Friday, August 23, 2013

Magicians, Savages, Gypsies

The material we're dealing with in this Explorers Club: Antarctica show that we've been doing is pretty much public property - great archetypal stories of triumph and adversity, the tales of people who went out in a great blaze of publicity and either came back years later covered in glory or lost their lives out in the frozen wastes in pursuit of some combination of Imperial honour, scientific discovery or precious new lines on the increasingly detailed map. That means that we're not alone here - a lot of other people are covering similar ground, and as a consequence we get all sorts of interesting emails and invitations from other artists who are doing awesome Antarctica-related work. 

One such email came through the tubes a little while back, from Sue Cooke, who has put together a striking installation in Whanganui's Sarjeant Gallery responding to her time on the Antarctic Peninsular. She'd heard about what we were doing, and she invited us to come and perform the show in Whanganui in association with her exhibit. Because of what we cheerfully refer to as our mental problems, we honestly and truthfully really enjoy driving for twelve to fourteen hours to play shows in small towns so we of course gave a resounding yes. 

As we passed through Taumarunui, night had fallen and we were looking for a place to eat. All the windows in the long main street have electric fences behind them and a lot of the shops are empty so the place has the surreal feeling you get in a lot of small north island towns. As though the apocalypse is here, and it's happening very, very slowly. Still a little dazed from the road, we pulled open an old aluminum ranch slider and stepped into a greasy takeaway joint. We stared at the menu board for a long time, as the family who ran the place took our measure. 
Magicians? If you like.

'Are you guys magicians?' said the daughter. 

I said yeah, we are. 

'Can you tell, like, fortunes?' 

I said yeah, but it's rude to. We ended up getting the rice, and I tried not to get too much on the floor of the van as we wound through the southern King Country highways with Led Zep II playing at a good volume. 

That got us to Whanganui with the gas light just starting to glow, and the next day we rolled down to the venue in fair time to set up for our morning show. I had heard tell of this place, some of our friends had played here before and the information I had told me that we were in for a slap in the cultural face. 

The Savage Club hall is a very challenging environment to walk into. It seems that in 1857 or thereabouts, Pakeha colonists in New Zealand, responding to international trends in racial theory, made their own fun by imitating Maori iconography and costume and getting together periodically to sing songs at one another. This should come as a surprise to nobody; there exist several similar examples of such appropriation around the world. A famous photograph by Frank Hurley, for example, shows at least one member of the crew of the Endurance in blackface during their midwinter revels. It should also be unsurprising that the Pakeha colonists quickly organised their entertainment into a regular club - with a president, treasurer, minutes, and of course a hall in which to meet. It is decorated more or less as one might expect with the above in mind, and yes, I am told, the carvings around the proscenium arch were stolen from a marae up the river. 

The Savage Club Hall: Make of it what you will

The odd thing about the Savage Club is that it still actually exists as a club, not just as a historical curiosity. We were just playing in their hall - our show didn't have anything to do with the club itself so I know nothing of its history beyond hearsay. But I gather that they still meet regularly and sing songs at one another, and the photographs around the walls of the hall show generations of white people dressed in grass skirts holding guitars, giving an overall impression of what the hell is going on here? I asked a few people and the answers I got were mostly around 'well it's all just fun, isn't it?' and 'they're not hurting anybody, are they?' 

As we stood on the stage and played our show, I kept thinking about other strange places I've got up and slung my guitar over the years, or gone to watch other people doing the same thing. There was this hall in Copenhagen tricked out it a Viking style one time, with probably not very many actual Vikings present. A lot of bars in places that weren't Ireland dressed up to look like how somebody might think an Irish pub might look if they liked the book Angela's Ashes. A series of shows that happened under various 'Gypsy' labels organised by people who I'm pretty sure weren't Romany. The tired old tradition of white people playing reggae. Or the blues. Those bars with all kinds of Oriental trappings that hark back to the good old days of the Opium Wars and the White Man's Burden. These things all seemed to me to have something in common and that is this: I don't really know what the hell to make of them. Kind of makes me glad that I'm not at University anymore so I don't have to write essays about it, plus you can't think about this kind of stuff too much when you're on stage because you forget where you're up to in the song and then the bass player rolls his eyes at you. 

Brendan Turner: Actually a Gypsy.

Anyway, the Whanganui Chronicle described the show as 'a performance to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, your teeth clench and your body shiver,' which coincidentally is exactly how I feel when I walk into a particularly glaringly fake Irish bar. There was no mention of us being magicians, but the performance was also described as 'mesmerising,' and 'stunning,' which are pretty close. The next time we play in Whanganui it will be beneath the echoing neo-classical dome of the Sarjeant Galley, on our album release tour in November (of which more later), so if you know people in Whanganui who like being mesemerised, stunned or chilled tell them to watch this space.

Here's the review.  Chilling.

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