Why is music and dance so important to Pacific people? Joseph Vuicakau says it connects community with culture, and that there’s much more to our beloved Fijian meke than a show for entertainment. A talented musician and dancer, you’d think we’d run into Joseph at a concert or on a dance floor. But we met him as a volunteer, stacking chairs, unloading trucks, and connecting with people in the community. Whether it’s coordinating a group of volunteers or a troupe of dancers, he has the heart of a person who leads by example. This is his story.
We’d love to know more about you. Who are you; where are you from and how did that lead you to the work you do now?
I’m the child of John and Asenaca Vuicakau. I was born with probably one of the longest names I know of; Joseph John Oneil Frank Rokotuibua Vuicakau, but known to many as JJ. Born here in Sydney, and my Fijian heritage is from the village of Koroivonu in the district of Tunuloa; of the province of Cakaudrove, Island of Vanua Levu.
I was brought up in a big family of musicians and singers. Most of them can play an instrument, sing or both. In terms of the creative side of things, I think being brought up in a strict household and in the Fiji Sydney Catholic Community, was what led me to some of the values I saw as important to me while growing up. I was nurtured heavily by my Grandmother, whose love of God and everything to do with Fijian traditions and customs including the traditional Fijian meke was what rubbed off on me and pretty much instilled in me this love of service in my community and maintaining cultural identity and expressing this musically and creatively.
Why is this type of work so meaningful to you?
It connects me to my cultural identity as an Australian-Fijian who is proud of the colour of my skin and the place I come from. Its always a meaningful thing to be able to use your gifts and talents to give back for others so that they would be encouraged to search for, grow and use theirs and help their community.
What are the biggest misconceptions around performing and creative arts with Pacific people?
From my experience with Fijian meke and the concept that people have of it, is that it’s just for entertainment. Some people don’t really know what it actually looks like or what authentic traditional meke is and what its really about.
Unlike majority of Pacific dancing, there are traditional protocols or processes in attaining a meke or dance. It starts from the traditional request of the composition, to the first presentation of the rehearsed composition to the composer with the presentation and offering of gifts of thanks and gratitude in the form of food, kava and a Tabua – then the actual performance itself. Once it’s completed another ceremony is performed in thanking the performers and the composer.
These traditional protocols for the traditional Fijian meke dances keep the art form sacred, hence why it’s hard and probably time consuming to be able to create more accessible compositions for people to use. So now we are seeing more mixed Pacific dances that include even fire dancing, which is not really a traditional Fijian art form of dance. It’s funny because people will sometimes request for that thinking it’s a Fijian thing when it isn’t. I tell them we can walk on fire though – well we can’t – but the people back in Fiji can!
What difference do you hope to make through your love for creative arts?
I’ve seen a lot of young people with a lot of potential do great things, and they are very talented. But there aren’t many places that encourage the creative arts in a space that will allow them to do so.
When it comes to creative arts I’ve seen it change young people’s attitude to home life, school life and just their daily interaction with people. When we inform our young people about the history of these dances or the composition of the music and how its made, they start to really appreciate how sacred and powerful the arts have been on our society, and how it can allow them to connect to their heritage, express who they really are and give them a sense of belonging to a great lineage of strong men and women.
What have been the most challenging experiences in your journey so far?
I think trying to juggle everything in my life that I value so much and see as something I need to be of service to. From creative arts, music, cultural arts, community and youth work and church; I feel like I really need to give as much of my gifts and talents to every aspect of my life. And I think being able to say no to some things is okay. But it’s a challenge that I’m learning to work on.
What advice do you have for Pacific people who might be going through something similar?
Acts of service is something we should all be encouraged to do. Not only does it feel good giving back to the community it also allows to review your own life and weed out the bad things and welcome the good things that will keep you on your path to your full potential.
How can we support you and your work?
Visit our Facebook Page and refer any work or people wanting to know more about our Fijian culture. Also, you can get behind organisations that want to genuinely assist in building up your communities with projects that will benefit the whole community in the near future.
We’d like to thank Joseph for sharing his story with us. If you’d like to find out how to get involved or make a booking with Joseph’s Fijian meke dance group Duavata, you can get in touch on Facebook or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Joseph’s also the guitarist in his band Manutabu, and they’re launching their album on Saturday 9 April. To find out more, you can find Manutabu on Facebook, or get in touch by sending an email to email@example.com.