Arts Festival Review: Ihimaera

By William Dart

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Witi Ihimaera. Photo / Supplied
Witi Ihimaera. Photo / Supplied

She saluted James K. Baxter in 2000 and Hone Tuwhare five years later; on Thursday, Charlotte Yates once again rounded up her colleagues to pay tribute to a rather more contentious literary icon, Witi Ihimaera.

Yates' connecting script, engagingly put across by Kirk Torrance, was mostly spot-on. Assiduously researched and only occasionally dipping into lecture mode, it did not shirk issues such as Ihimaera's gayness or the plagiarism controversy of The Trowenna Sea.

This commentary created context for the songs of the evening.

The Twinks' Bar of Darting Glances, a breathy word scramble to banjo and guitar, grew from the novel, Nights in the Gardens of Spain; L.A. Mitchell's Our Mother is the Earth, the singer effectively offset by her eight "singing angels", related to Ihimaera's earliest writings.

Some songs were problematic. Was Victoria Girling-Butcher's awkward ballad take on Standing Upright Here a victim of Ihimaera's cumbersome lyrics?

After some weeks of living with the Ihimaera album, I was transfixed by SJD's revisiting of his Our Watch Now, backed by the singer's Bellbirds group. Ihimaera at his most verbally lithe with dark, intense vocalising evoked a hushed, primal beauty.

An irrepressible Paul Ubana Jones added to the defiant humour of Warren Maxwell's Don't Call Me Sir, fired by a wicked backbeat.

Charlotte Yates' own Kingfisher come home scored through songcraft, a simpatico backing group and the scrupulous honesty of Yates' vocals.

If Pakeha musicians might have seemed overly studied in their response to Ihimaera's words, then for Maori and Pacific artists, the texts inspired a deeper sense of liberation.

Ruia Aperahama navigated a reggae saga along the Te Kooti trail with a tight band and Carl Perkins sharing vocals. King Kapisi and Teremoana Rapley called for responses from the warm but disappointingly small audience.

Working with Ihimaera's most rhapsodic outpouring, Horomona Horo fashioned a Grand Finale out of Star Waka.

Horo and Richard Nunns' taonga puoro crowded with Paddy Free's electronica against Waimihi Hotere's eloquent vocals in vibrant and thrusting dissonance.

One trusts that this fascinating and provocative show will attract a full house at Manukau's TelstraClear Pacific Events Centre tonight for its final staging.

Musical

What: Ihimaera.

Who: Charlotte Yates Productions.

Where: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday, Genesis Energy Theatre, Manukau tonight 8pm.

- NZ Herald

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