Saturday, January 18, 2014

Kaikoura Summersounds 2014

Kaikoura, South Island, Aotearoa New Zealand
11—12 January 2014

This was called the Kaikoura Roots Festival for years, recently changing its name after the original organising team underwent some changes. As I understand it, they were affiliated with the Kaikoura band Salmonella Dub, who achieved considerable national recognition, and a little bit internationally. It's a few miles from the small resort town on the East Coast whose Maori name effectively means "Crayfish for dinner!", known for its seafood and beautifully sparkly turquoise sea water.

I wanted to get to at least one summer festival while over here, just to get a feel for what the festival scene's like, and this was a good choice, I think. Although not strictly a reggae festival, reggae is still the core music (and what the DJs play between bands), with the various other bass-oriented genres and crossovers being represented. So it covered a large part of the NZ music scene that interests me. The feeling I got from the various shout-outs and big-ups coming from the stage that the whole NZ "bass scene" (incorporating reggae, dub, drum'n'bass, dubstep and hiphop) sees itself as being in an alliance, having some common aim or collective identity (rather than the various genres denigrating each other, as you might expect to see in other countries). Perhaps it's just because this country has a relatively small population that these sub-subcultures stick together, but it's good to see, regardless.

It's just a Saturday-Sunday thing, this festival, so on the Friday I camped at a site in town, then went for a look around. I found a pub called The Strawberry Tree which hosted a Friday jam night. This involved various local musos taking turns on acoustic guitars, drums and bass, playing ramshackle but spirited covers of the Stones, etc. A unlikely looking character instigated a version of Bowie's "Jean Genie" which was then followed by Loudon Wainwright III's "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road", which had the place seriously rocking for ages — great choice. The other standout was a guitarist who heroically pulled out all the stops and pulled off a — presumably ironic — rendition of KISS's "(I Wanna) Rock and Roll All Nite (and Party Every Day)" with just an acoustic guitar and a 60-something drummer behind him. The jam night ringleader led a Lucinda Williams song that was clearly unknown to everyone else (but they got there in the end), and a nervous-looking local woman called Gabrielle got up and did some surprisingly original originals which had a bit of an early 80s postpunk feminist feel to them. A memorable evening.

Saturday over at festival site (a five minute walk from a beautiful beach) the music got started in the afternoon. The site was smaller than I imagined, a pleasant surprise, just one stage, and as the campsite filled up it was pleasing to see the broad distribution of ages and social types (much less stratified than you'd ever see in the UK, I think, probably the result of the relatively small population).

A Maori powhiri (traditional opening cermemony) was led by a local crew, intergenerational Maori (male and female) with a few pakeha among them. Coordinated movement, some fearsome posturing, chanting, long soliloquys all in Maori (I recognised a few words, but it was when "Jah Rastafari" and "Robert Nesta Marley" suddenly got mentioned a few minutes in that the audience let out a collective giggle of recognition and were drawn into what was happening).

My overall impressions of Kiwi reggae is that a lot of the bands feel the need to display their versatility, so in several cases a band would just be settling into some heavy psychedelic dub thing or rootsy groove, and then would (to my mind) spoil it with either cheesy vocalising, heavy rock guitar soloing or the obligatory "gettin' a li'l funky". At times, One Waka reminded me of my old friends Oort Cloud, the 90s Belgian psychedelic dub band, with an added horn section. But then the vocals came in. The drums and bass were played (and mic'd) expertly, you couldn't fault the musicianship, but there's a certain NZ style that's come into being since Bob Marley's concert in 1979, and a lot of it seems to be rooted in the slightly poppier end of late 70's-early 80's reggae (Inner Circle, Third World, Aswad etc.). One Drop Nation overdid the heavy guitars and the drumming was a bit too heavy-handed for my liking...they made me think of an imaginary 90s Los Angeles hispanic rap-rock crossover posse, transposed into a South Island Maori reggae milieu:

On a positive note, there's a genuine, deeply-rooted cultural fusion going on in this scene. Just about every act had at least one Maori or Pacific Islander on stage (and in many cases they were in the majority). This isn't the result of any well-meaning organised initiative for cultural harmony, it's just happening. People are making music together. And reggae is the perfect vessel in which this mixing can occur.

Jamaican authenticity was seemingly supplied by Silva MC (actually a "DJ" in the Jamaican sense) assisted expertly by her selecter Reality Chant (part of the Dubwise Soundsystem crew, I think). "Seemingly" because I understood her to be a Jamaican living in Auckland, but have since read that she was born and raised there, presumably in a Jamaican community? She sounded like the genuine article to these ears, regardless. They did a couple of sets during the day, between bands, and Reality Chant spun discs on and off all weekend, generally selecting stuff compatible with my tastes.

Two real standouts were both Maori loop artists. Mihirangi sings, raps, percusses via an Octapad, sometimes plays a bit of guitar, loops it all up to make mighty, living, grooving tracks, accompanied only by a drummer. She's also involved with Sea Shepherd and used her platform to tell us what's going on with the increased frequency of whales getting beached, and to have a righteous rant about seismic testing and deep sea oil drilling (planned for Kaikoura Bay, among other places off the NZ coast), international banking and the country's "dickhead of a Prime Minister" John Key (to widespread applause). One of her better known tracks, "No War" got people up and dancing, including a Maori mum with three little daughters up the front who knew all the words.

Tiki Taane made his name MCing with Salmonella Dub and now acts as live sound engineer for their contemporaries Shapeshifter, so he's fully embedded in this scene. He was billed as playing a "solo acoustic set" and came out with a guitar, but rather than doing a singer-songwriter thing, he blew us all away with a mad assault of looping rhythms (using his guitar in various ways to generate beats and basslines, which he then heavily treated with live effects) and cutting edge rhymes with a real sense of passion and cultural rootedness. He pulled a huge crowd, deservedly...this man has incredible rhythm whether strumming a guitar, triggering an effects module or spitting over a beat he just created. His set culminated in the most a completely mad spontaneous live loop-jam (incorporating imaginative musical use of a conch shell) after also saying his bit against the proposed drilling in Kaikoura Bay and delivering a blast of rhyme which managed to big up just about everyone in NZ scene, from Fat Freddy's Drop and Shapeshifter to Ladi6 and the Aotearoa Dubstep Allstars.

Left of Right from the bleak southerly outpost of Invercargill were a bit of a surprise. A power trio whose love of heavy dub appears to be equalled by their love of Sabbath-heavy rock riffage (bass player with massive ginger dreads and beard, guitarist looking like something out of the Freak Brothers and a Maori drummer). The combination of the two genres didn't always work for me, but they deserve credit for making a viable kind of fusion (rather than just ruining decent roots reggae with inappropriate rock guitar solos). I can't imagine a band like this coming from anywhere else but a remote part of New Zealand. Or anywhere else a reggae festival crowd would respond so well to a band genre-bending and rocking out like that.

Cornerstone Roots provided probably the purest roots reggae of the day. Alan has talked about these people for years — they were the first thing he heard on the radio after arriving in the country, and has since seen them live. It's a family band, with Scottish/Samoan Naomi the bass player being Mum and Maori guitarist/singer Brian being Dad. Their daughter Kaea handles keyboards, samples and backing vocals, and their 14-year old son Reiki sings both backing and occasional lead (70s lovers rock style — he has an undeniably sweet voice, and a natural stage presence, but it's just not my kind of reggae). Extremely good vibes.

Ahoribuzz were the least reggae-oriented act, but turned out to be the one I found most interesting and enjoyable. I couldn't quite work out who or what they were for the first half of the set, at which point I stopped trying to classify them and just got into listening and dancing. The main man, Aaron Tokona is an outstanding performer, skipping fool-like along the razor's edge between parodying a rockstar and being one. He plays a mean guitar, that's for sure. I've since discovered that he's half of the acclaimed Cairo Knife Fight — Ahoribuzz seems to be an outlet for having fun and rocking the party. His between-song banter had a lovably eccentric quality about it that reminded me of Tim Smith from the Cardiacs...if you can imagine Tim Smith, instead of growing up in Kingston-upon-Thames obsessed with psychedelia and prog-rock, had grown up in an NZ Maori community obsessed with Hendrix, glam rock, disco and funk, then you might be getting close. His band kept a farely low profile while he jumped around on stage, worked wizardry with his loop station, suddenly decided to descend into a guitar freakout vortex and emerge with a different song, etc. The sharp-as-a-needle keyboard player engaged him in a lively pitchbend-heavy duel at one point, one of the only moments of genuine musical spontaneity at the festival. They played some epic, stomping disco-inflected material that really went somewhere. Talking to a Deadhead the next day (a Kiwi who'd spent the 80s and 90s in the USA), we agreed that this was the jammed-out highlight of the day, along the lines of what the Dead did with post-'77 "Dancing in the Streets" or "Shakedown Street" on a good night (but just more lively and fun).

Aaron's nod in the reggae direction (apart from the red, yellow and green headband) was a sudden, unexpected mid-set solo acoustic guitar and vocal version of Bob Marley's "Is This Love?". That's not a Bob Marley song I particularly like, but he did it with such a joyful innocence and ease that it was made anew. An unexpectedly touching moment.

Either side of him were a couple of backing singers, a white woman and a Polynesian-looking man, who mostly smiling big and beating tambourines, but then occasionally singing like angels. To finish off, they smashed it with the woman singing Cameo's "Word Up!" (something that annoyed me greatly in 1986, but is admittedly a pretty worthy composition for what it is) which then segued effortlessly into "Purple Haze", allowing Mr. T to truly kiss the sky.

At one point he announced, with huge grin, something along these lines "If any of you ever meet me anywhere, and I'm complaining...about anything...then smack me in the face. I mean, us musicians, we get to play in settings like this [gesturing to sun-drenched audience and sea off behind them], they feed me crayfish and paua fritters and all kinds of stuff out of the ocean, there's a bar back there so I can get wasted afterwards...and THEN...someone PAYS ME FOR IT! F*** me! [punching the air] I WIN!!!". Later on, before leaving the stage, having babbled a lot of gleeful thanks in all the appropriate directions, he stopped and looked at the audience and said (again, with that lovably eccentric grin and vocal twang) "Oh, and another thing. You're OK. Don't worry about it [big smile] I'm OK, you're OK, we're all fiiiiine." That's all that needs to be said sometimes.

This appears to be a completely different lineup, it's a couple of years ago, but still essentially the same band, with Aaron T doing his thing for a festival crowd (although the vocals aren't so strong here, possibly monitoring issues) — you'll get the general idea:

The Black Seeds, by comparison, were pretty dull. Highly professional, and apparently they've had quite a few chart hits here with their slightly pop-oriented reggae, so a lot of people were into them, but they did nothing for me. Apparently certain strands of New Zealand reggae have been dismissed as "BBQ reggae" (i.e., no more than pleasant background music) — this wasn't quite that, but it wasn't far off. Knights of the Dub Table were extremely versatile, an evolution of the (especially North Island) Maori love affair with reggae that began with Marley's visit in '79, they dropped sequenced D'n'B beats into their dub and reggae, sang sweetly, sang soulfully, rhymed ruggedly, lots of audience participation, hype and hip-hop style instructions ("OK, Cipha, I want you to drop that riddim NOW!") Ideal for late at night for a by-now intoxicated bass-loving festival crowd, but again, it left me largely unmoved.

Optimus Gryme, who I almost saw in Takaka a few weeks back, left no one unmoved, however (apart from those who'd already gone to bed — this was getting on 2a.m.). Playing a DJ set with Tiki Taane back on the mic to keep things hyped, we got snippets of nasty gangsta hiphop, crazy dubstep that felt like it was damaging internal organs, bits of up-to-date-sounding drum 'n' bass, a new Shapeshifter remix and quite a bit of mutant bassy music I have no idea how to classify.

There was a little bit more music on the Sunday, with people coming and going to the beach, eating luxuriant breakfasts, gradually packing up to leave the site: Tali (once part of a drum 'n' bass scene as "MC Tali", I seem to recall) singing soulfully accompanied with acoustic guitarist, a couple of the Ahoribuzz band in another ensemble called Soulsystem, Merchants of Flow, Reality Chant DJing between bands. I didn't stick around for all of it, needed to head back north.

Lots of drinking going on throughout, but no trouble, no bad vibes, everyone behaving very well as far as I could see. The site had a similar size and aesthetic to the Furthur field at Lounge on the Farm when that was going on — not quite the same level of attention to detail, but still working well to bring out a kind of micro-scale social harmony through mindful use of space. And no stressful crew running around with walkie-talkies like you'd expect in the UK. This is New Zealand. Everything's cruisy.


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