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March 1, 2004 | by  | in Features |
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The Cuba Street Carnival

From his perch in Anvil House, on the corner of Cuba and Wakefield, 2004 Cuba Street Carnival director John Page has a good view down the long stretch of road that his eclectic festival will inhabit for 48 hours this weekend. For the uninitiated, the Carnival emphasises the ‘vibrant, quirky and spontaneous personality of Wellington’s unique Cuba Street’, through an enormously varied programme.

With fifteen zones of entertainment covering everything from funk bands and films to a full-size Ferris Wheel, the sheer scale of the event boggles the mind, and Page is quick to recognize how much the Carnival has grown since its inception in 1999. He estimates an attendance of ’50,000 people in the day; maybe a whole lot more at night’, and the numbers quickly add up to an impressive logistical feat: the market stalls have doubled since the last Carnival to 200; there are almost 50 entries for the parade; about 100 acts will be performing; and some 2000 people are participating or were involved in organising the Carnival. Noise control has to be considered and separate waste management facilities must be provided, on top of the power supply, licensing, and security for two kilometres of open street.

The biggest problem facing the organisers turned out to be the traffic, though. From Friday night, Vivian, Ghuznee, Dixon, Cuba and Manners Streets will all be shut. ‘It gives us a space that runs from the bottom of Wakefield [up] to Abel Smith. It’s a huge area of the city that we’re shutting down for a long period of time,’ Page says. It includes the final stretches of State Highway One, a closure that the very existence of the Carnival in 2004 hinged upon, after its disappearance in 2003. Traffic and people just don’t mix, and when Transit New Zealand agreed to close parts of Vivian and Ghuznee Streets, they effectively gave Page and company the green light. And it looks like it’s here to stay – future revellers need not worry about the so-called bypass, the proposed changes to the motorway to and from Wellington, because the changes would be too far south to affect the Carnival, Page says. In fact, ‘it’s a good thing in terms of the logistics of the Carnival’, because it will divert cars around it.

Closing State Highway One has motivated Page and crew to make the event, already officially ‘New Zealand’s largest free street festival’, as big as possible. While the big-name acts like Fat Freddy’s Drop, the Black Seeds, Goldenhorse, the Phoenix Foundation and Trinity Roots will present the best of what contemporary New Zealand music has to offer, Page places his emphasis on the range of performers – 100 acts over six stages for two days – and on the eccentric. ‘Because Cuba Street is left of centre,’ Page says, ‘we want to make it really diverse.’ Hence there isn’t really anything that could be classified as plain old pop or rock music.

With so much to choose from, it’ll be like the Big Day Out all over again, having to plan my day ruthlessly to make sure I don’t miss anything I really want to see. Will it be possible to make CL Bob at 5:30p.m. on Saturday and the Hairy Lollies at 6:10? There are going to be some mighty clashes in my weekend, even if I don’t get to see the Clash tribute band, Wazzo Clash.

And speaking of clashes there’s the great Soundsystem Soundclash on Saturday, the first ever four-way competition in New Zealand, and possibly Australasia. Each soundsystem, complete with its own MCs and selectors, vies for audience approval, with the sets rotating between them and getting shorter and shorter, until the final round is dub for dub. The ring announcer and sound man make sure it’s a clean fight, and while the audience decide who wins the soundclash, it’s mostly about fun and crowd participation, says DJ Topknot from Wellington’s Vital Sounds Soundsystem – the bigger the better. Whether it’s hip-hop or house, dancehall or drum’n’bass, original or classic, a good soundclash will be quite unlike any other forms of musical battling. There’s another soundclash on the Sunday, which takes the total number of soundsystems in Wellington for the weekend to six – a remarkable turnout for this underground genre.

The Carnival kicks off with the Outdoor Film Festival on Friday night, which showcases short films by Kiwi directors such as Grant LaHood and Christine Jeffs. Projected against the wall of the carparking building in Swan Lane (opposite Glover Street), it pays to camp there nice and early with a blanket and some food if previous years’ crowds are anything to go by. The stylish noir Diva, from French New Wave director Jean Jacques Beineix, is the highlight of the mini-Festival.

On the following evening the illuminated night parade arrives, which runs from the corner of Courtney Place and Cambridge Terrace to the Abel Smith end of Cuba Street. About 90,000 people were thought to have watched or participated in it last year, and Page promises it will be the highlight of the Carnival.

Street theatre has been a part of every Carnival so far, and 2004 brings more international acts, including Lucky Diamond Rich, the self-proclaimed ‘most tattooed man on Earth’, a veteran of the Carnival who counts ‘being alive today! And living my dream, also!!!’ as the luckiest things that have ever happened to him. Beside swallowing swords and juggling at once while riding a unicycle, he’s looking forward to ‘the beautiful tattooed women in Wellington’. Inked chicks and anyone else will have to look for Mr. Rich and the six other busking acts at one of the three busking spots on Ghuznee, Vivian and Manners Streets (but not Cuba itself, oddly enough).
Variety clearly thrives over the course of the weekend, with areas reserved for kids (Glover Park), basketball (Manners Mall), massage and acupuncture (Cobblestone Park). The New Zealand Sportclimbing Federation are holding their National Cup for bouldering starting Saturday in Te Aro Park, and footbag athletes, both from overseas and from the recent national champs, will be on the job come Sunday afternoon.

Page even lets me in on a recent project: he’s been auditioning people to dress up as the iconic Cuban leader himself, Fidel Castro, because he wants to have some poor actor stand on a podium reciting some of Castro’s famous three-hour speeches in Spanish. It’s the many random things like that, which people can wonder about as they wander by, that Page is encouraging. ‘We want people to wander the site and see what’s going on rather than staying in one place.’ And the layout of the stalls, stages, shows and spectacles is designed to assist just that.

Another new feature for this year’s Carnival is the Revolutionary Architecture, an idea which Page says came from his desire to do ‘a project like a cooking competition. Let’s get everybody with the same ingredients and see their ideas.’ The competition reflects Cuba Street’s ‘architectural and social uniqueness’, a mission statement the Cuba Street Carnival Collective Trust issued in 2002. This year’s winners, Clive and Matt Kelly, went for an interactive design, providing a fence for people to represent themselves upon by photocopying parts of their bodies.

The briefing for the competition required the following of its entrants: ‘The challenge is on to build something colourful and larger than life… using a jumble of material… to come up with an idea that blurs the boundaries of architecture, art and performance.’ John Page must have had this definition in mind for every second that he worked on the Carnival, and it only remains to see if his experiment in revolutionary architecture on a mass scale, the Cuba Street Carnival, will be a winner with the crowds of thousands on the day.

Just don’t count Page among them. What will El Director himself be doing on the day? ‘If I’ve got it absolutely right? Nothing.’

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