Saturday, August 06, 2016

On Foreign Soil: Being Treated Like One Million Dollars (NZM)

NZ Musician, December/January 2005 (Vol:11, No:9)
By Ben Anderson

Vanuatu: October 18 - 28, 2004

One of the fantastic things about gigging in New Zealand is the never-ending chain of connections and coincidences that lead on to new opportunities and adventures.

For One Million Dollars, a rain sodden performance to a thousand stragglers at the tail end of the 2002 Grey Lynn Park Festival ended up taking them to an island paradise.

Percussionist Ben Anderson took notes on the band's recent Vanuatu experience while trumpeter Richard Cheese took the photos.

The Fest' Napuan is an annual music festival held in Port Villa, Vanuatu. The four day long festival, this year held from October 21 - 24, has been running for nine years. It gathers acts from among the 83 islands that make up Vanuatu, as well as bands from around the South Pacific. The international acts this year included Native Stonage from the Solomon Islands, the Koomuri Dancers from Australia, Straky from PNG, Doki Doki from Fiji and representing Aotearoa, One Million Dollars.

Singer Bex Peterson with a new friend.

The path to Vanuatu started for us after the 2002 Grey Lynn Park Festival when GLPF organiser Naomi Larsen approached the band about playing at the Fest' Napuan. Two years later, and thanks to some generous sponsorship of the event by Air Vanuatu, we were able to get all 11 performers, three support crew and four friends/spouses over to Port Villa.

We stepped off the plane into a wall of thick, hot tropical air, welcomed by coconut trees swaying in the breeze and the sweet sounds of Vanuatu's traditional string band music. It was just like the tropical island music you'd expect with ukuleles, tea chest basses and beautiful vocal harmonies. Our welcome was warm even at the airport and this was just the beginning.

Rather than being put up in an expensive beach resort we were fortunate during our 10 days on the island to stay in Mele village. Mele was full of dusty, pothole-ridden roads with pigs, dogs and chickens roaming around freely. There were children playing everywhere, which made a welcome contrast to suburban Auckland where kids mainly stay in their fenced off properties playing PS2.

Life was beautiful and slow with the villagers living largely from the land with their sustainable community gardens. To make room for us in Mele the local pastor and his family moved out of their house. This was an awesome gesture of hospitality, and it allowed us to live right next to the Chief's house at the end of the village.

For breakfast, lunch and dinner we ate with the Chief's family and they fed us like kings. We ate meals of rice, freshly picked salads, tapioca, coconuts straight from the tree, pawpaw and super fresh meat. One Million Dollars has its fair share of poor musicians and this continual banquet was really appreciated.

Living in Auckland it's easy to become removed from how the food chain works and it was a rude awakening to suddenly discover that meat doesn't actually begin its journey to the kitchen from the Grey Lynn Foodtown freezers. One afternoon, after returning from a snorkelling trip, we were greeted with the sight of a dead cow on the grass outside the Chief's house. It was surrounded by dogs, excited children and some of the local men with their machetes. Richie Setford (lead singer/guitarist), and I stayed and watched the men prepare the carcass, while the band's vegetarians quickly made their excuses and left.

We had been sitting playing cards at our house for about half an hour when one of the little girls from next door came over with a plate of the meat that had just been slaughtered. I thought it was just steak, but later found out that it was the kidneys... likely a local delicacy generously shared.

A Vanuatu highlight - playing a thank-you gig in Mele village.

This kind of hospitality from the surrounding community continued for our entire stay with children running up and giving us flowers and the village women taking our clothes for washing.

For the duration of the festival we were given vans and drivers to get us about which, while making sure we weren't late arriving at the festival, also gave us a bit of a taste of what it must be like to be pampered rock stars. On the first night of performing we were driven right to the back of the stage which meant having to weave through all of the people who were trying to get into the festival.

The festival stage was outdoors at the front of a big natural amphitheatre. The PA and lighting had been bought in by boat from New Caledonia by Oceania. We took the stage after seeing one of Vanuatu's biggest reggae groups, XX Squad. They were really wicked and I think would go down well in New Zealand. King Music has their CDs and I recommend that you check them out if you're into reggae.

The audience was about 15,000 people each night. We'd been warned that the crowd were likely to be inactive; apparently a combination of the reluctance to dance in public and also the strong local kava. True to form they all sat on the ground for nearly the whole set. Our live reputation in New Zealand has been built around getting crowds up and dancing and we were expecting to see at least a few people grooving however they were all keen to just watch from the ground.

Thankfully our support crew we had brought with us from home got up and shook their booties at the front - by the second night they'd even managed to join us on the stage!

Despite the sitting down thing, the crowd was really great and were cheering during the solos. The MC of the festival was excellent at hyping the crowd and didn't let the fact that we were halfway through a song stop him from talking! It was a bit weird breaking down into a bridge and all of a sudden having this guy start talking in pidgin English about the different stalls or how we were all the way from New Zealand.

The highlight of the trip for me was playing a thank you gig in Mele village. We didn't take much backline with us so we were a bit limited on gear. We were able to borrow an amp from the bar we'd played in the previous night and could run our keys and bass off electricity. Everything else though, including vocals, was purely acoustic with our drummer, Tom Atkinson, using a wheelie bin for a kick drum!

We jammed songs in really different ways than we usually do and our lead singers, Richie and Bex Peterson walked around the crowd singing to different groups of people at a time. Stand-in sax playerKelly Kahukiwa (Navy Band, Flying Squad), came out front and dropped a mean sax solo. At the climax of the solo he hit a really long high note and bent over to send lollipops pouring out of his sax. This was a surprise even for us and the speed at which the kids darted out to grab them was ridiculous. I also passed out some bubble mixtures and the kids were all blowing bubbles up front while we played. It was definitely a moment I won't forget.

Singer/guitarist Richie Setford jams with a local.

I'm really thankful that we stayed in Mele rather than in a resort. We gained so much from staying there and the warmth of the locals, their friendliness, the food and culture were really great to experience.

On the day before we left to return to Auckland we were all gifted with handmade shirts for the guys and traditional island dresses for the girls. It was this kind of gesture that nearly made the music secondary to the social aspects of our Vanuatu trip.

In the end we achieved what we were bought over to do. We bought funk and soul to Vanuatu and offered up something different to the regular staple of roots and reggae. We met some great musicians from all over the Pacific and have experienced performing outside of our comfort zones in the clubs of Auckland and Wellington. As a measure of how much we loved our time in Vanuatu several of the crew stayed on for an extra week and our drummer travelled with Native Stonage back to the Solomons, where he hung out until having to head back to Aotearoa.

For more information about the Fest' Napuan please visit One Million Dollars' album, Energy State is out on Sugarlicks/BMG.

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