Cook Islands: The 33-year airport serenade

Jake Numanga

If you've ever travelled by plane to the Cook Islands, there is a very good chance that you've come across Jake Numanga.

You've probably never heard of him, but "Papa" Jake may have put a smile on your face when you waited to pick up your bags at Rarotonga International Airport, or loitered in its departure lounge.

For 33 years, Jake has serenaded nearly every passenger as they travelled through the halls of the airport. With the exception of the odd holiday, he has not missed a flight and now plays seven days a week for the airport's 100,000 visitors a year.

He must have performed to well over a million people since he first started singing there in 1980.

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Mark Beaumont

Adventurer Mark Beaumont reports on the Queen's Baton Relay: Glasgow 2014 as it makes its way to all 70 nations and territories of the Commonwealth. With regular reports online, on radio and on television, the next documentary is on Saturday, December 21 at 14:30 GMT on BBC News Channel

With his ukulele, Jake stands next to the baggage carousel or the boarding gate and sings traditional Cook Islands songs, American classics like Leaving on a Jet Plane, or whatever else he thinks his captive audience will enjoy.

"Sometimes people come here to get married so they request a song," reflects the 73-year-old.

"One time there was a group of old people from the United States.

"They asked me to sing Rock 'n' Roll, so I did and they danced."

Jake suddenly breaks into song, giving a quick rendition of the Elvis Pressley' hit Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear, before releasing a deep, infectious laugh.

In his younger days, Jake worked as an airport firefighter, performing at hotels during his time off. But an airport director was so impressed by one of his shows that he asked him to play for passengers. He's paid by the Cook Islands tourism authorities and the airport.

Jake Numanga family Jake (centre row third from right) with his family.

"When the plane was landing, I would be on the fire engine. When the plane landed, I would rush back to my station and change my clothes, run up to the arrival area and welcome the people," says Jake.

He now plays for 22 flights a week from Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Los Angeles.

His family doesn't seem to mind his long working hours.

"Most of the time, the flights come in at night, so as children we were in bed," says Kathleen Numanga-Wearing, the fourth of Jake's seven children.

"He is always there for us and does everything for us, even now. He is our superhero.

"His number one role is dad. We don't see him as a celebrity."

Jake (R) pictured with Kahlia (L), his granddaughter Halialani and wife Kate Jake (R) pictured with Kahlia (L), his granddaughter Halialani and wife Kate

His commitment to his job does mean that he has missed the odd family birth, such as his granddaughter Kate's seven years ago.

On the other hand, he has never missed a family graduation. Education is something he believes in passionately.

Earlier this year he travelled to Hawaii to attend the graduation of Kahlia, one of his 20 grandchildren.

As soon as his plane arrived back in the Cook Islands, he rushed off with his ukulele to his usual spot and performed for the other passengers.

This week, Jake welcomed one of the highest-profile flights the Cook Islands will see this year.

Jake Numanga

The Queen's Baton Relay, which is Queen Elizabeth II's message for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year and a symbol of the shared values of the Commonwealth, is currently travelling around the 70 nations and territories that make up the organisation.

The baton landed in the Cook Islands on Friday. One of the songs in his playbook for its arrival was Uke, a composition by his father, Tiakana, to mark the coronation of the Queen.

He will also be at the airport as usual on Sunday to say farewell to the baton.

"It makes me so proud to welcome the people. Last time the baton was here (in 2010) I carried it," Jake says.

"I enjoy singing as it is a talent, given to me by our father in heaven. I have to make use of it.

"As long as I can still sing, I will go to the airport.

"I am not old yet."

Queen's Baton Relay: Glasgow 2014 has regular updates on the BBC News Channel, BBC World News and online.

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