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Arts Festival Review: Tuwhare


Reviewed by Tyler Hersey

March 11 - 13
Town Hall

An underlying creative spirit connects all artistic endeavours, be they musical, literary, or visual. Unfortunately, these disciplines are often locked into solitary cages by audiences, and indeed, by artists themselves. For Tuwhare, Wellington singer/songwriter Charlotte Yates has braided together the threads of music and literature by commissioning twelve of New Zealand’s most distinguished aural artists to create musical settings for the works of Maori poet Hone Tuwhare.

With one foot in the King James Bible and the other planted firmly in shaggy Otago paddocks and the local pub, Tuwhare’s poetry reconciles higher human nature with earthly reality, fantasies of the soul seen in broken roots and rusty cans. The challenge for these twelve artists lay in the fact that Tuwhare’s conversational, colloquial free verse is not a perfect fit for song lyrics, and the humour with which his pen vibrates is easily lost amongst moody musical settings

For this project, Yates has gathered an extremely eclectic group of artists, both Maori and Pakeha, from several generations of New Zealand’s musical community. From the spare piano and euphonium setting of ‘Rain’ by folk rocker Don McGlashan to the pulsing electronics and dance of WAI’s “On a theme by Hone Taiapa,” the songs differed greatly in instrumentation, presentation, and intent. Originally conceived as a compact disc (released in May of 2005), Tuwhare has become a splendid live show, with extensive narration by Whale Rider actor Rawiri Paratene. Although the intricate historical commentary (penned by Yates) did prove tongue twisting, the actor’s warm portrayal of Tuwhare’s wit and wisdom brought the author to life before our eyes.

Early on, singer and songwriter Whirimako Black led the audience on perhaps the most striking musical exploration of the evening. Her piano and vocal setting of ‘Spring Song’ wandered through perhaps two dozen chords, a cyclical, spiralling journey that climaxed with amazing strength and grace like September’s change of season. Her vocals were outstanding, ringing through the Town Hall with a clarity that pierced the night, in the same way that spring’s ‘sun and worm quicken the earth’s blood / loosen stiff tree limbs / and bird tongues from the hoar frost’s clutch.’

A self-described singer of sea shanties with harmonica and guitar, Graham Brazier moulded my favourite poem of the evening, ‘Friend’, into an intimate confessional of lost imaginings. ‘Allow me to mend the broken ends of shared days,’ he sang. ‘But I wanted to say / that the tree we climbed / that gave food and drink to youthful dreams / is no more.’ The simplicity and sincerity of Brazier’s solo arrangement seemed to hit the emotional heart of Tuwhare’s writing, the lonesome howl of his harp becoming wind through dead tree branches.

Introspective acoustic contributions from McGlashan and Hinemoana Baker contrasted greatly with all-out rockers played by Yates and Auckland pop band Goldenhorse. The latter two songs, portraying Tuwhare’s more soul-searching and defiant poems, added a welcome dose of rhythm and drive to an evening that often meandered through moody reflection. Yates’ version of ‘Mad’ perfectly captured the intensity of Tuwhare’s rumination on impatience and expectation with keening vocals and aggressive drumming by Darren Mathiassen. To close the show, Goldenhorse pounded through a riff-centred setting of ‘O Africa,’ with singer Kirsten Morell’s passionately quivering vocals embodying the all the desperation of a protest poem. ‘All bloody acts,” she sang, ‘that make less human / mankind’s brighter sun / let revulsion rise / Eclipse the moon’s black evil.’

Ultimately, this collection brings to mind the question: is there really a difference between poetry and song? Or are they just part of the same fabric? Linguistic considerations, such as Tuwhare’s lack of rhyme and repetition, obviously presented a challenge for some of the artists involved; many extracted certain lines to be a chorus, chopping and editing as necessary to create traditional song structure. But just as this group of songwriters has gained artistic inspiration from the poet, so did Tuwhare from his long associations with painter Ralph Hotere and woodcarver Hone Taiapa. All artists, we find, use the same human materials: emotion, toil, reflection, and instinct.


NZ Arts Festival: Tuwhare
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 2006

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