Easter Island’s Tapati Rapa Nui

By Georgia Lee, Ph.D.

Midsummer on Easter Island–February in the Southern Hemisphere–is the time for the annual festival known as “Tapati.” It started originally as a hometown event featuring song, dance, and poetry–very much a local party. The events were often scheduled for outdoors, so they frequently were rained out in mid-performance.

In 1983, a new gym was constructed. It had a stage and bleachers up the sides and so festival performances — dancing, chanting, beauty contestants, kai kai chants – were held indoors. Kai kai refers to string figures accompanied by chants, and very popular with the Rapanui who watch and listen intently. When a kai kai performance is done properly and elegantly, everyone breaks into cheers and applause.

A big street parade always comes toward the end of each festival. Every candidate for queen has a float and all those participating are painted and dressed in costumes. They wind around the streets, accompanied by singing and chanting islanders. It ends at the gym for a dance that lasts all night.

Costumes in the early days were simple but creative, made from bark cloth, cardboard, bed sheets, foliage. The festival was an event for themselves, not for tourists. But all that changed after Hollywood’s influence. Kevin Costner’s film was made here and every islander worked on it, in some capacity. They learned about staging, costume-making, and dramatic lighting effects, and they carried these new skills and concepts into their annual festival.

Other festival events include spear-fishing, canoe races, swimming races, horse races, body painting competitions, a vegetable growing competition, backcloth making, and even shell bead-making. The events are hotly contested, for each person competing in an event is earning points for one of the three queen candidates. Each candidate represents one of the island family lines so there is considerable family pride and one-upmanship involved. Losers are taunted, and anger often spills over.

Another festival event, a kind of triathlon, is held inside the statue quarry near Rano Raraku’s lake. This traditional event was not altered by Hollywood’s influence; it already was sufficiently bizarre. Barefoot male contestants wearing only body paint and skimpy barkcloth g-strings called hami first paddle across the lake on bundles of reeds. They then pick up bunches of bananas on each end of a pole and, slinging the load across their shoulders, run around the crater. Then up the hill again to grab bundles of reeds, around the lake once again, and then swim back. It is a gruelingly rough competition. This always is a well-attended event, probably because everyone keeps hoping the barkcloth hami might dissolve in the water.

But the most amazing event is known as haka pei, the “banana slide.” Contestants slide down a steep hill while perched on two banana tree-trunks, lashed together. They lay face up on this contraption, their feet braced against a short crosspiece. The one who remains on his tree trunk and goes the farthest, wins. It is suicidal. The contestants wear only tiny hami, plus lots of feathers and body paint, and so they have no protection. Every year some participants end up in the island’s hospital with broken bones, or worse.

The final Tapati event, the crowning of the queen, takes place at the archaeological site of Tahai, with Ahu Vai Ure illuminated from behind. A spotlight highlights Ahu Tahai and the actual crowning is done by torchlight—dozens of torches flickering in the dark. Behind it all, a huge moon casts a silver light across the water. A dynamite event!

All of these events and activities are accompanied by a lot of party-time. Following each evening event, everyone flocks to the disco where they dance and drink until daylight. Nothing else happens in the village during the festival events, for everyone is involved, in some way, with Tapati. Women sew costumes, dancers rehearse for months in advance, those planning to compete in the swimming or other athletic events practice to get into shape for their special event. Island artisans carve items for an exhibit and sale. What started out as a strictly local and small-scale island competition has morphed into the Big Time. Now, thousands of tourists come to the island to be there for the “party”. The festival has become big business.

The municipalidad prints a colorful poster each year to advertise the coming Tapati festival. These are posted around the village and sent around South America via Chilean consulates, in the hope of encouraging visitors to come to the island. One year the Tapati poster featured a photograph of a statue combined with close-up shots of several islanders. While one handsome and prominently featured islander enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame, police in Argentina saw the poster. They recognized him as a fugitive from justice. International police appeared and took him away. What price fame?

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