Ex Pat Files: Tama Waipara
Author: Gareth Shute (photography by Steven Tupu)
Tama Waipara’s first foray into music was learning the clarinet at age 10. Both his parents are musical - his mother a classical flautist and his father a guitarist. Eventually he made the decision to pursue his clarinet playing seriously and enrolled in the BMus program at Auckland University. Having completed his degree he boldly auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
"I came back to New Zealand thinking that there’s no way I could have got in. It is a tough situation - you travel 10,000 miles, then you have 10 minutes to prove your worth. The year I tried out, they took two people out of 360 applicants. When a letter arrived from the Manhattan School, I just assumed it was a rejection. I was overwhelmed when I found out I had actually been accepted!"
He spent the next few months fundraising in order to cover his tuition fees and the cost of moving. He says he found that "if people in New Zealand say they are going to help you, they help you all the way".
In 1998, he headed to New York as a Masters student in classical clarinet. However, midway through the degree, an unexpected event suddenly changed everything. He was just outside his apartment when a fuse box fell from above, striking him on the head. He was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital where staff were concerned he might have an aneurysm. After only two weeks in hospital was he cleared to go home. The accident had a long-lasting effect on his music career - he found that when he tried to play the clarinet he would be struck by blackouts and vomiting. Doctors diagnosed him as suffering from post-traumatic migraines. Rather than remain inactive, Waipara decided to explore his interest in singing and began performing with jazz combos from the Manhattan School. Eventually he formed a band called The Occasions.
"At first it was meant to be a piss-take on wedding bands but instead of playing covers of old funk tunes, we were generating new work. There was an amazing set of people in that group. The keyboard player was a writer for the New York Times, the guitarist was a folk singer/songwriter, and the bass player was actually doing his masters in tuba. The drummer was Kim Thompson, who is this unbelievable talent from St Louis and one of the top young drummers in the country. These days she is the drummer for Beyonce and jazz legend Kenny Barron."
After 10 months, the migraines began to fade and Waipara returned to his studies with the clarinet, though kept his singing going as well. Eventually he reached a crossroads where he had to decide which direction he wanted to take his music in.
"As a musician, you often end up doing 50 million different things just to keep active. I was doing session work in orchestras, playing in chamber music ensembles, and sitting in with bands. After a while, The Occasions began to take over.
"We were approached by Joshua Thompson, who was Alicia Keys’ producer at one point. He wanted us to start working on a demo to take to various labels. But at that point, because it was starting to turn into R&B, I started thinking this is not really me. Having been surrounded in New York by the roots of Black American music - jazz, R&B, and real soul - it felt false to be peddling something that wasn’t mine...
"I made the decision to come home and was about to buy a ticket when I got a call from a producer Michele Locatelli. He was from a small indie label called ObliqSound, which was just being launched with the release of a sampler CD and they wanted me to do one track. I was like, ‘Someone’s gonna pay me to sing? Great!’
"So I did one session with them, not expecting that it would go anywhere."
Locatelli and collaborator Ralf Schmid suggested that Waipara use the work of turn-of-the-century poet A.C. Swinburne as a starting point for his piece. The resulting track, Felise, was very well-received and ObliqSound offered Waipara a four-year contract. His first album, ‘Triumph of Time’ (2004), expanded on the idea of taking archaic or under-utilised ideas to create a new work that would be timeless. The words of Swinburne and Shakespeare were put alongside ideas from Waipara’s own Maori heritage. The music for the album reflected the label’s desire to make music that sounded like electronica but without using programming or samples.
As a result, they brought in Tony Devivo, a talented percussionist who used traditional rhythms and instruments from Central America, South America and Africa. Waipara says he still felt he was searching for his own voice. After promoting the album with a short tour of Europe, the UK, and the US he moved to Munich to work on writing his next. He found the difference profound.
"Munich is the type of place where people will shush you in a cafe. In New York, they are more likely to shout at you! It was just totally different. The thing about New York is you can see any kind of music on any night - the range of which can be from awful to exquisite - on the same night. You might even see all facets of it in the same venue. At one gig, there might be pretentious art music, then a folk artist, then an indie band. Then I’d turn up and play!"
Waipara came to realise that he would have to head home to find the type of music he really wanted to make. This summer he was invited to tour locally with Nathan Haines, alongside two UK artists: Mike Patto, who is one half of the group Reel People as well as working with Jill Scott; and Vanessa Freeman who has worked with Reel People and Kyoto Jazz Massive. The show mixed the songs of each artist.
Waipara says there are a number of similarities between himself and Haines.
"We both have about five musical personalities going on simultaneously. I think that’s very common with a lot of New Zealand musicians - they have to be versatile. I just have unlimited respect for Nathan, he is one of New Zealand’s greatest musicians. He’s also an innovator and I’m really looking forward to playing with him."
Waipara also hopes to release an EP here, as well as writing the last pieces for his final album through ObliqSound.
"I’ve been waiting for a long time to do something in New Zealand. It is not a fiscal desire and not the priority for a US-based label, but it is where my heart is. I’ve always wanted to work in New Zealand and get my music out here, because it’s derivative of this place and it’s important to be part of that conversation for me. You do start to wonder what the point of singing songs about East Coast sunrises is, when you’re in New York. That’s not to say that the audiences there don’t get something from that, but I’m just hanging out to be writing music back home."
Tama Waipara will play as part of the AK07 Festival on March 22 at the Festival Club. He is also playing with Nathan Haines at the Festival Club on March 18 and 25 and with Annie Crummer at the Speigeltent, Red Square, March 19 .