Roots Is the New Soul – What’s Coming Out Of The Ground?

When you look at the trajectory of New Zealand popular music it’s really no surprise that the current Roots music scene is so abundant. The landscape is littered with changing trends and transient fashions but somehow through all of this the rock steady emergence of an authentic Pacific based sound has progressed. In simple shorthand we have been watching the browning of Music Aotearoa.

Perhaps the seminal moment in this process was Bob Marley’s concert at Western Springs in 1979. He came at a time when popular music was at a low ebb for local musicians – John Denver and the death rattle of disco smothered the airwaves and, apart from marae based music, Maori popular music was virtually invisible. At Marley’s concert a young Che Fu was dancing on the shoulders of his father who at the time was member of the Pacific Black Panthers. In one historical kinghit Marley politicised New Zealand music and empowered local indigenous musicians.

The next five years saw the rise of Herbs, the release of Poi E in 1984 (which reached number one on the charts) and the emergence of groups like Upper Hutt Posse and DLT who planted the seeds for the rise of the Dawn Raid phenomenon and the current conscious hip hop movement. Along the way, through the 90s, Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD projects exploring organic cross- cultural music gave the worldwide roots movement some serious credibility.
Of course there was a tension all the way through these developments as white music absorbed a parallel political shock in the form of punk. The Suburban Reptiles had released Saturday Night Stay At Home in Auckland in 1978 and from that moment there is a direct line in kiwi music through New Wave to the 90s romance with the low-fi alternative churnings of Flying Nunn. All of this (sometimes pretty vacant) musical activity angsted frantically in the shadow of mainstream music. We love our leather jackets but for some of us during much of the late eighties and nineties there were some things missing. Like Deep Soul and a Sense of Place.

In 2002 Che Fu was awarded multiple Tui awards for his album Navigator and this signalled a change. For those musicians craving indigenous authenticity this was a pivotal moment land lead to the subsequent success of Scribe and Dawn Raid and eventually created the platform for the rise of current roots labels like Wellington’s Loop whose gifted signing, Hollie Smith, delivered the inspired vocal on McGlashan’s recent APRA award winning Bathe In The River. In that healing song there is a sense of resolution -that a thread once severed has now been mended.

Roots music has evolved into a funked up blend of folk, reggae, hip hop, dub and jazz – in fact throw anything into the mix which has “the truth” written all over it – mix in some feel good skanking rhythms and drop a conscious lyric and you’ve got it goin’ on. The musical forms are open – jamming is back. Vocal embellishments may come from soul music, toasting or the languages of kapa haka and the wider Pacific. In terms of new cultural capital this cocktail is a rich mix which appears to suit the personality of many New Zealand audiences in the new millennium. Talking to someone recently returned home from London they claim the most sentimental shows they went to were Katchafire and Te Vaka when they played there as part of their European tours. (Some would say seeing the Exponents reunion London shows were the most memorable but we’ve moved on. There is a two decade universe of difference between the pale-faced Beatle-esque Even Though I’m Blue and the Drop’s Pacifica driven Wanderin’ Eye).

“Roots” is a great word for the style. Never mind what’s coming out of the air, Bro’. Listen to what’s coming out of the ground.
Written by Liam Ryan Thursday, 16 November 2006

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