Various Artists: Ihimaera (Universal)

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Warren Maxwell: Don't Call Me Sir
Various Artists: Ihimaera (Universal)

Following the successful projects setting the poems of New Zealand writers James K Baxter and Hone Tuwhare to music comes this, the words of writer Witi Ihimaera getting musical adaptation by the likes of Warren Maxwell (of Trinity Roots), LA Mitchell, King Kapisi, Teremoana Rapley, Charlotte Yates (prime mover behind these projects) and others.

The major point of difference with this project is that Ihimaera provided new lyrics -- so here there is a frisson of freshness and discovery, rather than perhaps the words inviting comparisons of how you might have "heard" already familiar poems.

The opener -- the five and half minute Song of Te Kooti delivered by Ruia Aperahama -- isn't the most persuasive start however. It's far too wordy as it tries to pull together historical narrative, the words of the prophet and myth into one place while serving none fully.

But thereafter there are some exceptional songs.

LA Mitchell's throbbing, haunting and dub conscious treatment of Our Mother is the Earth boasts a classy arrangement which shifts easily between the grounded and the ethereal; My Heart Beats Strongly is by Ariana Tikao who locates a lovely emotional and musical hook as she blends a traditional love ballad, waiata, cello and taonga puoro; and the unashamedly lo-fi, grit-pop of Standing Upright Here by Lupin which denies what could be mawkishly sentimental words in other hands (a radio single surely?) and the indie.rock of Bar of Darting Glances by the Twinks (a student radio sinlgle perhaps?).

There is also Warren Maxwell with the exceptional, acoustic Don't Call Me Sir where sounds like he has been beamed in from the Mississippi Delta in the Forties, and Yates on the floating Kingfisher Come Home . . .

Roots reggae has become the default position for many Maori and Pakeha artists so that is inevitably here (King Kapisi's Whale Rider which riffs on some familiar territory), SJD comes in with the gentle techno-ambient march of the socio-political Our Watch Now (which sounds a little too prog-rock to be honest, given the rather portentous lyrics) and Unitone Hi-Fi sound rather melodramatic on Us Together.

Among the most interesting is Teremoana Rapley on the lovely Dream Swimmer which rides a bubbling grove which sounds referenced in Bob Marley's Could You Be Loved, but turned down to intimate mode as it addresses the natural world.

The album closes on Star Waka by Horomona Horo and Nga Tae which, as with the Maxwell, reaches from the present (rap) to a more ancient time -- and could only have come from Aotearoa/New Zealand. It reminds you that Ihimaera (Maori writer and university academic) lives in these two world simultaneously, as do many contemporary Maori artists.  

With some reservations about the running order, this is another fine edition in this catalogue of New Zealand/Aotearoa writers being adapted to contemporary music  . . . and being taken to a new audience.

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