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August/September 2015

by Tim Gruar

Israel Starr: Celestial Reckonings

by Tim Gruar

Israel Starr: Celestial Reckonings

As the ‘righteous’ son of legendary vocalist The Mighty Asterix, it was inevitable that Israel Buchanan would play a part in the future of reggae Aotearoa. Originally an Aucklander, via Tokomaru Bay (Ngati Porou), he was brought up amongst Kiwi reggae royalty but now lives with his own son in Upper Hutt – the birthplace of NZ hip hop. As Israel Starr he’s a producer, beat maker, singer, DJ and MC creating hip hop, jungle, reggae and dancehall and smooth soul. 2012 was the year that Israel Starr majorly stamped his mark, and now in 2015 he is flexing again. The head-nodding video to the Sons of Zion single Stuck On Stupid feat. Israel Starr has had over 320,000 views since its January release, and August will bring the release of his own debut EP, ‘Ages & Forever’. Tim Gruar visited him at home.

 

In the frosty winter moonlight, Maoribank, Upper Hutt, can appear dark and ominous, but among its residents are some of the warmest people you’ll meet.

Reggae producer and singer/songwriter Israel Buchanan, aka Israel Starr, welcomes me to his modest home and studio, which he shares with his partner and son. The small front room has been commandeered for music. Tucked amongst the furniture are drums, guitars, laptops, mixers – flanked by twin towers of speakers five units high. At one end, a widescreen plays mid-’80s Wrestlemania. Andre the Giant and ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan are taking each other apart to a soundtrack of vintage skank.

Settling down we are soon discussing musical philosophies, about growing up in the Rasta church and its legacy. Israel can’t escape his. His dad (Paul Buchanan) is The Mighty Asterix – a premier reggae vocalist for over 20 years and a crucial figure in NZ’s history of conscious music. As a young convert to Rastafari he was part of founding of the local chapter of global organisation The Twelve Tribes of Israel, back in the ’80s. Israel grew up in the church, along with his two sisters, immersed in the culture. For almost four years his own house was the ‘church’ – a place of eternal family reunions, love, respect and music. It fortified his faith, which he still holds strong today.

“Family life was a bit Once Were Warriors,”” he says, meaning they grew up poor, in an erratic, chaotic household. But no violence, he stresses. It was at the West Auckland HQ of The Twelve Tribes of Israel that Israel spent much of his early childhood, playing in or around the church band, and where he gained his own musical chops. That band nurtured a whole host of legendary players including Tigilau Ness, Carl Perkins and Francis Harawira from House of Shem.

For Israel, reggae has always been a voice of the downtrodden and the oppressed. His uncle Tony Fonoti was in Herbs, one the most famous of the bands that provided a soundtrack to the land and anti-nuke protests of the 1980s. Now transplanted to Upper Hutt, he reminds me that Maoribank was the last stronghold of indigenous land to give over to the State.

“Pretty staunch people up here,”” he smiles.

There’s plenty of talent there too. NZ’s first hip hop superstars, Upper Hutt Posse hail from just up the road and close by are the families of at least four former NZ Idol finalists, plus a ton of current hip hop artists. Upper Hutt it seems is a real underground hotbed of talent. Israel shows me how he sketches out ideas on his keyboard or by recording samples from guitar or drums and making his own MIDI samples. He likes to fully record tracks rather than just whip up four beat samples for looping. He likes that human touch, ensuring everything is slightly imperfect, less metronomic. Final demos are often crafted up and sent out to other musicians to add their own flavours, like replacing keyboard tones with real horns or guitars.

“Reggae has a formula. It’s all about the bass, the skank and the drop. I think the skill is in getting the ‘feel’ right.””

Both a composer/singer and producer, Israel has stamped his mark on local reggae and bass culture over the last four years, joining forces with top Kiwi producers like Art Official, The Nomad, Dub Terminator and collaborating with Gappy Ranks (UK), Sons of Zion, Majic, NRG Rising. He’s produced releases under his own BlessUp Music label, but currently the focus is on completing an EP he refers to as “a timeline of reggae”,” with each track made in the style and sounds of the genre’s major milestones: rocksteady, ska, sound system and rub-a-dub.

“Reggae is like a mission, passed from one generation to the next, each respecting the old and improving on it without compromising the integrity.””

The recently released Old Skool Love, for example covers the late ’70s, whilst Easy Feeling embraces the feeling of now. Me Warrior, written for his son, speaks as if he was looking down from heaven at a time in the future, urging his boy to slow down once in a while –– not to always be caught up in the eternal hubbub of the modern world.

“There’s a feeling I want to capture in my music – when you listen, it transports you or reminds you of a special time or place. Like that [quiet optimistic] feeling you get early in the morning, when it’s all still. That’s the reckoning in my music.””

With his own label Israel nurtures developing artists such as Raggadat Chris and Jaggarizzar, and now is close to releasing ‘Ages & Forever’, which will be his own debut EP. The old yellowing photo he is planning to use for the cover features Israel and a cousin hangin’ old school, representing his own earnest upbringing.