Oct 23, 2023

Review of When Poetry and Songs Collide

When Poetry and Song Collide

22nd October 2023
ToiToi, Hastings, New Zealand.

Review by Rob Harbers, photography by Andrew Caldwell.

After the climatic trauma inflicted on the Hawkes Bay region by the (name omitted in sympathy with those who seek to not mention it – we all know the bitch we’re talking about!), the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival once more heralds the onset of spring, and hopefully a better summer than the last mofo!. Out of respect for the financial impact of this event, while seeking to bring the healing power of art to as many as may benefit, the program is a little stripped-back this time around, nowhere more so than in the area of ticket prices, held down by virtue of generous sponsorship to a maximum of $35pp, with most costing only $25, and a number being completely free. Art for the people, indeed! Other dispatches from the overall schedule can be found here and here, showing some of the scale and ambition of what is being mounted. Many more stories will be told of this special series of events, but here is just one of them.

Quarter of a century (!) ago, in a moment of either inspiration or lunacy (and after all, doesn’t much of the best art come from single-minded pursuit of inspiration, to an extent that may strike others as lunatic?) Charlotte Yates had the idea of bringing to life the poems of James K Baxter. The method of achieving this would be by inviting a line-up of Aotearoa’s best musicians to set a chosen poem to music that they themselves would write. The story of that project, and subsequent ones exploring the works of other poets, is brought to life in this piece of spoken word and song.

This is a tale of discussions, offers, acceptances, negotiations conducted via faxes (Hey kids, ask someone born before 1990 to explain this to you!), deadlines and red wines, told by the creative force who was at the centre of it all, accompanied by renditions of some of the songs by Charlotte and some fellow travellers, in this instance Julia Deans and Sandy Mill.

The Baxter project involved the hunting down of poems that were either, or both, singable and malleable, all overseen and given final approval by his widow. An interesting discovery that arose from this was that Sam Hunt’s delivery sprang forth in the perfect tempo for matching with music. Rock’n’roll baby! The project inspired a touring stage show, (as did subsequent ones) and was represented, for now, by Charlotte’s performance of her own contribution, “The Fiery Shirt” – a taster for the musical treats to ensue.

In recognition of the success of the initial project, in 2005 the idea of a follow-up arose, this time involving a living (at the time) poet, namely Hone Tuwhare. Working with a living poet brought it’s own challenges and joys, the greatest of which was that Hone was able to attend the resulting concert shortly before his demise. No pressure on the performers, but! A rendition of “Mad” by Charlotte with Sandy Mill gave expression to the tales of that project.

The next iteration of this ongoing series derived from collaboration with Witi Ihimaera, necessitating a different approach, this time one of the words being expressly written for the work, presenting a different set of challenges, with Witi being more attuned to long-term narrative. Almost too much narrative, as described by Charlotte! The way in which this was resolved was by following Witi’s suggestion of breaking up the text, maintaining the narrative but more in the form of ‘stones across a river’, leading to a destination step-by-step. “Kingfisher Come Home” provided the audio representation for this round.

In 2016, to mark 10 years since his passing, the Tuwhare concert was re-animated, with a small amount of difficulty ensuing from having to fill the spots of contributors who were either unavailable or deceased (the ultimate unavailability clause?) but with a roster such as was now on board, these issues were overcome, illustrated here by Sandy stepping in with luscious vocals on the Strawpeople track “Covetous”.

A poignant moment was provided by the performance, by all three singers, of Andrew Brough’s arrangement of “Andy Dandy” from the Baxter project, this being pretty much his final recorded output before his eventual death some 20 years later – the song having been played by Charlotte at a concert in his memory.

The most recent of these collaborations, “Mansfield”, explored the lesser-known poetic output of the iconic writer, whose prose achieved far greater renown-largely driven, we were informed, by the exploitation of her work by her widower! This project had its own difficult entry in to the world, capped off by contributions almost missing the final cut due to late submission, and a final eight hour transmission over dial-up internet from South America – but it all came together in the end, as represented firstly by Charlotte’s “The Awakening River”.

The full expression of this particular project in concert form has been somewhat screwed over by the elephant in the room that is Covid, with some shows able to be pulled together but others still to see the light of day. A delight to look forward to!

This event was not without drama, Charlotte’s dropped article threatening to cause a spectacle (you had to be there) and the sense of drama restored slightly by the recalling of the almost-too-late contribution from Julia Deans, her arrangement of “To LHB”, Mansfield’s ode to her deceased brother, snatched away too early by the vicissitudes of war. This constituted the final act of the night, a show that was much less about the poetry itself than it was about the logistics of pulling these efforts together, interspersed with interjections of some of the material that resulted. As this writer’s entry point in to the Arts Festival, one that held great interest, and another worthy instalment in the history of material brought to us on a yearly basis by this event. Next stop, Thursday night!

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