Keeping It Strange
Author: Chris Leggett (photography by Jason Hailes)
Renowned musician and musical ambassador Mike Chunn had two major ambitions as a schoolboy at Sacred Heart College in the 1960s - to play for the 1st XV, and to be in a pop band like The Beatles.
"Carrying the process for the first one was simple," he offers. "I just joined the sophisticated infrastructure that my school had in place for playing rugby. And I made it into the 1st XV even though I smashed my leg during the first game and never played again."
But Chunn’s second dream - admittedly slightly more ambitious - simply did not enjoy anything resembling the support mechanisms that sport did at his high school.
"There was absolutely nothing there to help us," he continues. "We had to ad hoc everything ourselves. We wasted five years in essence, waiting till we left school. Five wasted years. That shouldn’t happen."
Of course the ‘we’ he refers to became the legendary Split Enz, and time has since passed to where Mike Chunn is now himself a father of a son who recently turned 16.
Although he acknowledges and appreciates the importance of such initiatives as the smokefreerockquest, he has long felt that some other form of musical encouragement was necessary for secondary school children.
"While the Smokefree Rockquest stimulates the formation of bands and has made a huge difference to the activity within secondary schools - I felt there needed to be another environment or infrastructure that brought great songs to the fore. Songwriting is the foundation of New Zealand music - and students are always writing them. They just don’t have the opportunity to have them heard on a wide scale."
So it was out of a frustration that young musical talent was not being nurtured sufficiently in schools that the ‘Enz-referencing Play It Strange was born.
"We’re a charitable trust that’s set up to provide programmes to school children of a secondary school age, helping and encouraging them to write and perform their own music," explains Play It Strange manager Debbie Little. The trust was incorporated in January 2003, and is funded primarily through the Scottwood Gaming Trust.
"We’re not Government funded and we don’t have any major corporate sponsorship at this stage. So we apply to the likes of Castle Trust, Scottwood Trust, ASB Trust, New Zealand Community Trust and recently we’ve gone to the Lion Foundation."
And with this financial support, Play It Strange intends to facilitate music workshops, composition assessment programmes and music competitions at high schools, and also to create links between established musicians and budding young songwriters.
Referring back to his first high school ambition, Chunn has modelled his vision for Play It Strange on sport in schools.
"In other words, all you have to do is want to write songs. It’s not about the classroom. It’s not about studying music. It’s about writing songs, entering our songwriting competition, using our songwriters’ website, having your songs played on my Kiwi FM show and so on.
"This is how it works if you want to play sport in school. It’s a whole separate strand to life in school. Popular music should be the same. And sport has evolved over the last century to be a very sophisticated infrastructure - why can’t music?"
If the results after only two years are anything to go by, Play It Strange is well on track to playing into Chunn’s vision.
"I guess the biggest success for us has been the response to the songwriting competition," he says. "The number of songs in the two years - 271 and 315 - and the fact that they come from all over New Zealand and from all walks of life. It points to a need for this programme to exist and I feel in my heart that it will grow and grow."
Keeping in line with that growth is the next ambitious Play It Strange initiative for 2006, entitled Band of Strangers.
"It’s going to be hosted by prominent New Zealand artists (yet to be disclosed), and they will perform at a big concert at the Town Hall during NZ Music Month in May," explains Little. "Auckland secondary schools are all going to be invited to play with one of the artists. That’ll end up being about 50 students who will end up being onstage at different times".
And according to a survey conducted by Play It Strange from their market stall at this year’s Big Day Out, secondary school aged kids are very enthusiastic about the idea.
"We asked kids at the BDO: ‘Do you play an instrument? If so, who would you want to play with?’ Shihad came out on top, [with] Pluto and Elemeno P close by. I have this vision of about a dozen guitar players all along the front of the stage, all playing the Home Again riff for about a minute - driving it into everyone’s heads - over and over - and then the whole lot come in. Two bass players, three drummers. Huge!"