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!

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.

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

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 ?

Decade in Review

According to some people, midnight tonight marks the end of a decade. At first glance it’s hard to see how far we’ve come in this time. It’s been a decade of Dick Cheney, Harry Potter sequels and The X Factor, but surely there’s been some personal growth going on beneath the radar too.

Tash tweeted today that “we grew older, further apart and closer together, grew deeper, wiser, more foolish. Lost and found hope, but didn’t grow Up.”  Which is lovely, and possibly true if I could work out what it meant, but I thought I’d try to capture some of the spirit of the “noughties” (as I experienced it) in ten photos…

2000: living in France the first time round, learning to be an Alsatian. Hanging out in a small town at the foot of the Vosges, hiking in the hills to work off the tonnes of tartes flambées consumed.

2001: back in Auckland, joined one million dollars.  For a short period, we were something like the biggest little funk band in the land: albums, low-budget music videos and collective food poisoning in Vanuatu ensued.

Flatting in Western Springs in the first half of the decade: I learnt how to be (mostly) a vegetarian and make leek-and-potato soup.  In between cooking, we used the kitchen to make low-budget music videos.

Helping out with youth group leadership at St Paul’s Remuera, I ended up driving the van on our now-legendary ski trips. Little sleep was had by all involved, but we did get to see Paradise.

2004-06: Getting wrapped up into the free improv scene in Auckland, we formed slightly inexplicable musical units such as the Dominion Centenary Concert Band. Audiences didn’t understand what we were doing, but that was OK, because neither did we. But the costumes were fabulous.

2005: Got paid a moderately obscene sum of money to be an extra in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. It turned out to be one of the worst films of the decade, but at least the costumes were fabulous.

Over the course of the decade, I managed to ski at Le Markstein, Châtel, Méribel, Val Thorens, Arolla, Zinal and Grimentz (in Europe); and at Whakapapa, Turoa, The Remarkables, Coronet Peak and Cardrona (in NZ). My skiing didn’t improve much, but I fell down a lot and bought a helmet.

2006-2008: In Oxford, another spiritual home was discovered. A town where you can consult mediaeval manuscripts in the Bodleian and chase semi-wild horses on Port Meadow within 15 minutes walking distance.

In the UK, one slightly inexplicable musical project got replaced by another: The Original Rabbit Foot Spasm Band. It provided an excuse to tour the pubs of Oxfordshire.

2009: finally made it back to France on the back of an MBA degree. Montpellier was hot, friendly and offered great opportunities for hiking, including the lovely Gorges de Lamalou.

So somehow I’ve finished the decade by moving to Paris. Looking back, it’s been a busy ten years, and I’m thankful for the good friends and family who have shared it with me.  I always had the impression I could have fitted more in, but in fact quite a lot got achieved anyway despite the procrastination and the blogging.

I hope the next decade is just as action-packed. I just wonder if the costumes will be quite as fabulous.

Have a very Happy New Year, all of you, near and far.  All the best for a peaceful and fulfilling 2010.

Voices from the Past

Psalm 23 (for Toby) (arr. Rowley)
Performed by the King’s School Chapel Choir – Auckland, NZ, November 1991

Back when the world was a little younger than it is now, I sang in the chapel choir at my prep school. Recently, an mp3 conversion of a 1991 recording of the choir (complete with tape hiss) has fallen into my hands. Hearing this music again provoked reflection on an important phase in my musical education.

Surprisingly, 18 years later, the cassette doesn’t entirely make me cringe. We were a pretty decent choir – nowhere near the standard of King’s Cambridge, but entirely respectable for a bunch of 10-to-13 years olds. A few flat kiwi vowels rather ruin the Latin of Fauré’s Ave Verum; the phrasing and timing of consonants is a little haphazard, but overall, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

It’s strange knowing that all those unbroken voices now belong to men who are fathers, engineers, lawyers, marketing lecturers and dentists, living in half a dozen countries. One of us has even served tours of duty in Afghanistan. At one time we were all choristers.

My four years in the choir were entirely formative. First of all, we learned performance discipline. We had four 8am rehearsals on weekday mornings, and four sung services a week (3 weekday chapels and 1 Sunday service), all year outside school holidays. In later musical projects, that sense of committment remains: if you’re in the band, you’re part of a team: turn up to rehearsals, and do the gigs. No excuses.

Benjamin Britten – There is no rose from Ceremony of Carols (Op.28)
Performed by the King’s School Chapel Choir – Auckland, NZ, November 1991

For me, one piece we performed stood out from the rest of our repertoire – Britten’s There is no rose from his Ceremony of Carols. It sounded deep and ancient, a hint of a wider musical world that we might encounter in years to come. At 13 years old, singing Britten somehow seemed serious work, like we were actually performing real music, whatever that was.

Hindsight is treacherous. The imagination has a habit of creating links to the past that perhaps aren’t there. But I can’t help believing that a big part of my love for music finds its roots in endless winter mornings spent in chapel, all those vocal exercises, the routine of robing and the inexorable rhythm of the Book of Common Prayer.

We probably didn’t completely appreciate what we were doing at the time, but almost two decades later, all that singing starts to make sense.

Stephen Sondheim – Send in the Clowns
Performed by the King’s School Chapel Choir – Auckland, NZ, November 1991

Sir Howard Morrison, 1935-2009

Sir Howard Morrison died today. He was one of New Zealand’s most popular entertainers for 50 years, and a man who used his talent and energy to advance the causes of his people.

A humourist,  a musician, a quietly committed activist, he will be remembered for many things, but his performance of Whakaaria mai (How Great Thou Art, sung in Maori) will remain a treasured memory for anyone who heard it live or on television.

[Edit: for a more nuanced and detailed appreciation by a knowledgeable critic, Graham Reid’s piece on Public Address is well worth reading]

Kua hinga he Kauri nui i roto i te waonui o Tane. Hoki atu ra ki o tuupuna Matua i Hawaiki nui, Hawaiki roa, Hawaiki pamamao.