Exactly seven years after my last visit, I find myself back in Aotearoa (better known as "New Zealand"). I've been promising Alan for years that I'd come and visit again when I finished the trilogy of books, which I did in July, so here I am. And now I have a godson here, Alan and Emily's little James, a very sweet and good-natured godson, growing up surrounded by love in most beautiful surroundings (they're near Takaka in Golden Bay, a short walk from several beautiful beaches, tree-covered mountains in the other direction).
The flight over was a long one (I left on a Monday and got here on a Wednesday), but not too stressful. Qantas vegan food is slighly better than I expected, and the music selection on their entertainment system pretty extensive. I made a big playlist of Neil Young, Creedence, Miles, Coltrane, etc. and got into playing against the built-in Go programme which I was happy to discover (they have a lot of Far Eastern customers, I suppose). I also ended up re-acquainting myself with the quirky Russian-American singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, her 2009 album Far sounding particularly engaging to me thousands of metres up. Here's an example:
Her songs were rattling around in my head when I crossed over to the South Island on the Wellington-Picton ferry the next day, so it seemed appropriate that the name of the ferry (which previously operated between Marseille and Corsica) was the Santa Regina.
Before leaving Wellington I got a couple of glimpses into its music scene. Having dumped my stuff at a cheap hostel I looked online for anything on in town that night. There were two, both on Cuba Street. Down at the Bootleg Bar I checked out DJ Chaoslab playing an interesting and varied set as part of a new weekly night called "Bass Addicts Anonymous". I ended up in conversation with a friend of his, the two of us trying to work out what genres we were listening to with our limited knowledge of the current future bass scene(s) (neither of us is yet sure that we know what "trap" sounds like). His friend was a financial programmer who'd just returned home from a decade on Wall Street, so we talked about exotic financial instruments and the metaphysical side of coding, to a sonic backdrop of abstract blurps, booms and wobbles.
The next DJ wasn't really to my liking so I headed up the street to the Mighty Mighty to check out The Flying Sorcerers (great name!). They turned out to be pretty close to what I imagined - a slightly ropey but ultimately likeable garage-y psych-pop band. An enthusiastic female rhythm section backed a couple of blokes trading lead and rhythm guitar and both singing a succession of two-minute songs about jealousy, beer and what-have-you. One of the guitarist-singers looked just like John Fogarty in the 60's, complete with the bowl haircut. The audience was tiny (it's a weekly free gig, Wednesdays are obviously quiet on Cuba Street), but the band was energetic. The songs were just different enough to keep me interested, although I did doze off on the very comfortable sofa I'd stretched out on (and was told off by the heavily tatooed proprietess for doing so!), my body having just been displaced eleven timezones. (HOW many time zones?)
I was in Takaka the next day after an early morning quayside walk, a ferry, a coach, a bus, and a friendly lift up the "hill", as they call it here (it's a mountain where I'm from). Dinner was shared with Alan's family + suprise guest Pernilla (a Swedish friend who once lived in SW Ireland and went out with our old friend Toby from Wiggle), just off to walk the Heaphy Track, which Alan and I will be walking in a week or so.
The day after that, we were playing for a few residents of the Abbeyfield residential home for the elderly in Takaka, Alan singing and playing some songs from Flanders, France and Ireland, "Let It Be" and a couple of his own songs, with my saz accompaniment, plus getting me to play a couple of saz tunes backed by his small djembe. I was pretty jetlagged, but some of it is quite nice to listen back to, Alan's sense of rhythm seems to bring out the best in my playing.
The next day it was Takaka's weekly market, which has a small PA set up for legitimised busking (three one-hour slots). Alan played djembe with Ollie from local acoustic reggae band Root System (bandmate Dan showed up towards the end to play some violin). Then Mudwood showed up and played. It took me a while to recognised Joe, half of this duo, who I last saw in Ireland over ten years ago — he and his partner Amira (who sings and plays udu) have adopted an endearing "raggedy wood elf" kind of look, playing gentle folkie music rather than the high-energy African-inspired stuff he was playing back then. Alan had booked himself a solo slot, thinking I'd bring my saz along. I'd walked in, still jetlagged, and not quite grasping the details, sazless. So I ended up accompanying with some minimal djembe.
Later that day we were out at a tiny community hall in the middle of nowhere, the sun setting behind a mountain, a covered outdoor stage, the remains of a feast, multiple oildrum brazier, girls running around with fairy wings dispensing glittery dust... This was Diamond Steve's 51st birthday party, a Londoner with a love of punk, ska and rocksteady, getting people together and putting on his favourite local bands.
The Totara Collective play jammed-out psychedelia with a punky edge, in the Inner City Unit vein, bordering on spacerock (not so many swirly noises, but good use of violin, trombone and sax from multi-instrumentalist Dan). Alan played a bit of percussion with them and then took the mic for their one dub-flavoured piece. Butterface followed, a heavy rock band with a lively frontman who spent over an hour sacrificing the well-being of his vocal chords at the altar of rock'n'roll. There were a few lapses into melodic power-rock that weren't to my liking, but when they stuck to neanderthal boogie-blues rock they sounded just fine. "This song is about human consciousness and it's relationship to material manifestation" — a shame I couldn't follow the lyrics! Similarly with their song about a Nephilim... Oh well.
Steve had asked Alan (a.k.a. DJ Galanjah in these parts) to put together an hour-long set, including a few requests, to end the amplified part of the evening (there being a midnight curfew). Rather than turn up with a load of discs and needing decks, I ended up helping him piece it together as a single mix on my laptop, crossfading and normalising everything in advance, so he just had to chat on the mic and get into it up on stage ("Train to Skaville", "Monkey Man", "Funky Kingston", "Shantytown 007", "Ba Ba Boom" the original "Rudy, A Message To You", all that good stuff, starting with Burning Spear's "Happy Day").
Once the PA was switched off, some acoustic music kicked off indoors: Ollie from Root System and a guitarist friend, with some percussion. We listened for a while, and then joined in, my saz just about audible, projecting from a corner. This went along nicely for a couple of songs, and then an enthusiastic Canadian took over with a bellowed Nova Scotian sailors' song followed by a highly dramatic interpretation of that Leonard Cohen song on the guitar he'd not thought to tune to the rest of us. But he'd been earlier crowned King of the Green (after capturing someone running around the site at top speed dressed as a stag and ripping away his velcro'd-on heart, and then married to the "maiden" who'd just won an "inner beauty contest" in a Pythonesque fertility ritual), and it was late, so fair enough.
And now I sit here composing this at the Community Gardens building in Takaka while Root System rehearse (Ollie on guitar and vocals, Linda on backing vocals and shakers, Taki from Totara Collective on bass, Dan also from TC on violin, sax and trombone, Alan on djembe). Very similar in sound and feel to Avalon Roots from Glastonbury.