ words after he sees his daughter raped and mutilated, with her hands and tongue severed?

TITUS: Thou hast no hands, to wipe away thy tears:
Nor tongue, to tell me who hath martyr’d thee:
Thy husband he is dead: and for his death
Thy brothers are condemn’d, and dead by this.

Like…. how do you deal with that? Or Aaron’s words:

Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ door
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’

Either way – These guys sure did give it a great shot. The set and themes of the play had an urban trash twist, with all the actors in black, a shopping cart for a burial cart, a jack in the box, and blood replaced with black liquid. What was probably the coolest element of the show was the use of Nicki Manaj’s music for transitions. Turns out she is oddly appropriate for the horrible insanity of the events that took place onstage. The relentless bass and alien sounds she uses in her music complimented the black, charred actors and bright strobe lights nicely. After seeing the bloody bodies of war and the slaughter of Tamora’s oldest son in the first scene of the play, the intro to Nicki’s “Beez In The Trap” blared from the speakers – the individual droplet sounds in the beginning of the track jolting the still actors into movement as they fired.931279_590087201023995_1160566489_n

As Tamora being one of my favorite Shakespeare characters, I was really disappointed when I found out that the cast was all men. A small young man played Tamora and though he was FIERCE and the sexual tension between him and Aaron was incredible- I thought there was a Queenliness missing from his/her swagger. Not to mention how much older Tamora is than this actor. This young man was also very small in comparison to the other men of the cast. Though he held his own, I would have loved to see a mature woman playing that role.

Overall it was a fun evening. I can’t say it was an exceptional performance, but I really enjoyed the commitment from the cast and the use of a horrifying piece of pop culture as a support for this insane play.

Acting Lessons in the Woods

 

 

I never thought I’d have to call on my acting skills to save my ass in the middle of the forrest.

 

A few weeks ago, I assisted my friend B in a trek across Waiheke island with a group of young people (about age 14). Waiheke BushThe students were completing the two-day camping trip in exchange for a bronze medal for the Sir Edmund Hilary Award. This was their first time carrying camper-packs, cooking over camp fires, and setting up their own tents. Since there were 39 young people, B called on myself and two others to supervise the trek. The planned timetable was a three hour hike across the island, camping over night, then hiking back the next morning… Here’s how it actually went down: My group got MAD LOST.

 

The group of students split in half and another supervisor and I got the girls group (19 total). Since it’s New Zealand’s rainy season, we expected the rain. We didn’t expect the tramp to be so confusing. Once we reached the first dead end, we realized we had been going the wrong direction. In total, we probably made the girls turn around 5 or 6 times at least. Every time I had to say to myself, “ok – don’t let them know we’re so lost. Your objective is to keep them calm.” I used tactics like making jokes, telling stories, asking the girls questions about where their from, and allowing them to sit down for food (while the other assistant and I figured out where we were). One time we stumbled upon a vineyard when we realized we were going the wrong way AGAIN. At this point, I turned to the girls and said, “Ok- we wanted to show you guys the Waiheke vineyards! Waiheke wine is actually very special because it…” to which the girls replied with a roaring sigh of disapproval and a “we’re lost again, aren’t we?” look. I felt terrible for them – they had to carry these huge camper-packs that probably weighed half their own body weight and it had taken us 2 hours to get through the first third of the trek. The rain wasn’t letting up either. Somehow we managed to get back on our way.

 

I realized as we walked that everyone was watching their feet rather than looking up to see what surrounded them. Everyone, including myself, was concerned with getting from point A to point B rather than observing and enjoying the process of getting there. I thought about acting and the rehearsal process here. It’s so tempting to be focused on product and the end result… but in all honesty, the glory is in the journey it takes to get there. In theory it sounds like a cliche empty

Whakanewha Regional Park

Whakanewha Regional Park

gesture, but I think this journey made me put it into practice. Especially under the circumstances it was easy to get wrapped up in the troubles of the hike – but I managed to remind myself I had the wonderful opportunity of hiking through an island bush on a beautiful New Zealand day. I mean, come on.

 

As it began to get dark, we finally made it to the campsite as the rain was pouring down. B may or may not have had to find us in the bush and lead us the last 15 minutes of the trek…. but that’s subjective…. The night in the tent was a rough one due to the mini monsoon happening outside. The next morning B told me there was a King Tide that night in addition to a full moon which caused the weather to be pretty rough that evening.

 

 

Though the girls complained a lot while we were walking (I don’t blame them), I interviewed them after we returned to the shore for the final time and heard positive reviews. It seems that the trip was something that was enjoyed upon reflection rather than while it’s happening. This could be due to the amount of physical labor it requires? When I asked them the most important thing they learned, common replies were in regard to unity, community, cooperation and listening.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Specification in Focus

Again, my project has redefined itself. This isn’t a change of topic, rather another narrowing down – a specification. 

Theme: The roles of mothers and grandmothers in the transmission of cultural knowledge and identity.

What defines who we are and where we come from? Where do we learn these things? 

Polyfest 2013

“You don’t learn Samoan dance, you grow up in it.”

In Pasifika culture music is not just something you listen to on the treadmill or in your car and dance isn’t just for a club. Music and dance are fundamental aspects of the Pacific Identity.

In March I went to two festivals celebrating Pacific culture: Pasifika was a Polynesian cultural festival and Polyfest was a Pacific music and dance competion-festival. At both events, islands like Fiji, Samoa, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Cook Islands, Niue, and Tonga had organized booths where they shared their culture and lots of food. At Polyfest, each island had a stage where different high schools, grammar school, and university groups performed dance native to that country. I only had a brief opportunity to go but during my time there I saw 3 Maori (NZ) dances, 2 Samoan, and 1 Tongan all one right after the other. Having the dances come one after the other allowed me to clearly compare and contrast my experiences of seeing them.

During the Maori performances colors like brown, tan, and black were prominent where Tonga and Samoa made use of more vibrant colors. Red is a generally understood to be a color to signify royalty throughout the Pacific and was used in most of the dances. Within the context of the dances I actually saw, I noticed more range with contemporary in Samoan and Tongan dance.

ASB Polyfest 2008 Ruderford High Maori Group

Something that was absolutely awesome to see was the response of the audience viewing the Maori hakas. At the end of each performance, some members of the audience would stand up and perform a chant back to the performers. I was incredible to witness that display of appreciation from audience to performer. Similarly, in Tongan and Samoan performances, people would often get up and jump around as a sign of respect to the performers during their dances. The moment of elation and the need to get up and move is called mafana. Both audience and performer can feel mafana – as though it’s created in the space and circulates through the air.

Focus

In an earlier post, I mentioned the connection between the

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Cook Island fruits (including taro, papaya, oranges, pineapple, watermelon, and raw fish) at the Mangaian Hostel.

Pacific Island cultures. I was just thinking about how I originally started my project with the intention of focusing on Maori women’s roles of power and identity within the New Zealand community. In my first weeks at university I found myself ignoring opportunities to talk with people about the project because they were Samoan or Tongan. I was thinking this way because I was afraid of veering off course and losing focus on my interests in Maori culture. Since then, I’ve learned that many people aren’t just Maori- instead many people introduce themselves as being a beautiful mix of Tongan, Niuean, Cook Islander, Fijian, Samoan, New Caledonian or all of the above. “A Polynesian surprise”, one man identified himself as.

This project has taken a turn to include globalism and cultural identity as key parts of its focus.

What does it mean to be an American? As we are a country of historical and modern immigrants, how important is it that we know our ancestry?

The Beyonce Paradox

About a year ago I started listening to Beyonce and I recognized what a great artist she is. She’s got something about show biz figured out. Her live performances are 10x what her recorded audio is and she surpasses fan’s expectations with every album. She’s respected and idolized across the globe and reasonably so. They don’t call her Queen B for nothing (all hail!).

 

English: Star of the group Destiny's Child on ...

English: Star of the group Destiny’s Child on Hollywood Walk of Fame. Português: Estrela do grupo Destiny’s Child na Calçada da Fama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Some people get their best ideas when showering at a Holiday Inn. I get mine when I’m trying to go to sleep. Such was the case for tonight. I was lying in bed, on the cusp of passing over into the world of stress-free surreality when all of a sudden I saw a Girl dressed in a revealing business dress-suit, on her hands and knees, frantically collecting money on the floor that has is falling from the ceiling. All the while, the chorus of Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” is blaring in the background.  I watched Girl panic in ‘. Then the lyrics “Girl, I didn’t know you could get down like that” accused Girl and she looked up to realize she was being watched. I grabbed my journal and started thinking about other songs Beyonce has written or contributed to. Songs like “Crazy in Love”, “Survivor”, and “Run the World (Girls)” all came to mind. Each time, a scene came to mind that had something to do with the paradox of being a successful, independent woman in America. I started asking myself: What does it mean to be a woman in my cultural environment?

 

beyonce.complex2.mp3waxx

beyonce.complex2.mp3waxx (Photo credit: mp3waxx.com)

 

What does it mean to be successful?

 

“Goodbye My Feleni” and Cultural Boarders

Māori Battalion performing a haka, Egypt, by unknown photographer, 1941. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Māori Battalion performing a haka, Egypt, by unknown photographer, 1941. Alexander Turnbull Library.

“We are always walking forwards backwards.”

The play Goodbye My Feleni opened Apr. 16th and closes on the 25th, ANZAC Day. I saw the play this evening and noticed a lot of familiar elements in the show that I recognized from the theater I’ve been exposed to back home. The theatre space was a small black box and the set consisted of some army bags and crates. We relied completely on the actors to transform the stage and take us back to 1941- I always enjoy this kind of set up. The play was about a Samoan, Niuean, and two Cook Island soldiers in the 28th (Maori) Battalion of WWII. The writer explains in the program, “Goodbye My Feleni came about because the last thing I expected to hear on a CD of the 28th (Maori) Battalion’s songs were the voices of five Pasifika soldiers singing Samoan songs of love, fear, home and country.” One of my Kiwi friends, who is Maori and well educated in Maori culture, commented “I didn’t know there were Samoans in the Maori Battalion.” One particularly striking moment was when the Cook Island alpha solider character was talking about his brother who died in war. He was arguing against his brother’s choice to join the army and said, “The minute you pick your friends over your family, I hope you never come back.” This was a difficult moment for the character and the actor, Samson Chan-Boon. In the moment, he went there and it created a breathless moment in the theatre. It got me thinking about the importance of family in the Pasifika and the notion of family within the army community. How difficult that must be to choose between the two.

In regards to my project, I noticed all the jokes at the expense of other Islanders. For example, the Niuean said something like, “No, I have money… I’m not a Maori.” The play was full of jokes about other island cultures, and each joke made got a roaring response from the audience. It was similar to when one of my Pacific Studies professors made a joke about Tonga being better at some trivial thing than Samoans are. Again, the class, more than 80% Pasifika, thought it was just too funny. Witnessing this, sort of, sibling rivalry between the island groups reinforced my initial idea that the island groups function as a whole community of the Pacific. Some were shocked to learn about Samoans being in the Maori Battalion. What does that say about the Samoan’s who decided to join? Is it possible that, in crisis, did they feel their cultural boundaries between Maori and themselves fall down? I speculate that each Island has their own culture and way of life, but they are all a part of the Pasifika identity, and therefore a part of all the other island identities.

So all this got me thinking about the relevance of cultural lines and categories. In this case, a Niuean making a joke about a Maori is acceptable and encourage able… but if a Frenchman or and Indian made the same joke, what would happen? In America, it’s generally acceptable for a hispanic person to make jokes about hispanic culture and for African-American to make jokes about African-American culture. At the same time it’s socially acceptable for white people to make “White people jokes.” (“white” is a problematic and interesting term like “black” or “brown” is. That’s a post for another day.) It’s my understanding that because certain people “belong” to their culture, they can make, sometimes offensive, jokes about them that perpetuate stereotypes that are probably harmful to their cultural identity. This leads me to ask: How does someone belong to a culture? It’s almost as though by making jokes about your own ethnicity, you’re taking ownership over your association with that community… But how does one “own” their cultural identity?

Further, there are those who find themselves called into a culture or ethnical community that they were neither born into or raised in. Can you be connected to this culture if it isn’t physically a part of you? I think if some way of life on the other side of the world resonates in your blood, in what ever way, that feeling and where it comes from should be investigated.

I was immediately reminded of a white female rapper who calls herself “V Nasty.” With the intention of laughing at her efforts, I was actually really perplexed and intrigued with how she embodies the identity of an urban gangster rapper. It’s interesting because, at this point in time, this role is generally governed by black men (or at least, they’re the ones in the public eye). And don’t get me wrong – she’s a terrible rapper and I don’t support anything she does in any way… But I think this video makes an interesting comment on how culture groups sometimes have clearly define boundaries.