3 Weeks in New Zealand

On Saturday an Air France 777 dropped me back into the greyness of a Paris January, after three weeks back in my island home.

Despite a very wet December, the consensus was that pohutukawa flowers this year were particularly spectacular.

However, the Hawke’s Bay region provided us with 6 days of perfect sunshine, and some wonderful scenery. It was my first visit to the east coast of the North Island.

At Cape Kidnappers, the gannet colony was noisy, smelly, and full of…  gannets.


The trip along State Highway 2 through the Waioeka Gorge was like driving back to before the arrival of humans.

In towns like Opotiki, the local colour reminds you that we are a Pacific nation…

It is a privilege to belong to the nation that invented the paua wonton!

Aron and Adb al Malik

It seems everyone ends up in Paris, eventually.  Aron Ottignon was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and I knew him when he was still a prodigious jazz pianist, playing professional gigs around town at an unusually young age.

Since then Aron’s played his way through the scenes in Sydney and London, released a solo album under the name Aronas, and now he’s ended up in Paris, playing with rapper Abd Al Malik.

As well as touring with Abd al Malik, Aron has appeared with the band on French TV shows such as Le Grand Journal, and earlier this year played at the Victoires de la Musique in Lille:

Aron was sneaky enough to film this very performance from his own perspective, on his iPhone…

And, if you’re quick, you can even see his iPhone in the live footage from France 4! :

Christchurch, the Distant City

Christchurch, February 22nd 2011

Christchurch holds onto a small but indelible place in my imagination. I was born there,  as was my younger sister, but since then, the city has played only a minor role in my adventures.

We left Christchurch when I was small. To all intents and purposes if I have a “home town”, it’s Auckland. By birth a  South Islander, I quickly became a North Islander by habit and conviction.

However, my first verifiable memories are rooted in Christchurch. An image of my father, waving to me on his bicycle across the street in Riccarton, as I’m strapped into the child seat on my mother’s bicycle. In that image, the sun is shining, as it so often does in Canterbury.

Later, there’s the moment that I nearly bit my tongue off falling from a plastic toy tractor, and Mum and Dad rushed me to Accident and Emergency. Nothing the doctor could do. “We don’t stitch tongues“, he solemnly informed my parents. I survived.

And then we moved to Auckland, and Christchurch became a place viewed from afar, in the saturated colours of Super 8 family films projected on the family room wall.

Christchurch was a place of fleeting visits: summer Christmases with my aunt in her sprawling house in Avonhead, lounges full of bean bags, afternoons full of swimming pools and tether-ball on the back lawn.

Christchurch was a duck-blue rowing boat with Not-My-Real-Uncle Tony on the River Avon; the heat of January sun at Pigeon Bay on Lyttleton Harbour; and spotting UFOs from the back seat of my cousin’s car as we crossed the high road over the Port Hills.

In later years, Christchurch became even more mysterious. It was a place passed through on skiing trips to the Southern Alps, a gig here and there at the Dux de Lux. A city glimpsed briefly in between airports, roadmaps and twilight hours.

one million dollars on tour – Cathedral Square, June 2004

Today, Christchurch is again a city viewed from afar: via a flood of hasty Twitter messages, shaky iPhone video taken through clouds of dust, and an expanding litany of bad news on the world’s websites.

French news anchors pronounce “Christchurch” as if spitting out the overly prussian name of one of Bismarck’s generals. Flat-vowelled kiwi accents are overdubbed into Parisian Media French. Al Jazeera interrupts coverage of Gadaffi’s final madness to earnestly report on New Zealand’s destruction – from their Kuala Lumpur bureau. Afar has never quite seemed so far.

My aunt is safe. But New Zealand is a small place, and Christchurch even smaller. Our stories link together strongly. The cathedral where friends of mine sang in the choir is in ruins. The cliff at Sumner has collapsed. We ate once at a suberb beachside restaurant below it, called “Scarborough Fare“.

People are sleeping in tents in Hagley Park, while others spend the night still trapped under collapsed buildings, hoping for rescue. Some are digging in the rubble, or organising food and water supplies, or looking after neighbours.  Others still lie silent, awaiting discovery and burial.

When you’re a New Zealander, the chance that you know one of these people personally is very strong. I can’t be anywhere but Paris right now, but for the moment, my imagination is back in Christchurch. Kia kaha koutou nga morehu o Otautahi.

Bannerman’s Dusty Dream Hole…

It’s exciting to hear new music from a close musical collaborator and friend – Richie Setford was the éminence grise and main creative force behind one million dollars, a band to which my life was tied for a big chunk part of the last decade.

Now Richie has released his first full album as a solo artist: The Dusty Dream Hole is released under his nom de scène Bannerman. Sonically, the departure from our one million dollars adventure couldn’t be more dramatic:

The offspring of several years gestation, The Dusty Dream Hole could be described as broadly cinematic… the album encompasses lilting ballads and sharp-edged, distorted dreamscapes that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy: from the headlong jangle of My Quarantine to the glistening lounge-pop that adorns Caverns.

Richie’s musical interests and songwriting have always stretched a long way beyond the funk and soul of the one million dollars project. I was lucky enough to work with him in some smaller settings – both gigs and in various bedroom and lounge jam sessions – where Richie’s gift for melody and gently twisted song-stories could be taken outside what could be interpreted by an 11-piece groove band. In some important ways, The Dusty Dream Hole sounds to me like the logical outflow of those explorations.

The textures that fill Dream Hole reflect for me the years Richie has spent in the studio with various bands . Like a population of goblins poking their impudent heads out of hollow logs, the album is replete with chunky guitars, strings, folk harmonies, horns and stripped-back drums.

Most pleasingly, and perhaps for the first time, we get to hear Richie’s full range as a vocalist – his Tom Waits growl on Deep in the Forest is quite arresting.

Of course, my thoughts on Bannerman can never be objective. I know the musicians involved too well and –  to some limited extent – I heard the origins of this music as it took shape in flats in Western Springs and Kingsland in mid-noughties Auckland. I hope however that this album gets out to a wider audience – not just because I count Richie as a friend, but because his musical vision deserves to be shared.

The Dusty Dream Hole can be purchased online (digital and CD) at amplifier.co.nz, and free download samples are available on bandcamp.

Tim Guy in Paris

Tim Guy at Serge Gainsbourg’s house, 21.8.2010

This week I was lucky enough to host Tim Guy for a couple of nights in Paris. Tim is a New Zealand-based singer-songwriter and is currently touring his solo show through Europe alongside Sam Prebble (Bond Street Bridge).

Sam and Tim played to a small but dedicated audiance at Espace B in the 19th arrondissement on Thursday. They’ll be making a circuit of the open mic nights in Paris over the next few days, before heading on to Switzerland and Germany. The objective of this tour is to get their music out there and make some contacts for another trip next year.

Although born in Australia, Tim has lived in New Zealand for the past five years, and calls our islands home. His music has developed over that time to carry many the traces of other great kiwi musicians such as Don Mcglashan, the Finn brothers, Anika Moa and Bic Runga. Here’s a taste:

Here are the next European dates for Sam and Tim’s tour. If you’re nearby, these are two musicians who are both well worth checking out!

26 Aug 2010 21:00 Cafe Kairo Bern, SWITZERLAND
28 Aug 2010 21:00 Cafe Galao Stuttgart, GERMANY
2 Sep 2010 21:00 Hafen 2 Offenbach, GERMANY
3 Sep 2010 20:00 hasenshaukel hamburg, GERMANY
14 Sep 2010 21:00 east of eden berlin, GERMANY
18 Sep 2010 21:00 The Royal Oak Prague, CZECH REPUBLIC

Tim Guy mp3s (amplifier.co.nz)
Bond Street Bridge mp3s (amplifier.co.nz)

From a distant shore

Quand on arrive en Nouvelle-Zélande, on se sent forcément loin de chez soi.
“Arriving in New Zealand, you inevitably feel a long way from home.”

Charles Juliet – Auckland, août 2003

On the recommendation of a Twitter buddy, I’ve been reading Charles Juliet‘s Au pays du long nuage blanc: his journal of six months in New Zealand in 2003 while on a writer’s fellowship in Wellington.

Like all New Zealanders who are by nature slightly insecure about their nation’s reputation abroad, I was initially interested to see what an eminent French author thought of our country. Indeed, Juliet picks up on many of the usual kiwi tropes: the friendliness and informality of people, the centrality of rugby to the national narrative and the lack of insulation and heating in our houses.

The journal oscillates between observations of some of the remarkable aspects of life in New Zealand and reflections on Juliet’s own craft as a writer and poet. Descriptions of the weather constantly intervene, as one might expect given that Juliet spent a winter in Wellington!

Wellington, NZ – May 2008

Juliet spends much of his time exchanging with some of New Zealand’s notable intellectuals: Vincent O’Sullivan, Dame Fiona Kidman and Gordon Stewart among others. In particular he describes long lunchtime conversations with Chris Laidlaw, (broadcaster, diplomat, politician, academic and former All Black). Juliet also devotes many pages reflecting on his long-time admiration for Katherine Mansfield.

Juliet’s journal provided a personal connection too: when Juliet visits Auckland, it is at the invitation Professor Raylene Ramsay at Auckland University, who supervised my Honours dissertation! It was a curious experience to have the name of a personal acquaintance dropped into the middle of a book bought at FNAC Montparnasse.

Charles Juliet (Image: Léa Crespi, Télérama)

Despite the obvious pleasure Charles Juliet derives from his time in New Zealand, the journal is haunted by his awareness of the great distance that separates him from his homeland, France. And when Juliet finally leaves New Zealand in January 2004, he acknowledges that he will never return to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Au pays du long nuage blanc is an easy read (I finished it in just 2 days), and would be of interest to anyone who wants to explore strands of the relationship between France and New Zealand. It’s published by Gallimard in Folio for EUR5.60.

Finies ces longues errances
sous des ciels éteints
Finis ces combats truqués
Où j’étais toujours vaincu
Fini ce temps installé
Dans la misère du non
J’ai déposé le poids mort
qui obscurcissait ma vie
Long a été le chemin
qui m’a permis
de quitter mon enfance

Charles Juliet – Wellington, décembre 2003

Wyuna Bay, Coromandel Peninsula, NZ – June 2008

Batucada Sound Machine: European Tour 2010

Batucada Sound Machine is one of the many bands that grew out of Auckland’s funk/soul scene in the early years of the century. As far as I can recall, the scene congealed around a certain number of DJs and musicians. Club nights and the audience followed.

The scene was characterised by large-scale bands such as The Hot Grits, Tangent, Opensouls and one million dollars. If one were poetic and lazy one might say that the music reflected Auckland’s urban and cosmopolitan identity: jazz, soul, hip-hop, afrobeat, latin and funk congealing in one big sweaty mess.

Sound engineers either relished or dreaded the prospect of setting up a stage for a dozen musicians including horns, berimbau, harmonicas, surdos and multiple vocalists. A 24-channel desk was a minmum requirement. As were fun but low-budget music videos:

Of course, apart from a few forays to Australia, the sheer size of these bands has meant that they haven’t been heard often beyond New Zealand’s shores. BSM is an exception – a 2006 tour saw them play venues across Europe including WOMAD Reading.

This year they’re back in Europe for a month of gigs across the continent and the UK. They are definitely worth catching if they’re playing in a town near you. You will like them, and you will dance.

Here are the full tour dates:

June 11 2010 Blossom Festival, Alfândega da Fé, Portugal
June 12 2010 Ollin Kan Festival, Vila Do Conde, Portugal
June 15 2010 Music Box, Lisboa, Portugal
June 18 2010 Sala Caracol, Madrid, Spain
June 19 2010 Sala Joplin, Segovia, Spain
June 25 2010 Bitterzoet, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
June 26 2010 Afro Latino Festival, Bree, Belgium
June 27 2010 Wereldfeest, Utrecht, The Netherlands
June 28 2010 Colos-Saal, Aschaffenburg, Germany
June 30 2010 Universum, Stuttgart, Germany
July 1 2010 Café Hahn, Koblenz, Germany
July 2 2010 Scala, Leverkusen, Germany
July 3 2010 Bar Du Matin, Brussels, Belgium
July 4 2010 Lustspielhaus, Munich, Germany
July 5 2010 Spectrum Club, Augsburg, Germany
July 7 2010 Guanabara, London, UK
July 8 2010 The Stables, Milton Keynes, UK
July 9 2010 Durham International Brass Festival, UK
July 10 2010 Norwich, UK
July 11 2010 Mouth of the Tyne Festival, Newcastle, UK

Das Wohltemperierte Bieber

I really should write a follow-up on Joseph Stiglitz and ask what the heck happened to his report to Nicolas Sarkozy on redefined GDP measurement. But no, I got distracted by Punky Meadows Justin Bieber arriving in New Zealand this week.

Now I’ve got nothing against Justin Bieber in particular or teenage pop sensations in general. As music critic Graham Reid expressed on his blog today, the kids are going to scream at whatever they want to scream at. too. (Although this footage reaffirms why 13 year-old girls are still the scariest thing on the planet).

No, my point is about Auto-Tune. It’s clear that Mr Bieber can actually sing quite nicely in a radio-friendly monochrome fashion, and even plays the guitar – you can check out all the original YouTube videos if you want, but here’s JB on ITV in the UK back in January:

So why-oh-why do they channel his voice (and all of his right-on offsiders like Ludacris and Usher) through a freaking Auto-Tune on all his songs?

Auto-Tune’s been around for a while now. I wonder if in ten years’ time we’ll regard it as a hopelessly outmoded sonic token of the current decade. Just like all song titles at the moment must include the letters “ft.”, (as if artists are afraid to be heard performing without at least one celebrity friend), singers must warble through Auto-Tune’s digital downpipe in order to satisfy 2010’s well-tempered-robot aesthetic.

“Auto-Tune”, with its Bryl-Creem hyphen and teen-snaring smoothness, is like fins on a Studebaker: the fins serves no practical purpose, but made the car look cooler. Similarly Auto-Tune has become the indispensable appendage to modern pop.

In many ways, not a lot has changed since that shiny atomic age when asbestos was futuristic. In the first 8 bars of Baby compulsorily ft. Ludacris, Justin’s Ooooh-Aaaah resembles the same shoo-wop-doo-widdy nonsense as Da Doo Ron Ron in 1963.

And the rest of the song is based around the same I-VI-IV-V progression that has served so many chart-toppers well – 1964’s Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las, and 1961’s Stand By Me by Ben E. King…

I hope Justin Bieber survives the screaming hordes and that he grows up to be happy and fulfilled in whatever he does. Time will tell if his musical career will be durable and interesting.

Maybe one day Justin’ll make an album without Auto-Tune.

And maybe one day I’ll write that follow-up post about Joseph Stiglitz.

Two Cars, One Night

There were plans to write some big old posts about Easter and music this weekend, but got busy, then distracted, then got writer’s block (well, that’s my excuse). But I did enjoy rediscovering Taika Waititi‘s first short film, Two Cars, One Night.

Made in 2003, the film shows the story of a girl and two boys meeting outside a rural pub while their parents are drinking inside.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award, which in hindsight seems a remarkable achievement for a film made in the pub carpark in Te Kaha, featuring two old cars and inpenetrable Maori English accents.

Apparently Taika Waititi’s new feature film Boy is doing very well in the cinemas in its home country. It mines similar themes and settings to Two Cars, One Night, extending them into a full-length story of a family growing up on the East Coast of the North Island, and features music by The Phoenix Foundation and, of course, Patea Maori Club’s Poi E, the greatest song of the 1980s except for Michael Jackson…

I wonder if it’ll make it to cinemas in Paris, and what French audiences will think ?