As Eurovision mania hits again in a flash of pyrotechnics, dramatic key changes and bedazzled costumes, Australia’s entry by Kate Miller-Heidke, marks the fifth year of Australia’s antipodean inclusion in the competition. Eurovision has a history of challenging the traditionally ascribed continental geo-cultural boundaries that the ‘euro’ infers – from Morocco’s 1980 appearance with Bitaqat Hub, the first Arabic song, to the 2019 competition currently underway in Israel. Despite themselves having a history of crossing physical and cultural boundaries, many Islanders are unaware of the two times the Pacific was featured in the competition.
Jean Gabilou’s 1981 entry to Eurovision, a whimsical song in French of an old man singing in the future from a distant planet, placed third in the competition. Born and raised in Tahiti, his selection to represent France was the first time a singer from a French overseas territory represented the country at Eurovision – coming also at a time of shifting politics in French Polynesia, with the development of increasing autonomy, and controversial nuclear testing in the Tuamotu.
Gabilou’s musical repertoire lives on well before and beyond his singular performance at the competition. Debuting as a singer in the 1960’s, he performed at a number of bars, and hotels, going on to forge a career of over half a century, bringing Tahitian melodic presences to a global audience. His earliest recording success was with Petite île sacrée released in 1968, which sold over 54,000 copies. Following Eurovision, Gabilou toured the Pacific region performing across Australia, Japan and New Zealand. Following a brief loss of his voice in 1995, he returned to singing, producing a number of collaborative albums. His classic 2001 song Fakateretere was an instant success and is considered a Pacific wide classic.
Monaco’s electic selection in 2006, la Coco-dance by French singer Séverine Ferrer marked the only occasion in which reo māꞌohi, sung in the chorus, was used in the competition. Written by J. Woodfeel and Iren Bo, the lyrics of La Coco-dance, sung primarily in French, are an invitation and instruction to dance, before descending into a chorus of interspersed reo māꞌohi indicating the tāmūrē (dance), is a ‘coco-dance’.
While neither of Monegasque or Tahitian ancestry, Séverine Ferrer’s choice of song drew on her time as a youth on La Réunion, a French overseas collectivity in the Indian Ocean – a link tenuous enough to be criticised by some. The song had a strongly sexually suggestive undertones. Ferrer, wearing a tight multi-coloured dress, is joined onstage by five dancers wearing grass skirts attempting to perform a hybridised tāmūrē-esque dance, against an aural backdrop of male back-up dancers in harem pants shouting ‘ra tohara ori i te’ (join us in our dance). The song is choreographed by French Bruno Vandelli, and does feature Tahitian professional dancer Vanessa Roche. The performance probably induced cringes for those familiar with Pacific dance forms, so it was probably for the best that the song failed to make it past the semi finals, and was Monaco’s last participation in Eurovision to date.
The footprint of Francophone singers in the competition marks both the historical and continued reality of France’s global presence in the Indo-Pacific. Both songs reveal, though cultural appropriation and settler notions of belonging, a reflection of France’s hegemonic colonial presence in French Polynesia – ironically covering an area larger than Western Europe itself (local airline Air Tahiti boasts servicing ‘a network as wide as Europe’).
While Eurovision has managed to feature Tahitians twice over the years, there is still hope for more Pacific singers in the future. With the announcement of an upcoming Eurovision Asia Song Contest to be held on the Gold Coast in Australia, we may see the likes of New Zealand and Vanuatu singing alongside competitors from the United Arab Emirates and China. And as one Eurovision Asia blogger highlighted, this competition might even include French Polynesia competing as a separate competitor, beyond the shadows of France.
Mitiana Arbon is a doctoral candidate in Pacific Studies at the Australian National University and an editor of The New Outrigger.