Imagine it’s the middle of the night and you’re jolted awake by the crescendo of a Celine Dion song that is blasting out of loudspeakers affixed to moving cars or bicycles.
For residents of Porirua, New Zealand, the scenario is not hypothetical. About a year ago, people there began gathering for so-called siren battles — a homegrown subculture in which members of Pacific Islander, or Pasifika, communities in New Zealand compete to see who can play music the loudest.
Members of the “siren clubs” who organize the battles have described them as expressions of identity and community. But some residents say the events, which can run into the early morning hours and feature piercing frequencies, should be scaled back because they are far too loud and disruptive.
The mayor and the City Council are under pressure to act; police officers are exploring alternative venues for the contests; and the controversy has caught the international news media’s attention. But there are no quick solutions or compromises in sight.
“At the moment, there’s no answer on how we’ll fix it,” Anita Baker, the mayor of Porirua, said in a telephone interview.
She added that while some organized siren clubs have agreed to stop blasting music by 10 p.m., other “breakaway groups” have not.
“We’re in a catch-22 at the moment, trying to work out who’s responsible — and each person blames the next person,” she added. “But the residents just want an answer, and they want some sleep.”
Multiple efforts to reach siren club organizers were unsuccessful.
The subculture was born about a decade ago in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and is often practiced by young men from the country’s Samoan, Tongan and other communities. During the pandemic, a so-called siren jam by a young South Auckland artist, Jawsh 685, became an international smash hit on TikTok.
In Porirua, siren battles are usually held on Friday and Saturday nights. Sometimes people gather in a train station parking lot near the harbor to blare music from their cars or bicycles. Sometimes they cruise through the city.
Practitioners say part of the pleasure of a siren battle is hand-wiring audio equipment to make the sound as loud and clear as possible, and that the gatherings are a positive social outlet.
“That’s what we do to stay out of trouble,” Soni Taufa, the team leader of a siren club in Auckland called Noizy Boys, told an Auckland radio station last year.
Ms. Baker said siren battles began in Porirua last year and were led by residents cheering on teams in the Rugby League World Cup. She said Celine Dion songs are a particular favorite, apparently because they are so high-pitched. (A publicist for Ms. Dion, a French Canadian vocalist who is best known for singing “My Heart Will Go On” and other ballads, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Siren battles continued in Porirua after the rugby tournament ended in November, and they have prompted complaints ever since. Ms. Baker said that from October 2022 to March 2023, the City Council fielded 106 complaints.
But Ms. Baker said there was nowhere in the city of about 61,000 people where the events could be held in a non-disruptive way. That is partly because Porirua lies north of Wellington, the capital, in a valley where the sound from siren battles carries easily up the hills into residential areas.
The police have also received dozens of reports related to noise control violations — 40 since February, according to data provided by the national police headquarters in Wellington. The police said in an emailed statement that while siren battles are not illegal per se, some can be a public nuisance or a road policing offense.
A representative for the City Council declined to comment, referring a reporter to a statement saying in part that the council “understands and sympathizes with the frustration” caused by the battles, and that it is “doing what it can to address the issue.”
The police said that among other measures, sound testing was being completed at various locations around the city, and that the authorities were working with siren clubs to explore alternative venues for their sonic battles.
Some residents are growing impatient, saying that the battles are keeping young children and seniors up at night — and destroying the quality of life in otherwise peaceful communities. A petition demanding that the City Council and the mayor take action against siren clubs had more than 300 signatures as of Friday evening.
“Many, many people are being held to ransom because of their hobby,” said Gerie Harvey, 75, who now makes a point of wearing earplugs so she can sleep and closes her windows at night. “People are getting really fed up with it.”