Music embraces Tuwhare's poetic world

Musician Charlotte Yates speaks of New Zealand poet Hone Tuwhare with reverence and affection, born of personal experience since being commissioned to record an album of music set to his lyrics.

The first time she visited him in 2004, Yates spent three days with the elderly and rather frail poet at his South Otago home at Kaka Point. She describes him as generous and humble.

"He was almost surprised at the level of interest ... he was almost surprised we'd bothered."

Yates was selected by Maori arts group Toi Maori for the job, based on the success of her compilation album Baxter (2000), a tribute to poet James K. Baxter.

The album Tuwhare, which received glowing reviews when it was released last year, now takes the stage at the Arts Festival.

Tuwhare was a natural choice for the album's sponsor, Toi Maori. His landmark No Ordinary Sun (1964) was the first book of poems by a Maori published in English, and he is regarded internationally as a Pacific poet of note as well as one of New Zealand's 10 "living treasures".

Among the songwriters keen on the project were Don McGlashan (ex-Muttonbirds), Hinemoana Baker, Graham Brazier (Hello Sailor), Maori language group WAI and Goldenhorse.

Yates had the "always tricky" role of getting a cohesive result from 12 songwriters, including herself.

Each musician chose a poem and they were expected not to tinker with the words. Yates is pleased the result has a good chronological spread of Tuwhare's extensive work which fills 14 anthologies. The poet was surprised at the interest in his early work and said: "What do you want to do those old things for?"

But, says Yates: "No Ordinary Sun is one of the most widely read works, sort of like a hit record in poetry really, whereas he thought we'd all be clamouring for the new stuff."

Tuwhare put no restrictions on Yates' use of his work. "He was very open. It was like, he's done his poetry and this is the next job." Tuwhare was pleased with the album, particularly Brazier's treatment of Friend. "He thought the tone of his voice, 'sounds like Louis Armstrong'."

The album features styles ranging from rap, jazz and electronica to Mahinarangi Tocker's acoustic tones.

Yates says the contribution by Goldenhorse was the most surprising and that the band had expressed the anger of the poem, O Africa, well. "It's pretty stroppy."

Tuwhare will be set in a relaxed, cabaret-style atmosphere.

A similar production for Baxter's work was a sellout at the Wellington Arts Festival in 2000 but that was in the smaller James Smith Cabaret. However, Yates says ticket sales for the 1500-seat Wellington Town Hall are going well.

Yates has been a fulltime artist since 1990, with four albums to her credit, a stint with spoof band When the Cat's Been Spayed, and two years as director of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

There's a possible tour of the Tuwhare concert on the horizon, and there's always the chance of another tribute album.

Tuwhare, "who was such a fantastic performer himself" is now 83 and unlikely to tour again.

* Tuwhare, International Arts Festival at Wellington Town Hall, March 11-13


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