Sunday, January 05, 2014

Antipodean goings-on

I'm still out here in Aotearoa New Zealand, currently back in Golden Bay after almost two weeks of randomly touring around the South Island. I've been a lot more musically active than I usually am back in Canterbury, so there's lots to report.

There's been busking with Alan, playing at the Saturday market in Takaka, playing tunes for the evening crowd at the Zappa-themed Dangerous Kitchen cafe (whose menu features that rarest of culinary items — a vegan pizza), jamming at the Community Gardens one Sunday with violinist Dan, as seen here:

This was for the opening of the new on-site organic Wandering Snail Cafe. Nice vibes, but this was on of those occasions where you're invited along to play music to further someone else's agenda, and they can't even be bothered to acknowledge you're there, let alone make you a cup of tea. Hmmph.

Dan's a multi-instrumentalists who's played in various bands with Alan, and his dad Will was over visiting from Dorset. Within a few minutes of asking where he was from we'd realised that we know all the same people in the Southwest UK folk scene, via the annual barn dances at Cannings Court that I used to help with. Red Dog Green Dog, Dragonsfly, Cliff Stapleton, The Mordekkers, all that lot... He plays (and calls) with a céilidh band, so tried to organise a bit of folkdancing for the Sunday afternoon opening of the this cafe in the Community Gardens which Dan runs. A local box player called Patrick (used to live in West Cork in the early 70s) and Deb (recently rehearsing with Alan's reggae band HalleluJah on keyboards) playing whistle together with me and Dan,managed to cobble together some English and Irish tunes, but the Golden Bay hippie crowd are far too laid back for organised folk dancing, so it didn't really happen despite the best efforts of the caller. But jamming with Dan was a joy — hopefully there'll be a bit more of that before I leave.

Alan and I got asked to come and play at a spa/B&B run by a couple from Antwerp for their pre-Chrismas festivities. That was a bit of a strange engagment, as it just ended up being just them and their friends, getting drunk, with us sitting in a corner of a large deck (inset with unused hot tubs) playing gentle music, then eventually being invited to join them for olives, crackers and powerful Belgian ale. But at least a chance to play music intensively for a couple hours.

Not long after that we ended up walking the Abel Tasman Coast Track, over four days, three nights spent in DOC huts. As with the Heaphy Track, we carried saz and djembe, playing music every evening. The first night it was in the campsite (Anchorage Hut) beside a fire, just us and a few appreciative voices from nearby, the next evening inside the Awaroa Hut while a few feet away a young Israeli hasbarista delivered an alarmingly one-sided political/historical monologue to the Kiwi couple who'd casually asked him about life in Israel (I just decided to keep playing, rather than getting involved). The final night the same couple came over to listen to us playing by the fire in the Whariwharangi Hut campsite and ended up doing some quite well-executed couple dancing (not sure what style) to some of the tunes. Miranda and Mike from near Auckland — nice people. On the way there we stopped briefly near a group of seated young German hippies who'd just arrived at another of the huts, one with a guitar who was curious about my saz, so we had a pleasant enough little jam. That didn't get recorded, but the stuff in the second hut did, so I might get around to editing and uploading some of that soon.

Summer solstice felt rather strange (Christmas music in the shops, and having just had a summer solstice half a year ago). Alan and I spent the evening before playing music beside a small fire at his place, then headed down to the beach at Rangihaeata to see the sunrise (not quite over the sea, but close). Later that day I headed over to Motueka to meet up with Helen and then go with her to see the source of the Riwaka River, a beautiful place and sacred Maori site. That evening I got to see her band Tom's Field (named after the campsite near the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers, I learned, somewhere I've camped) playing in a large Mongolian yurt in the front garden of the Free House pub, an old converted chapel in Nelson.

They're basically a folkie covers band, but a very good one, with an excellent choice of material. Simon (from the north of England) plays guitar and sings, his partner Denise (from South Wales) sings and plays djembe, Irish Sean plays mandolin, banjo and sings, Helen plays whistles, bhodran and sings, and Tamsin (local, young mother of four, from a deeply religious background, I was surprised to learn) played top-notch violin throughout, singing on one song. The lack of bass and drums works really well for them, locating them somewhere in between an old-time American string band and an Irish pub session outfit. It was like genuine folk music, in that the songs were from various times and places, but were very much "of the people": Dylan, The Band, The Waterboys, Steve Earle, Old Crow, plus Irish trad tunes (and a Russian one I learned off Helen years ago), a wild version of a song about Jesse James I remember my sister and I learning off a little girl from Brooklyn on a Polish transatlantic cargo ship in '79 (a nice moment).

Although the lively Irish stuff and Americana got people up stomping in the end, it was the songs Helen sang which were the most arresting, in fact for a couple of them the chattering sit-down audience completely shut up throughout, so spellbinding is her voice. It has an authority that's connected to something very old, I feel when I hear it. Alan's made the comparison with Sinéad O'Connor and I agree (and both Helen and Sinéad draw deep from the reggae/Rasta tradion). Sandy Denny had it, which is partly why she inspires such depths of devotion. Helen sang a Robbie Burns poem put to music (as arranged by Dick Gaughan) which I thought was magnificent, also Tuxedomoon's "In A Manner of Speaking" (as done by Nouvelle Vague) and Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black". Towards the end of the the third set they played a couple of her originals too.

The overall vibe reminded me of my friends Sloppy Joe playing out at the ballroom in Iola, Wisconsin — nicely loose, chatting with the audience, massive repertoire, songs from here, there and everywhere. Sloppy Joe with Irish tunes instead of bluegrass ones. There was a very punk "Christmas quiz" (Helen flinging handfuls of cheap chocolates in the general directions of answers being shouted out by the audience to inane questions), they encored with "Mama Don't Allow" (with a postmodern "Mama don't allow no silence round here" verse), and quote of the evening was Sean while tuning up (in melifluous Irish accent): "Mandolin is Italian for 'out of tune'."

So this ended up being a great Winter/Summer solstice for me, even including an unexpected rediscovery of Dylan Thomas's "Prologue" (woah...) and flicking through the most outrageous little book of optical illusions from the Free House bookshelf, as well as crepuscular rays fanning upward above the yurt at sunset.

The next day I set off on a random adventure around the South Island, which first took me down to the West Coast. I quite randomly got invited to play at an unexpectedly large and mainstream bar in Hokitika (Stumpers) after Danny the bar manager was intrigued by the strange-shaped instrument I was carrying (coming out of a petrol station shop, post-peanuts-purchase). I played saz tunes to the good people of Hokitika through a cheap microphone gaffer taped to the corner of a pool table, left them largely mystified I think, although one character came over to ask if I knew any George Harrison, presumably thinking I was playing a sitar (so I played "It's All Too Much", but I don't think he knew it). Christmas was spent at a damp campsite south of there, with unexpected company. Alan and Emily's friend Guinevere and her three teenage kids (all of whom I've met in the last few weeks) had decided to head somewhere remote for Christmas and had, entirely unplanned, ended up at the same obscure and almost deserted campsite I had. So we had a driftwood fire, I was able to have tea (wasn't carrying the means to make my own), played some saz, had some cosmic conversation...

Heading down to Okarito (where author Keri Hulme supposedly lives, and based her problematic novel The Bone People), I passed through Ross, was struck by the site of what looked a bit like a ramshackle inside-out museum (a little house on the corner of the main road, with all sorts of old stuff crudely attached to the outside), with the owner — a typical West Coaster, quite possibly descended from one of the goldrush prospectors — leaning out of the window watching the cars go by and blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival's Greatest Hits out at the world. I had to wait a while for a lift a short distance down the road, so got a nice soundtrack to my wait. "Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again..." quite possibly could have been written about a place like Ross.

At the free DOC campsite (thanks DOC!) beside Gillespies Beach I had a brief jam with an Australian guitarist called Moss, travelling around in a van surfing and playing very free spacey blues guitar. So free, in fact, that I couldn't really find a way into it, but it was worth a try, and gratifying to meet someone called "Moss". Stuck in a tent on the shoreline at Jackson Bay the next evening, literally thousands of sandflies just on the other side of the netting in my borrowed tent, I realised this tent was just big enough to sit up in and comfortably play saz. So I did. Björn and Isa, the kind German couple camped nearby, were very happy with this, applauding politely after each piece and thanking me profusely in the morning. So that was an odd little unintended gig-of-sorts.

I somehow managed to get to the remote village of Ettrick with almost no effort, so (guessing I'd probably never be there again) dropped in to see my old friend Pernilla (Swedish, but used to live in West Cork) and her family who settled there a couple of years ago. Her husband Andrew described the prime busking spot in Dunedin to me (a covered pedestrian walkway between two busy shopping streets), so when I got to the city I knew where to go. The nearby quirky retro cafe Modaks Expresso had a very enticing "MF Doom Chocolate Brownie" behind their glass counter, but it wasn't quite vegan, so I had to abstain. I played a couple of hours of saz in the busking spot, not for money, just a chance to watch people go by and chat to the occasional curious musician who wanted to know about the instrument or what I was playing on it.

Despite inevitably entertaining faint background daydreams of the possibility, no former members of The Chlls, et al. showed up. But at one point, I looked up to see a very smiley Japanese woman filming me, and as she walked towards me and panned around with the camera I noticed she was singing along (I was playing a tune of mine, the uncharacteristically major-key "Honey Wood"). We swapped email addresses (I assumed she was a tourist, but she's an artist/musician who lives there, and she assumed I was a Dunedin resident) and so I managed to get a copy of the video:

I was hoping to track down Tahu, who came along on the 2006 Treewalk, and who at that time worked at the Marine Studies Centre and aquarium near Dunedin. Last I'd heard, she was still in the city and active in the music scene, so attempting to meet local musicians via busking seemed a good plan. But I also had a good look at the various gig posters plastered around the place. Lots of indie-looking stuff, some punkier. The poster for Tiny Pieces of Eight stood out, the kind of poster that would make me go along to a gig. Clearly a lot going on, but it was all weeks earlier. This was a Monday, and the day before New Years Eve, so I was unable to find anything to check out, but was happy to see a poster for the official Dunedin NYE celebrations in the city centre's Octagon listing "Tahu & the Tahakes" as one of three bands playing, so I was then sure I'd get a chance to see her the next day.

During a second busking stint on the 31st I got given a free cinema voucher that expired that day, so ended up going along to watch the second film in The Hobbit trilogy (it was the 2-D version, and I hadn't seen the first one). I found it quite ridiculous, but enjoyable as a sort of tripped-out extension of my explorations of New Zealand and its amazing diversity of landscapes — superimposed with elves, dwarves, hobbits, and crazy CGI edifices. Once the film was over I headed across to the Octagon and walked straight up to Tahu behind the stage. As it happens, Motoko, the Japanese artist, is her friend, and had sent her the above video, so she already knew I was around! And she looked even further out than anything in Middle-earth, having seriously dressed up for the occasion.

Her band are named after an almost extinct species of bird which she works with, and she looked like some kind of exotic bird from another realm. They band are a seven-piece, playing funky upbeat soul-gospel type stuff with streaks of country-blues-rock. Apart from "CC Rider" all the songs were original, almost all Tahu's I think. Good energy, and a few oddball extroverts got things started on the 'dancefloor', so a good few of us ended up down there by the end of their set. They were followed by a couple of rockin' populist covers bands (did I really hear "Highway to Hell"? what kind of message is that for New Year's Eve?!), but Tahu and I and her friends had convened some distance away to decide what next, so I was only marginally aware of what was coming from the stage.

We ended up on a beach down at St. Clair's, in the sea, trousers rolled up but still getting soaked, blessing the Pacific Ocean with various beverages and generally talking nonsense while someone above repeatedly triggered the official "Shark Warning Bell" I'd noticed on the way down there. Most of the crew were Irish, plus a couple of Kiwis, which made for a great occasion. I recall talking intensely with a botanist called Colleen about moss and turloughs! We ended up back at one of their houses, shared by a few surfers, sharing whisky and organic cherries and listening to some wonderful Hugh Mundell and Augustus Pablo (thanks Carl!).

* * *

While on the subject of Dunedin, I have to include this, my first (indirect) contact with the place in the mid-80s. Sounds better than expected almost thirty years on.

Check this if you want more of that lovely Chills sound...


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