The CubaDupa festival inhabits the Cuba Street precinct (Photo: Ollie Crawford).

The festival that embraces the spirit of Cuba Street

CubaDupa festival hosts nearly 200 artists across two days in the heart of Wellington to mark the end of summer. 

Trip glitch, Indian jazz fusion, 80s glam, alt dream-pop, contemporary jazz Afrofuturism, German electronic jazz, postpunk dream pop, and psychedelic kraut space rock. These are just a few of the nearly 100 different genres of performance on the official list for CubaDupa festival. It’s an international tribute to the diversity and creativity of Wellington’s most famous street, which the festival takes over for two days on 30 and 31 March.

The festival is an intricately curated two days of chaos that unfolds on the street. In 2016, the festival created a horn war, a good-natured brass-off, when 76 trombonists – half from classical schooling, the other half jazz trained –marched down Cuba St, one group from each end, to challenge each other in the “Battle of the Bones”. When they met in the middle they jammed together on a piece of music composed especially for the festival. The next year was the “Battle of the Saxes”. This year’s fanfare “Blow Your Own Horn” will see a giant group of trumpeters perform a bespoke piece by legendary Wellington trumpeter Mike Taylor.

Cuba Street is a microcosm of the capital’s vibe, and the festival is an amplifier of the street’s culture. For Saturday and Sunday, the festival occupies the entire length of Cuba Street and the surrounding precinct, with performances across seven stages. There’ll be roaming parades, dance workshops, a food festival, and interactive audience experiences. It’s inspired by and a tribute to Cuba Street.

“We invented CubaDupa for the place that it has in the city. It has grown out of Cuba Street and the creativity that has been there for a long time and continues to be there. That individuality and the variety that embodies Cuba St,” said Drew James, the festival’s artistic director.

“It couldn’t be anywhere other than Cuba Street.”

(Photo: Ollie Crawford)

The CubaDupa festival programme is so vast and broad, there are nearly 200 artists and 300 performances. It’s full of food and theatre, not just music. Six new projects have been commissioned especially for the festival. It’s free and family friendly.

Scheduling that amount of activity is an intricate art.

“Everything is timed to within a five-minute bracket, so there are no clashes. And If bands do clash it’s because we’ve done it on purpose and we want them to interact with each other,” said Gerry Paul, the festival’s music producer.

This year New Orleans brass marching band, Cha Wa, with it’s Native American Mardi Gras outfits, has a 10-minute schedule overlap with Australian 10-piece Hot Potato Band. It’s a chance to see their energies combined, and create a special organic collaboration that belongs to the festival.

The festival celebrates this idea of mass music across its programme. During the Hoot! performance on Sunday, the festival turns off its sound systems and more than a dozen bands from New Zealand and around the world gather to jam on the street. For 45 minutes they parade and perform around the precinct – part collaboration, part musical one-upmanship – in a crescendo of chaos. Last years festival saw more than 200 musicians playing together.

New Orlean’s Cha Wa and Australia’s Hot Potato Band (Photo: supplied)

CubaDupa’s format is designed to trick the audience into engaging with as much of the festival as possible, moving them around the site and getting them to bump into something unexpected. Paul wants you to stumble across opera down a side street, or see a dancer in a wheelchair doing a contemporary street performance as you make your way to the next stage. He wants people to engage with the entire Cuba Street precinct.

“I often get asked why the festival doesn’t do genre stages. Because it would get the same people at the same stages. We want people moving through the site. The flow is crucial. Coming up with the schedule and making sure it’s balanced and interweaved is challenging but enjoyable,” said Paul.

The programming and schedule are also designed to put the audience into an interactive environment. They are considered as much a part of the festival as the artists themselves. The audience is encouraged to dress up for the festival. There’s mask making courses, Irish Ceilidh and swing dance workshops, and even a mass-participation interactive exploratory spy game. Sign up to ‘This Text Will Self Destruct’, and throughout the festival, you’ll be sent instructions to complete a secret mission that will give you access “to a secret world amongst the mayhem.”

“We think the line between the audience and performers is blurred and the audience often becomes a part of the performance,” said James.  

CubaDupa features a diversity of acts (Photo: Ollie Crawford)

When CubaDupa started five years ago, it hoped to fill the gap left by the cancellation of the Cuba Street Carnival in 2010. They wanted to bring a festival back to the street, an event to celebrate the place Cuba Street has in Wellington and what it represents to the city. And it’s about celebrating the community that makes Cuba Street what it is. Presented by boutique supermarket Moore Wilsons, the street food festival with 112 different vendors is an attraction in its own right.

“From the very beginning, we have worked with the community of Cuba Street including hospitality and retailers. We don’t bring in any outside stores. All the restaurants and cafes down Cuba St bring their food out on to the street,” said James.

“From the very beginning, we were really clear that we wanted to build this festival for the community. We encourage everyone to participate,” said James.  

During their research of street festivals in Europe, the festival’s team found there was always something of the place that was inherently at the heart of the festival. The audiences were invited to explore the space and the people that live, work and play in that environment. CubaDupa is a celebration of Cuba Street’s special place at the centre of the city’s culture.

“Wellington is a special place and Cuba St is the heart of its creative spirit. We are trying to create something that is quite different from anywhere else. And there isn’t anywhere quite like Cuba St.”

The author is travelling to CubaDupa festival thanks to Air New Zealand’s Grabaseat. Air New Zealand flys regularly to Wellington from around the country. Get your flights to CubaDupa ASAP and join in a weekend of free entertainment.


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