WellingtonMarch 26, 2024

CubaDupa review: A glimpse at the future of Wellington


The CupaDupa street festival is a vision of Wellington we can all get behind, writes Preyanka Gothanayagi.

CubaDupa began at midday Saturday, with a mihi whakatau at Ngā Toi O Te Aro Stage. It wasn’t a standout crowd – those would appear as the day went on – but it was a veritable who’s who of the lefty political scene (I was hoping to meet Chris Bishop’s dogs, but alas).

Like a journalistic meet cute, the first person I bumped into upon arrival was Mayor Tory Whanau. She was “absolutely fizzing,” she told me, because “CubaDupa really shows exactly what the future of the Wellington CBD should be.” 


“When we think about the Golden Mile project, we’ve got outdoor acts, outdoor dining, we’ve got these beautiful lights, flowers all over the place – that should be a permanent fixture. We could have this every weekend.”

This idea soon turned into a bit of a theme. Wellington Central MP Tamatha Paul highlighted the “potential of the city, when we prioritise people over cars.” Green Party co-leader Chlöe Swarbrick told me she was straight-up jealous of what we have in Wellington. “I want this for Tāmaki Makaurau,” she said. 

Just like that, the festival for me suddenly became less about “Finding My Wild” (this year’s theme), and more about the future of our city. Maybe it’s the circles I run in, but three different people messaged me to say how nice it was not being run over by traffic. I found myself dawdling on the roads, taking up space, and enjoying the ebb and flow of the crowd as we wandered collectively through the self-proclaimed “most creative and diverse free arts festival in Aotearoa”. 


If you’ve never been to CubaDupa, take all stories you hear with a grain of salt; there’s no one defining CubaDupa experience. There’s so much to see and do that how you engage with it is completely up to you. Eight main stages, 42 separate areas, nine different parades, countless food trucks, and the regular Cuba Street venues spilling out their doors. It’s a lot. Everything competes for your attention. The entire precinct becomes a playground, and all that’s familiar is made new. Pushing this metaphor beyond its limits, someone even removed all the water from the iconic bucket fountain, and hung random bunches of fruit all over it instead. 

I spent my weekend literally running from section to section, from one soundscape to the next, trying to soak it all in and eat all the dim sum I could lay my hands on. There was almost too much of something for everyone. A Pasifika choir singing pitch-perfect Disney? Absolutely! Three different batucada and samba groups? Vibrant! A very British man who climbs into a giant balloon, removes most of his clothes, and climbs out again? Why not! Well, I could think of a few reasons why not for that last one, but who am I to be the arbitrator of art?

There were acts spanning the suspenseful to the surreal, the peaceful to the profound. A Korean street artist climbed a ladder mounted on a steel hemisphere, which carried him in a graceful arc high above our heads. “Are we going to watch a man die today?” a woman behind me whispered, while my friends debated the meaning of balance. In the Hannah’s Laneway courtyard, a small French woman accidentally escaped the bounds of gravity while a bass clarinet droned atmospherically in the background. Two owls pushed a pram containing a globe down Cuba Mall (I didn’t get that metaphor).

In Jack Hackett’s Irish Pub, we listened to a Carnatic/jazz fusion band. Even the owner seemed surprised about it. “This isn’t something we’ve ever had here before, but there you are,” he said, just before the band, Idhayam, blew our collective minds.

At Te Aro Eats, where community food groups offered kai for koha, we made our own smoothies by pedalling a bike hooked up to a blender. A girl behind us in a black corset and lace skirts wanted to have a go, but couldn’t because she was “slaying too hard”. We caught local Bollywood legends Shivam Dance Academy breaking out bhangra in a car park, before getting distracted by a parade of nude models wearing nothing but body paint. Next thing you know, I’m pulling my friend out of the way before she gets trampled by a small man riding a giant chicken. It went on like this for almost 18 hours straight.

But what stood out above all the chaos was the implicit invitation of the festival, to simply just be. Stand out from the crowd, or lose yourself in it. Stick to what you know, or seek out the unfamiliar. Break down barriers, be bold; it’s the Wellington way. Like the elderly couple, dressed in bright pink, dancing to an eight-year-old DJ mixing DnB on Lower Cuba (cue the Fred Again memes on Vic Deals). Or the toddlers, teens, and adults who danced together, united, to the Footloose soundtrack. Or the many people who set foot in Valhalla for the very first time.

CubaDupa is a product and an extension of Pōneke. You can’t have a festival like this without the city that gives it life. It’s a distillation of a lot of what makes Wellington Wellington; intensely local, yet still surprisingly international, welcoming, kind, generous. Maybe I didn’t quite find my wild, but I found something better: some new favourite local artists (shoutout MOHI), and a vision for the future I can get behind.

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