REVIEW: Whirimako Black, with guitarist Ian Harrison, bassist Richard Pickard, pianist Darren Pickering, drummer Riki Gooch and Justin Hohua and Richard Nunns on taonga puoro. Gala Performance, Nelson Winter Music Festival The Nelson School of Music
Whirimako Black is a taonga, a New Zealand treasure with a deep, smooth chocolate voice, a warm relaxed presence and a beautiful smile.
On stage she came and went straight into Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova Dindi, immediately involving the capacity audience with her musicality and charm.
Black is comfortable singing jazz, soul, pop and waiata, mixing te reo Maori and English lyrics with ease.
Many songs Black sings in te reo are known and loved in their original English, helping this mainly non-Maori-speaking audience to follow and appreciate her interpretation, as in the very slow tempo version of Tenderly. Sung with delicacy and skilful voice control, it was intensely moving, as was her interpretation of My Funny Valentine.
With a change of mood, Peggy Lee's classic version of Black Coffee got a run for its money with Ian Harrison, on lead guitar, focused on his expressive music-making, as he was through the evening.
Thinking of the hapless musicians recruited from prisoners to play music as their fellow prisoners were herded to the gas chambers during the Holocaust, Leonard Cohen wrote his powerful Dance Me To The End Of Love.
The lyrics are interpreted in various ways and have been covered many times, although Cohen's sung/spoken version is so powerful that many people feel no other singer can come close to the original. Black delivered her version. It was a brave try.
However, a jaunty Feeling Good lifted the spirits, featuring the verve of pianist Darren Pickering who amused with his antics and delighted with his playing. At the interval, there was a very happy feeling in the auditorium.
Richard Nunns and Justin Hohua joined Black for the second set. Playing an interesting array of traditional taonga puero (treasure music), from these simple instruments came bird songs, the swish of water and wind, clicks and hums, plus other little pieces of magic to accompany Black in the 200-year-old Ngati Tuhoe love song, Taku Rakau. They remained on stage and joined the band for the rest of the programme, offering an intriguing mix of sounds that integrated with the contemporary music. Black sang a slower than usual version of Since I Fell For You, perhaps to allow for the taonga puero accompaniment and an encore of Gershwin's Summertime.
Prolonged clapping showed Nelson's enthusiasm for a consummate performer acknowledged as one of our very best, and celebrated for her passionate promotion of her first language and the original music of Aotearoa. It was a great way to start the festival.
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