The Heiva is Tahiti’s most emphatic statement of their deep history & rich culture. It’s a non-stop, month-long celebration of joy through dance, song, and other cultural events giving an understanding of Polynesian culture, history & life.
The Heiva I Bora Bora Festival is a world-class event. Other than a brief Calendar of Events, there remains little, if anything, to assist visitors to understand how they can participate in and be rewarded with the culturally enriching experience that flows from witnessing a Heiva. To help travelers understand the real significance of this event, here is a guide on what you need to know about it.
Let’s start with the Calendar of Events. Despite English speaking tourists making up around 60% of all visitors to Bora Bora and constituting the economic motor of the island, the program, sadly, continues to be written only in French & Tahitian:
So here’s a quick interpretation of certain of the Tahitian terms in an endeavor to assist all our non-Tahitian speaking visitors, in other words, ALL of our international visitors!
- Himene – ancient chants & song
- Otea – authentic Tahitian dancing
- Patia Fa – a javelin competition (part of the Tuaro Maohi – see below).
- Va’a – outrigger canoe racing (1 man/V1, 3 man/V3, 6 man/V6 & 12 man/V12).
- Tuaro Maohi – Traditional Polynesian Sports, including javelin & ‘fruit carrying’ races.
- Amanahune, Faanui, Nunue, Tiipoto, Anau & Hitia – names of the districts competing in himene &/or otea. Each group actually performs twice during the Heiva – a first time (presentation) – & a second time (‘concours‘) the actual competition round.
Where Does Heiva I Take Place?
Almost all the festivities take place in or around Place Tuvavau in Vaitape. This is the open area to your left as you arrive by boat at Vaitape Quay. In any case, you won’t miss it, given the area is surrounded by eye-catching structures fashioned from local vegetal materials. So if you choose to stay in Vaitape, you will be in close proximity to everything.
How To Get Tickets
The first thing you need to know is that you can watch ALL the Heiva events for free.
- In the case of the singing, dancing & orchestral competitions, as well as on prize-giving nights, simply install yourselves on either side of the spectacle or watch from behind.
Alternatively, you can purchase tickets for1500xpf ($15) in two places:
- The official office of the Heiva is situated alongside Radio Bora Bora overlooking the ceremonial area.
- You can purchase tickets on the night at the same price to be comfortably seated directly in front of the night’s spectacle. The point of sale can be found at the entrance to the seated area, just to the side of the covered area set aside for the orchestras.
NOTE: There is no fee payable to witness any of the other events, including – Va’a, Coprah, Tressage & Pandanus, Patia Fa, Tuaro Maohi, Porteurs de Fruits…..
Heiva I Events
Va’a: Tahitians are the best paddlers in the world. this is a thrilling outing for those lucky enough to see it.
Coprah: An event all visiting these shores should attempt to see. Amazing skills in a technique & competition centuries old. The Pa’aro Ha’ari, or shelling of coconuts, is conducted each year in the white sands, which set the scene for the Heiva I Bora Bora’s traditional dancing & chanting. As always, the toere, the pahu tari parau (bass) & the fa’atete (snare drum) are present, not only giving a great ambiance to the event but setting the upbeat tempo for the competition itself.
Patia Fa: The Patia Fa (individual) & the Patia Ai (team) are the 2 competitions undertaken in the javelin event.
The test consists of lancing handmade wooden javelins from a predetermined line at a coconut situated between 7 & 9.5m above ground level atop a pole. The coconut is divided into 5 horizontal zones, with points on a scale of 2 to 10 being allocated in an ascending amount as one’s javelin strikes & holds higher up the coconut.
Normally each competitor throws 8 javelins on 5 to 7 separate occasions. The pole is lowered after each round, and the coconut is removed and taken to the judges for verification of the points gained. Fresh coconut is then hoisted.
The winner is the person or team which totals the greatest number of points:
Timau Ra’ua: The fruit-carrying competition is impressive. The Timau Ra’ua is a competition to determine who can run a predetermined distance between 1000 & 1300m for men & between 800 & 1100m for women. They carry a load of fruit attached with vegetal fibers on vegetal support, normally made from wood or bamboo measuring between 120 & 150cm long with a diameter of less than 15cm. Competitors normally run barefooted, although the use of vegetal shoes is permitted. The weights carried are normally 15kgs for women, 20kgs for juniors, 30kgs for ‘beginners’ & masters (open), whilst the aito or the supermen, race with a load of 50kgs.
The Umu Ti (walking on fire) is another authentic ritual that attracts hundreds of absolutely mesmerized spectators. Animated by the tahua (priest), participants are invited, following deeply spiritual incantations, to remove their shoes and follow the tahua barefooted across the fire stepping along its hot stones where the surface temperature can exceed 2000 ° Celsius. This event is truly a total knock-out and an absolute must-do!
Amoraa ofai: The stone lifting competition is a very ancient tradition practiced for centuries, particularly in the Australes. The stones are oval in shape and weigh between 80 & 150 kg. They are greased with monoi to increase the degree of difficulty in lifting. The goal is to lift the rock over one’s shoulder in a minimum of time where the technique is everything.
What you will notice instantly upon visiting the site of Heiva are the rows of marvelous local-style structures which frame the setting for the Heiva, all with white sand floors and meticulously decorated in a local style.
The buildings are, in fact, judged for their authenticity & design. It makes for a wonderful visual stroll into a time when Polynesians inhabiting these islands would have once lived.
The Traditional Tahitian Orchestra has a long & rich history dating back centuries. The orchestras are essentially percussion based utilizing a series of drums developed over time & made by hand from local materials, usually by those that play the instruments.
The major instruments are:
Tamau – The most easily recognizable drum in the orchestra is the tamau, a large wooden drum with a membrane at each end and struck with a single mallet. The membranes were traditionally made from sharkskin but are nowadays more likely to come from cattle hides. The tamau makes the methodic deep base sound that underlies much of the music performed.
Fa’atete – The fa’atete is a smaller single membrane drum often made from coconut wood. As with the tamau the membrane was traditionally made from sharkskin but is now more likely to be cattle skin. The fa’atete is played with drumsticks & has a more complex, higher-pitched range of notes than the tamau; it’s a sound akin to a snare drum. As with all Tahitian drums, inevitably intricately carved with Tahitian emblems. A battery of fa’atete is usually placed alongside the tamau in the second line of a traditional Tahitian Orchestra.
To’ere – The to’ere is the traditional drum that is the most challenging to play and the true director of ceremonies. Its role is of paramount importance in all Tahitian compositions explaining the placement of the instrument at the front of any orchestra.
It’s the to’ere that gives the distinctive hollowed wooden, high-pitched sound that most people associate with the Heiva, indeed with Traditional Tahitian Orchestras. The to’ere is most often made by the hands of its player, hollowed from a log of one of several native hardwood trees like the tou, the poro’ati, or the highly regarded miro. Each toere has an open slit running the length of the drum on one side.
Making one’s own to’ere can save the player up to 85,000xpf (around $US1000) in not having to purchase one. Here’s one hand-made from miro & decorated especially for this year’s Heiva.
In the past, the to’ere could reach lengths approaching 2m, but nowadays, two sizes – a smaller, mounted to’ere around 40cm in length & a larger to’ere around 1m long – are the most commonly used. They are played with a single stick ‘as one’ by a single musician that sits on a small wooden stool with the smaller to’ere on a stand directly in front & the larger to’ere held by one hand as it stands end to end.
To add to the complexity, a third instrument, the ofe, a long piece of dried bamboo, is often added to the mix! All three being played can be seen in the following photo:
The to’ere requires great skill to play as the sound changes markedly depending on where the instrument is struck. The sound not surprisingly, is hollow & woody, yet crisp with a good range of higher pitches.
Pahu Tupa’e – A relative newcomer, the pahu tupa’e is a single membrane drum played normally with the hands, much like the bongos. Increasingly women wishing to play in an orchestra are playing the pahu tupa’e, a battery of three painted in a colorful floral motif seen here behind the tamau.
Tradition holds that one uses the maximum amount of natural material in the costumes, being careful not to restrict the range of movement of the dancer by covering too much skin. The approach preserves the youthful nature of the dancers. Costumes convey elegance for women & virility for men.
The following photos show the extensive use of auti in the dresses & heipo’o (headdress) of the women amd, in turn, the complete outfit of the men. The auti is preferred to the more rigid coconut fronds. The breasts are covered with tapea titi (bra) made from polished coconut. Let’s look, back to front:
The use of natural materials provides a way for all those participating to admire and to embrace the beauty of nature, a theme constantly evoked in the song & in the dance. Also, to reflect the musical composition being played with natural materials for drum-based traditional compositions.
The purau (a local hibiscus) remains the standard material for the more (‘grass’ skirt). The bark of the purau is cut so as to be removed in one piece and then soaked in seawater for days to soften it. The outer darker bark is then removed before the lighter remaining bark is pounded too thin the fiber.
Once dry, the thin strips are tied to the waist by a belt, also made from parau. The strips are naturally off-white in color but are traditionally dyed using local materials of white using lime, seawater & sun, a bright yellow using re’a (tumeric), or a pronounced red using a variety of aute (red hibiscus). Red and yellow, as a consequence of their being the only natural dyes in ancient times, became the colors of royalty.
Here are shots taken in the full daylight of a dressed rehearsal for this year’s Heiva I Bora Bora to show more material clearly.
Accessories such as the heipo’o (headress), the hatua (belt), the i’i (hand held dance ‘whisks’) and tahiri (fan) are made more complex as required using parau fiber or strands of niau (coconut leaves):
A marquee in which dancers can change ‘quickly’ up to 3-4 times a performance is stocked with every imaginable piece necessary to ensure the dancers are fully attired:
Tips When Attending Heiva
- With the Bora Bora I Heiva festival running for a month, there is wisdom in considering staying on the main island. This can grant you easy access to the festivities, the ability to join others for an early start, and save considerably on transport costs to and from the motus (islets).
- Take your camera and be ready to take some awesome pictures.
- There is great viewing for free from the sides of the competition.
- If you seek seating, grab the (cheaper!) places towards the back of the stand where the seats have a greater elevation from the row in front.
Short History of Heiva
For centuries, singing and dancing have played a major role in Polynesian life. Polynesians have an innate passion for festivities and sharing in a spirit of joy. Theirs is a rich culture almost wiped out by missionaries in the early 19th century who tried to ban it as expressions of paganism.
In 1881 when France annexed a large part of what is now French Polynesia, and no doubt wishing to win favor with locals over their traditional rival through the English missionaries, permission was given for a display of traditional sport and dancing. It would fall on Bastille Day, which falls annually in July. This “Tiurai” (July) would become symbolic for Polynesians as a celebration of their culture & their heritage.
The power of the churches & of the authorities, however, would see the Tiurai continue in a constrained state until 1956 when Madeleine Moua, astutely using dancers from families of good background, started her troupe “Heiva” & revolutionized the image of Polynesian dancing. This year, 2023, marks the 142nd year of the Tiurai, now known as the Heiva.
Bora Bora’s Heiva is world-famous. Held in an open-air theatre of powdery white sand, the event is both a magical and mystical set as it is at the foot of Mt Pahia. Before the massive marquis covering the dance area is removed, school children come to dance and prepare themselves for the time they, too, will participate in the Heiva.
I trust this guide will help all those visiting Bora Bora to better understand, participate in & above all, enjoy the Heiva I Bora Bora.