Friday, September 13, 2019

The Safari Suit - a story of Community

Robin and Batman

Identity Crisis

A bit like Bruce Wayne and the Boy Wonder, at festivals they never quite know who we are or what to call us.

Mark and Jane? Jack n Jel? Ukestra? The Sum of the Parts? One Song Sing? Batman or Dick Grayson? 

In the dog eat cat world of social media marketing we are the ukulele equivalent of that classic, and awfully unhealthy, Australian dessert. Trifle is made up of bits of sweet stuff, but you just can't put your finger on what makes it really good. Same goes for Jack n Jel.

Actually, we always know who we are, but Festival marketing people always seem to be in a quandary. And people walk up to Jane and call her Jill (an easy mistake – she is the 'Jill' part of the Jack n' Jel).  It Is our own fault, but I guess that can be expected when setting up a genuine-on-the-ground community music business. Are you a business or not? Why yes we are! We are called ... no ….  it’s called …. um, we call that thing ….  ah damn it. It’s community. It’s music. We make a living. Let’s call it quits.

In fact we are calling it quits for our hitherto annual North American jaunt. This is our 9th and our last. Hopefully it won’t be a ‘Johnny Farnham last’ (don’t worry, Australian readers will understand that reference).

Truth is we sorta can no longer reconcile this global gallivant whilst staring down the barrel of climate change. Something’s gotta give, and that something someone somewhere starts with us staying at home. It’s a nice enough place. Good people, beautiful spot, fresh fruit and veges. What more could a human want?

Enough of that. It’s too sad. Too real. Let’s talk about something else. Like this suit.

The identity of the Safari Suit 

This suit is my dress suit, all festival-pressed-ready for a series of festivals in Canada. The fashion is quintessential southern hemisphere 1970s colonial – the safari suit. It’s a laugh, but a laugh with a good story.

This safari suit is a special one. Very special, for it travelled through the fires and laundry presses of 1970s indigenous Australian politics.

Marion is one of my delightful ukestans at Port Stephens, a woman of, with, and within a lifetime commitment to community, health and social justice. She leapt into ukulele after her husband, Les, passed away.

But Les was not just Les. Les was Les Johnson, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the 1970s Whitlam Government. Les, like Gough, was a legend. In three turbulent years, Gough Whitlam and his team of merry madmen and women transformed Australia from a fusty 1950s dream, and thrust us on various paths of modernisation for our culture and our economy.

The iconic representative moment for Australia’s Indigenous people was when Gough passed ‘a handful of sand’ through Vincent Lingiari’s hands, symbolically returning the land to its original, more gentle, and less avaricious owners.

Marion gave me this suit. It was Les’s. I like to think it was there. At that very moment this suit soaked up the Whitlam Government's message of justice, diversity and respect.

I love it. And I trust the Canadians will also enjoy it. But unfortunately Jane just can’t seem to get beyond the bad out of date fawn fashion disaster that it no doubt is in 2019. My hope is that the story helps to redeem its apparently execrable fashion qualities.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Our taonga, our sacred object. That which brings us together. The ukurere.

Tucked under the head of my Maton ukulele is a piece of pohutukawa. But in the pōwhiri it has the honour of being rākau whakaara. And my ukulele? Let's call it my taonga in this ceremony. It felt like both got married last weekend in a wee town on the far side of Aotearoa.

We first did so 2 years ago. It was an incredible time then, and so it is again.

The gentleman is not being so gentle. 

He is visibly and audibly angry at me, and at the hordes of manuhiri (visitors) who have walked up from the beach, onto the land of these people, the tangata whenua. With no shirt (man is he buff!), a traditional flax skirt (piupiu) which clicks loudly with each lunge and sway, and a mighty whacking stick of some sort (taiaha), he, and his angry face, are something fearsome. I'm told that the apparent anger is the way they make people welcome in these parts, a ritualised challenge to we visitors, and to get us to display our intentions, good or otherwise. But the cultural legacy, for me, as pakeha, is fear. I can't help it. Otherwise I am just a tourist.

Thanks to Kiri, all of that anger is being channelled at me, for I represent the hordes of damn Aussies following me up the path. I am grateful that Kiri is there, guiding me in the protocols. Go Forward! STOP! WAIT! PICK UP THE STICK WHEN HE PUTS IT DOWN! All of these are whispers, but they are received with urgency. Don’t take a wrong step Mark.

Where’s the 'stick' (rākau whakaara)? The angry bloke, with his larger mate, are waving their taiaha around, right in front of me. I feel like they are threatening to take my head off, but I stand my ground, and hold their wide eyes. He reaches around behind, and pulls out a piece of pohutukawa, the rākau whakaara. I am struggling, holding my taonga, (my Maton ukulele), my crumpled piece of paper (my mihi), and his eyes which watch my every step. He places the rākau whakaara on the ground, and I make a move to pick it up. He gets even more angry, scything his taiaha, fiercely pointing at the rākau whakaara that I am to pick up, but I (truly) leap back in fear.

Things seem to calm down a bit, he takes a cautious move away, his eyes always on me. Kiri whispers ‘ok’, and I retrieve the rākau whakaara. Great. Now three important things to juggle, my mihi (now crumpled and sweaty), my taonga, and now the rākau whakaara, which somehow seems to represent a temporary agreement sacrament between me and the tangata whenua. The two warrior men seem satisfied, and go back to join their people.

This bunch of beautifully dressed, harmonising, fiercely haka-ing tangata whenua are Te Whakatohea. They are the original people of this region. They are the proud people of Opotiki. They are also the  regional winners of this year's Kapa Haka competition, and will soon be going on to Wellington to compete in Te Matatini - the National Kapa Haka Competition.

An older gentleman steps forward. He is bald, clean shaven, his entire head covered in tattoos. He is the showman running the pōwhiri. But to say 'showman' is almost to to imply disrespect. None meant, for this man is Dudu Maxwell, a kaumatua - a venerated elder. He explains, in English, all of the elements we are witnessing. He cracks jokes, they sing waiata, they haka some more, sing a bit, and then, something gets lost in translation. They forget that I too have a story and a waiata to share. After 20 minutes or so of being entirely immersed and educated, he seems to be winding things up. Has he remembered me? Us? Someone says something, and he goes ‘oh! Someone is going to respond’?!

That’d be me, the big man (who feels little inside). I uncrumple my mihi and commence.

‘Tena koutou! Tena koutou’.

In Te Reo (Maori language), I thank them for hosting us so generously in 2017. We are from the large swimmer crab to the left (or Ahiteraria – Australia – there are no ‘Ls’ in Maori), from Newcastle, from Yohaaba, from Merewether.

We are here because of ukureretanga (our culture, brought together by our taonga, the ukulele). It brings us joy, it brings us music-making – ko whakatangitangi, it brings us together. And then we offer our gift, our song, our waiata, which is one of theirs. Not awfully well known, but 30 of us start to sing, no ukureres, but we sing in Te Reo, and we do so with good voice. There are clearly murmurs from the other side. That pakeha fella, he has done well, speaking Te Reo (maybe they laughed a bit at my accent), and now his people are singing in Te Reo. They are alright.

And then it felt like the ultimate respect and tribute - they step forward, and sing with us. We all sing our waiata together. And with this we are joined together.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

We are joined. We are joined. We are all joined together.

As Kiri said later in a Facebook exchange

Kei te pai, grasshopper