Story by Jon Letman
Photo by Elyse Butler & Matt Mallams
Tepairu Manea is surrounded by a circle of drums big and small and all of his own making: There is the tall, thin toere drum, the coconut shell puniu drum and the drum he is lifting now, the barrel-size pahu. It stands almost four feet tall, its body adorned with a decorative galaxy of tiny, semicircular indentations.
The beat of his own drums: Tepairu Manea's embrace of his Tahitian culture has given Kaua'i the two-day dance fete, Heiva I Kauai Ia Orana Tahiti.
Manea pounds his pahu with a deliberate and intense beat familiar to anyone who’s ever swung their hips in a Tahitian dance class. His drumming has the power of a summer squall; when it’s done he knocks the side of the pahu affectionately, casts a knowing smile and says of the wood it’s carved from, “Coconut. One hundred and twenty years old.”
Manea himself is not quite half that age, but like the coconut tree, he too is firmly rooted in the Pacific. He was born in Tahiti, raised in New Caledonia and now lives on Kaua‘i. In his youth he didn’t think much about the fact that he was Tahitian: He loved drawing, admired Picasso, played drums in a ’60s rock cover band and focused on his career in construction. But as an adult, in his adopted home of Kaua‘i, chance encounters with Hawaiian language kumu (teachers), kupuna (elders) and musicians sparked an interest in his own culture. First he learned Tahitian drumming. Then he learned to make the drums themselves. And in 2002 he began what has since become Kaua‘i’s premier Tahitian dance competition, Heiva I Kauai Ia Orana Tahiti. The cultural festival offers an immersion into the worlds of Polynesian music and dance and costuming, and every year there are workshops, performances and competitions. Strolling through Kapa‘a Beach Park, the thousands of visitors who now attend each heiva could just as easily be in Papeete, and groups have come from Tahiti, the Marquesas and New Caledonia to be part of Manea’s heiva. This year the event turns ten and takes place August 6 and 7.
Manea softly taps a puniu as a strong rain pounds the earth outside his workshop below Mount Wai‘ale‘ale. His hands are rarely idle. His desire to share his culture is rooted, he says, in a desire to kokua, to help one another. “We have to share,” he concludes, “and pass on the knowledge.”