The 23rd annual Arizona Aloha Festival, held at Tempe Town Lake Park in Arizona, has become one of Arizona’s largest cultural festivals, with an estimated 150,000 in attendance March 11 and 12. It celebrates the varied cultures, languages and arts of the peoples of the Pacific.
Throughout the two-day celebration, the festival grounds were packed with Hawaiians, Tongans, Tahitians, Samoans, Fijians, Maori and Marshall and Cook Islanders alongside people from many other cultures, all of whom came to breathe in the spirit of aloha.
Tupou Braz was a guest artist at the the Arizona Aloha Festival. He demonstrated the process of creating a thin paper-fiber known as ‘tapa.’ She took a roll of mulberry bark from a plastic bin where it had been soaking in water. Wielding a large wooden ike, or mallet, the Tongan artist then began the long process of pounding the strips of bark on a wooden anvil until they became paper-thin.
“Tapa is our wealth,” Braz said as she continued to pound on the bark. “Having handmade things is very important to us. Tapa is used for weddings, funerals and other special occasions.”
At the festival, Braz was surrounded by wall hangings, floral arrangements, wreaths and even small angels crafted from tapa tinted in natural dyes.
Other handmade items were offered in many of the 100-plus vendor booths. Artists like William Asalele, (Samoan) were on hand to discuss and sell their works. Asalele fuses traditional Samoan and Fijian culture with comic book motifs to create art in wood and T-shirts.
Senio Samisoni and Isaac Agiga, both natives of Tonga, made the 3 ½ hour drive from Yuma to join the festival.
Barnabas “Buda” Sotelo, Oahu-born and raised, flew in from Honolulu. “It’s important to gather all Hawaiians and continue our ‘ohana (family),” says Sotelo, who combined the festival with visiting his son, Barnabas Junior, who is attending a local automotive school.
Festival-goers filled their baskets with traditional Hawaiian and other Pacific treats like okra chips, crack seed, sweet potato chips and more. The air was filled with ukulele music and keiki (children) had plenty to keep them occupied, courtesy of craft tents and educators who helped little ones make a lei, stamp their own tapa cloth or make musical instruments.
Traditional drum music could be heard on one of three entertainment stages courtesy of the Cook Island group Polynesian Rhythms, and singer Sienna Souza rocked another stage with Hawaiian/roots reggae fusion tunes. Even more performers, who all volunteered their time to support the Arizona Aloha Festival, entertained audiences throughout the fest.
Two food courts were packed with diners and offered Hawaiian plate lunches, barbecue, Hawaiian shaved ice and other cold treats, unagi dishes and, of course, musubi, also known as spam sushi.
The Kokua Award, given to a member or members of the Arizona Pacific Islander community who epitomizes the spirit of kokua, or “pitching in.” went to Rudy Dolfo, Hawaiian, a musician who has served as a counselor at a residential treatment center for tribal youth on the Gila River Indian Community for more than 20 years as well as running his own cultural entertainment company, Na Leo Productions.
“Rudy came here to help Native American children who were in need of help,” says Herman Lavatai, Samoan, the 2016 Kokua Award recipient. “He’s so aloha, and he shares aloha with all in the community.”
“My uncle said that my music is a gift, and that I should always share it with the community,” said Dolfo. He was honored by his dancers and by a local youth halau, or hula school, Halau Ko'okahi I Ka Hula.
Varen Berryman, the president of the nonprofit organization that organizes the Arizona Aloha Festival, says, “The festival brings all the Polynesian people together to be one.” Berryman, Maori, says that many of the festival’s committee have served over its 23-year history, and Berryman has been on the committee for 21 years.
“A lot of the performers here are our kids, they have grown up here,” Berryman says.
“We don’t have to advertise the festival because it’s all done by word-of-mouth, the ‘coconut wireless.’”