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Interview: John Psathas / CubaSonic - CubaDupa 2021

Interview: John Psathas / CubaSonic - CubaDupa 2021

Chris Cudby / Tuesday 23rd March, 2021 10:38AM

Pōneke annual tradition CubaDupa returns this weekend with an absolutely jam-packed and family friendly programme of free musical events, cultural activities and tasty food to tuck into on Saturday and Sunday. There's tonnes of options for music lovers — including performances by Troy Kingi, Hans Pucket (with full horn section), JessB, an all female fronted lineup on the ​Garage Project Wild Workshop Stage ​programmed by ​Gussie Larkin​ of ​Mermaidens, the debut of the the Ngā Toi o Te Aro stage showcasing Māori artists, te reo and tikanga Māori in Te Aro Park, stages presented by Valhalla and Eyegum, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. We recommend you scope out the full schedule over on the CubaDupa site to help plan out your weekend.

In many ways summing up the impressively huge scale of CubaDupa 2021 will be the CubaSonic "ten minute mass musical interruption", spearheaded by John Psathas and happening twice — from 5:00pm on Saturday and 2:30pm on Sunday. A mammoth project in its own right, CubaSonic features over "300 musicians lining the street, twelve conductors above the crowd, [and] a custom-made overhead sound system," including a locally made device named the Chime Red, utilising a Tesla Coil to bring together music and lightning (scroll downwards for a video). Now calling Waitārere his home, we recently caught up with the internationally celebrated, award-winning Greek New Zealand composer who generously provided insights into what onlookers can look forward to when CubaSonic literally takes over Cuba Street this week...

Saturday 27th March and Sunday 28th March 2021 - Cuba Street Precinct, Wellington (free)
20 stages and creative zones featuring 470 performances and 20 parades with over 1700 artists from all over Aotearoa

Head along to for the full programme and schedule

CubaSonic - Cuba Street, Wellington (free)
Saturday 27th March, 5:00pm to 5:10pm Sunday 28th March, 2:30pm to 2:40pm

More info HERE

Chris Cudby: Hi John, can you please describe what will be taking place for the CubaSonic mass music sonic interruption?

John Psathas: Well I don’t want to give too much away, but…

I love CubaDupa. It’s a kaleidoscopic maze of sensory overload. What I love most about it is the palpable sense of Wellington’s vibrancy. That energy is always there, peripherally, but it only fully emerges at key moments (festivals, protests, graduation, etc). CubaDupa is one of Wellington’s primary lightning rods, generating and releasing a massive, positive energy charge into the city every year. One of my late-March rituals of recent years was descending through Brooklyn Park to the top of Cuba Street and being immersed in this spiralling-under-control carnival. My preferred approach is to have no idea what’s happening, or when, and roam the site all day and night, just letting it happen to me. But roaming the site, I realised the experience was a strongly localised one. “I’m here at….top of Cuba….Swan Lane Carpark….Leeds Street”, always aware that the tiny spot I was occupying was part of a much larger festival footprint.

So I had a grand idea. What was missing was a way of somehow experiencing, all at once, a much greater part of the overall CubaDupa site. What would it be like to be at the corner of Cuba and Abel Smith streets and be part of a dynamic, synchronized, experience that allows me to feel and hear what’s happening near the buckets in Cuba Mall? Or in the carpark by Floridita’s? Music could achieve that. We’d only need hundreds of musicians, a massive sound system spread across multiple city blocks, and be able to overcome a sequence of challenges we couldn’t yet imagine. That’s what a grand idea is; a form of crazy.

CubaSonic sounds like an absolutely vast undertaking. How long has this event been in the works for? What kind of logistics are involved in co-ordinating such a large scale, public event? Are you working with a technical team to make it happen?

Originally scheduled for 2019, CubaSonic was pulled as the entire CubaDupa Festival had to go indoors at the last minute. This was due to the terrorist threat-level escalation following the Christchurch Mosque shootings. We rescheduled for March 2020 but this time the entire Festival was postponed as the pandemic took hold. There are a few fingers crossed in 2021, I can tell you.

There’s a wonderful technical team, headed by Chris Winter, in control of the sound, and there’s the entire team at CubaDupa managing the actual performances.

Logistically there are two main undertakings; the first is coordinating the hundreds of live musicians, and the second is setting up and running the massive sound system spanning most of Cuba Street. Sound is very dynamic in CubaSonic; there’s incredible sound design by the brilliantly talented Nick Veale, racing through the sound system and, at the same time, and in sync, sound moves physically through the multitude of live performers. It’s pretty awesome.


Why did you choose to 'go big' with CubaSonic? Have you created works on such a scale previously?

I have created and collaborated on quite a few large-scale works. The Athens Olympics were the biggest in scale, but No Man’s Land came pretty close, with 150 musicians from 25 countries. I also have Voices at the End coming up at the Auckland Arts Festival [this took place last weekend]. This is for 6 grand pianos woven into a massive cinematic soundtrack; we’re installing an immense surround-sound system lining the inside of the Auckland Town Hall.

CubaSonic started off as a terrific thought experiment. But why do it? What’s the actual payoff? Well, thousands of people getting a much larger sense of the CubaDupa site together is actually a way of getting a stronger sense of ourselves—together, in this place at this time. It’s the massed ‘us’ in real time, aware of the ‘all of us’ lining those streets, spread out over three iconic blocks of this fantastic city. The payoff is connection, and a momentary antidote to division and isolation.

Festivals offer unique opportunities for such ambitious ideas. Outdoor festivals even more so. At their best they give us experiences we never forget, experiences that exceed our expectations both in the witnessing of art and in the moments of massed connection that sneak up and take us by surprise. CubaDupa is an incredible canvas to create with. CubaSonic 2021, in the heart of Cuba Street, will be vast, epic, and monumental.

There'll also be a Chime Red lightning / music device involved — what role does that locally invented instrument play in Cubasonic?

This is a Tesla Coil that can be played like a musical instrument. Amazingly, I was able to go and play the Tesla part live (from a keyboard), and we recorded it to be fired around the sound-system during the performances.

CubaSonic sounds significant in the context of Aotearoa being one of the only places on the planet right now where large scale music events can take place, due to Covid-19. Are there any specific issues you're addressing with the work, and / or any specific inspirations for CubaSonic?

You will have seen the international media’s acknowledgement of the recent Six60 performances. It seems there’s a strong global awareness right now of NZ’s ability to publicly gather for large-scale music and sporting events. It’s hard to find the right words to express just how lucky we are. I’d like to think this boosts our feeling of celebration and our cherishing of these events.

CubaSonic is described as a "ten minute mass musical interruption" — what is it interrupting? Why is CubaSonic happening twice?

What’s it interrupting? Come and see ;o)

As for why it’s happening twice, we wanted to make sure as many people as possible could have the experience. But here’s the thing; the nature of the CubaSonic experience means that if you stand in one spot for the first performance (say outside Duck Island Ice Cream), you’ll have a completely different experience if you’re outside Fidel’s for the second performance. This is what I love most about the project, everybody will have a vastly different experience of it depending on where they are at the time.

Jack Hooker and yourself spearheaded last year's It's Already Tomorrow collection, which featured Aotearoa artists (including Purple Pilgrims, Arjuna Oakes and Grayson Gilmour) creating works in collaboration with overseas artists. What sparked that project?

Covid specifically. That project was triggered by Jack and I talking about what we could do to help musicians keep creative momentum and collaborative energy alive during lockdown. It was really starting to take its toll on a lot of people we knew (which makes it really depressing to think now of what our musician friends in many other countries are going through, after a full year of off-and-on lockdown). I would love to do more projects like that. It’s incredibly rewarding bringing people together for such positive collaborations.

What other projects do you have in the works currently? How's life in Waitārere?

Waitārere is awesome. I’ve attached a couple of photos. I left teaching over two years ago and have spent about 80% of my time since then in Waitārere composing. A great deal of that time I was completely alone, immersed in creative work for weeks and months at a time. It’s something I wish on all creatives; a really incredible journey of artistic growth. I’ve been very lucky with work; I have years of commissions ahead and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches on a commission from Koln, Germany, for 4 percussion soloists, symphony orchestra, pre-recorded soundtrack and live electronics. Nearly all of my projects are overseas and the great thing is that I’m engaged entirely with optimists; people and organisations that believe we will get through what’s going on right now, and music will re-emerge, worldwide, stronger than ever.


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Cubadupa 2021
Sat 27th Mar 12:00pm
Cuba Street, Wellington