The Deluge in a Paper Cup: Reflections on Cultural Identity in Music Aotearoa.

In the spring of 1988 as a touring musician I disembarked a 747 at Vancouver airport as part of the ‘Go New Zealand’ tour of North America. We were met by an aging and gregarious Canadian cultural attaché. She greeted me with a very deliberate and exaggerated North -American accent: “Do- you- speak-Eng-lish?”

Looking back on that moment, as I clutched the woman’s outstretched hand, it was one the first times that I was aware of my cultural identity being brought into sharp relief. When I looked around our dishevelled touring party (we had travelled seventeen hours from Auckland and were a few Jack Daniels and a time-zone on the far side of Weird) I was surprised that she had picked me. The group spilling out of Arrivals and milling on the airport concourse included officials from the New Zealand Consulate, country music stars Gray Bartlett and Brendan Dugan, a Maori concert party and a callow flock of Kiwi session musicians dressed in sunglasses and shiny matching tour jackets. We were on a twenty one city tour of Canada and America promoting New Zealand to the world.

It was my first time overseas; on the loose in the Land of the Free. I was between tours with my Auckland based band The Narcs. It was a long way from the cover of Rip It Up magazine and here I was anonymous. I was not in North America to garner musical credibility. I was there for the experience as a sideman, the house bar yarns, the great exchange rate on the Kiwi dollar (which meant good gig money) and I had a vague dream that I might meet Bonnie Raitt in a supermarket – the way you might bang into Dave Dobbyn in New World in Ponsonby. Fat chance. America to Aotearoa: a hundred degrees of separation. (The closest I got was hearing Bonnie’s phenomenal rhythm section jamming at Crayon’s Bar in Venice Beach one Monday night later in the tour).

At the first sound check I plugged my Yamaha DX7 into the power socket and crossed my fingers that the keyboard, which was usually powered by the standard Australasian 240volts, wouldn’t explode as it was fired up with 110 American volts. Mercifully the synthesiser performed perfectly. The opening night went without a hitch: the haka and Welcome To My World with a split-screen AV backdrop of heli-shots of the Southern Alps and Ruapehu drenched the audience in Antipodean sentiment. It was shock and awe; the Vancouver audience was ecstatic.

As the tour rolled out over the next four weeks my brain was expanded never to return to its original size. I was being exposed to the Big Wide World. Later that week we hit Los Angeles and we checked into the Westin Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard near Westwood Village. When we tumbled out of the tour van, an Afro American bellhop greeted us and offered to carry our guitars. “So, you guys from Noo Zealand? Man, I used to play a little guitar mah -self”. In Ponsonby in the1980s musicians were treated like the Great Unwashed. (Napier’s Cabana Hotel was a little different – there The Narcs were gods). At least here in the City of Angels being a working musician had some status. The Westin in-house television system had over thirty channels – eighteen of them were Latino. I was stunned and instantly realised that if I didn’t know how to speak Spanish I was going to miss out on one whole layer of cultural experience in this city.

One evening while heading on foot into Westwood, I passed Tower Records. Outside the famous record store was a pair of speakers. And coming from the speakers was the sound of Neil Finn singing Don’t Dream It’s Over. At that moment Finn’s voice, the ‘Maori strum’ on the guitar, Crowded House’s laid back groove and Mitchell Froom’s emotional organ solo all resonated in my being. I was dislocated; but comforted by the song lines from home. Emotionally peaking I walked into a nearby piano bar called Yesterdays. Soft applause subsided as the resident piano-man finished New York State Of Mind and I patriotically ordered a Steinlager. None. I settled for a Corona with a lime twist and perched on a stainless steel barstool. Head bowed, I kicked the bottom rung of the stool and thought of the turquoise Tasman Sea lapping at the foot of Raglan’s Karioi.

I went back into Tower Records later that evening. There on the third floor, under “Underground” (right beside Camper Van Beethoven and The Butthole Surfers) was a CD bin marked “New Zealand Music”. And around it were several geeky looking American kids salivating over records by The Clean, The Bats and The Verlaines.The Dunedin Sound was big in LA!

At various times the popular music of New Zealand has projected mixed identities on the world stage. It is a convoluted story; a mess of imprecision, a pendulum swinging between capitulation to cultural imperialism and the small victories of de-colonisation. In 1955 Taranaki’s Johnny Cooper, ‘The Maori Cowboy’, recorded his version of Rock Around the Clock. A decade later Ray Columbus charted in Australia with the Beatle-esque She’s A Mod . His flight from New Zealand was followed by the globe-trotting cabaret of the great Maori showbands and the Finn/Chunn Sacred Heart Old Boys’ Club expeditions to the UK with Split Enz . Dobbyn cracked Sydney with Slice of Heaven. Flying Nun made it to the underground bins in Westwood and the Otara Millionaires’ Club charted on Billboard. Dawn Raid’s millennium hip-hop uprising in New York was a prelude to the global roots assault of Salmomnella Dub and the recent success of Fat Freddy’s Drop in Europe.

There has been an over-mediated nationalism attached to these changing music identities. At every turn there has been the publicly expressed hope that New Zealand music would break through the global deluge of popular music and become the Next Big Thing. There has been a politically driven, concerted effort to celebrate Difference – a jingoistic notion fuelled by speeches at music awards dinners and New Zealand On Air funding that music from New Zealand, like the music of Jamaica, should somehow be instantly recognisable and rise above the overwhelming tide of popular music produced annually worldwide. The last sustained phase of brand identity has been a ten year valorisation of appropriated reggae infused Pacifica roots music which has celebrated the browning of the New Zealand music industry but which has marginalised the local success of worldly mainstream rock acts like the D4, The Datsuns and Shihad. This Long Summer of 2008 we are drowning in an ocean of back beat – the seductive but musically lethargic and lyrically minimalist grooves of reggae based dub bands. Roots fatigue: I can remember the moment the groove hit me; but I can not remember the name of one of the songs.

Perhaps prophetically, ex- Fat Freddy’s Drop’s Warren Maxwell has eschewed his reggae roots. The music of his new band Little Bushman has turned its back on the reggae skanking of The Drop. The Bushies’ music is important not just because of the inventive rhythms, harmonic tensions and authentic stories in the songs but because Maxwell’s intelligence is navigating us through the reggae high tide of Fat Freddy’s and into the post Drop era. The landfall beyond is an opportunity for emerging bands to explore post roots music. Perhaps a signal to a return to lyricism – straight ahead song writing and the rhythmic and harmonic constructs of rock which are at the core of the popular music canon and which aesthetically buoy the most enduring popular music moments.

The kind of songwriting which might cause a travel-weary Kiwi to freeze in the headlights on a neon-lit Los Angeles pavement; inner whelmed on the wrong side of the Pacific Rim, listening to music from Home. “There is freedom within, there is freedom without, try to catch the deluge in a paper cup…”

Monday 4th February 2008

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