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by Richard Thorne

La Coco: Gone In Search Of Our Shared History

by Richard Thorne

La Coco: Gone In Search Of Our Shared History

August’s public NZ Government apology for the 1970s police actions that came to be known as the Dawn Raids, and success of related TV drama series The Panthers, set the stage well for the latest single from award-winning RnB/soul artist La Coco. At a glance, Gone is about letting go of something, or someone, you love dearly, and the emptiness left behind. It was written by the South Auckland singer-songwriter as part of a recording project that saw her mentored in the stories of the Polynesian Panthers by several original members. Richard Thorne finds out more about the single and that upcoming album project. Made with the support of NZ On Air.

Given just how energetic, smiling and vibrant Latoia Sasa-Tepania is, you could easily come away thinking the rather more measured and ‘produced’ nature of modern RnB might not be a proper match to her vivacious personality.

Far from being awkward about any such disparity, the Māngere Samoan/Māori artist, known as La Coco, happily encourages it in her musical persona.

“My style of vocals is always going to be RnB, ’cos I can’t get away from that! But my music is changing over time, along with my whole style and musical vibe.”

Intriguingly for the already recognised RnB talent (La Coco won the accolade of Best RnB Album by a Māori Artist at the 2020 Waiata Maori Music Awards), it’s the diverse spectrum of EDM that’s been colouring her musical palette of late. Explaining that it fits with her trying to be more healthily active, Latoia says she loves beat-based gigs, where it’s all about moving and being uplifted.

It also helps explain a very striking feature of her latest single Gone, an insistently stabbing synth sound accompanying the chorus that seems designed to unsettle, even shatter the vibe of her polished soulful RnB.

Featuring BVs from Freedom Setu and beats by Malachi Samulelu (M4), Gone is well described as an ethereal and heartbreaking ode to the space left behind after someone (or something) has gone.

“Letting go of something or someone is a hard thing to do, especially when it is who or what you love most,” describes La Coco. “Memories keep them alive in your mind, the dreams of them returning keep you awake at night. It is never an easy thing to let go.

“When our people migrated and moved away, they had left people, land and precious things behind. And this is hard to part with, let alone live with the feeling that they may never see these again.”

Lyrical imagery of past summer days, lengthening grass, smiles and love, belie the loss that underpins the title and, even more so, masks the song’s socially broader intent. In late 2019, Latoia was asked to add her voice to a project initiated by the Oceans Before Me Charitable Trust, which introduced her to the mentorship of former Polynesian Panthers members Tigilau Ness, Melani Anae, Alec Toleafoa, and advocate Chris McBride.

“I was approached by a sister called Vox Dawn [Daphiney Owen], who wanted to create some music pieces, poetry and creative pieces, to weave the Polynesian Panthers’ stories through as artform. She wanted to use sisters – wahine, poets, lyricists, devas [she laughs], and we came together.

“My first meet was in December 2019, with Melani and Alec. We were mentored by them, in hearing their stories, they guided and nurtured us to be able to write about that time. But they wanted us to show them through our lenses, from our perspective y’know? To try and reach out to the audiences today, and how it might look like in their space.

“There’s an album coming out later this year. Oceans Before Me is the organisation with the indigenous narratives. They have us as the Daughters Of The Dawn, which includes Kalala (overseas in Melbourne) who’s also an amazing lyricist and musician, Marina [Alefosio], and Vox Dawn and myself. Our first song from that collaboration has dropping already, Carry on the Walk, from the ‘Daughters of the Dawn’ album.

Gone will also feature on the album, as well as on La Coco’s planned EP, now Covid-pushed back for early 2022 release. While linked to the Polynesian Panthers project, parts of the song had been around for a while – Malachi Samulelu’s beats for one – and some ideas from a relationship pov about when the connection from somewhere or someone is separated.

“So I had been given the beats earlier and thought, ‘Oh yeah, this one has the heat that I want, the pop that I need to carry my story!’ When I decided to use that beat the response was, ‘Wow, that’s a different choice for this album,’” she laughs. “But the sisters were keen on accepting contrasts. I always think that the music behind a sad story doesn’t need to be sad, you know? You can have something uplifting behind it.

“There was a time when listening to these different sorts of music and that would make me feel like, ‘I’m moving, I’m evolving’, and that’s what music is and that’s what my thinking creativity is – it’s evolving. With my cousin Malachi we shared ideas back and forth, and that DnB sound I really liked.

“We were asked for our perspective, for our sound, our difference, and that’s where my taste is going. It’s a natural thing as I age, I’m moving more into drum and bass, or the lounge, house, the EDM – I love that stuff!”

A first stab at capturing vocal tracks with Samulelu at Parachute Studios didn’t quite deliver what she wanted, so after sitting on it for a while she went into No Filter Studio with engineer Christian Mausia, finishing the single there. Ever upbeat, La Coco’s clearly excited to be asked about that boldly counterpointing EDM synth sound, a very deliberately added feature.

“Ohhh yes! I wanted that drop, and we were trying to figure out different ways and effects to get the emphasis right. We went through so many samples and played around so much to get that sound. I don’t know what you would call it musically, we aren’t these EDM term experts!”

With the aid of New Music Pasifika funding from NZ On Air she engaged Wellington director, videographer and animator, Euphoric Co., to make a dramatic music video for Gone.

“His name is Ash Smith. I love his work and with the genre of this song, I thought it would really suit. With this music video, I wanted to keep the vibe straight and suiting the genre. Collaboration-wise I wanted Euphoric to listen to the song and show me what he saw, I didn’t want to take from that. ‘Here’s my piece, show me what you make of it.’ That’s what I call collaboration!”

The result is an incredibly stylish and colourful piece of digital art that follows, interprets and extends her lyrics, a combination of dramatic and real landscapes with impossibly beautiful and equally dramatic psychedelic fantasia.

“He clearly listened to what I had done! If you know the story and have read about it, and read the lyrics, I think it would make sense. I’m asking people to think beyond. Imagination for some things is not there anymore, the thinking, the creative thinking to look behind things. It’s like when you watch a movie more times, you catch more things you hadn’t seen before. I want people to look beyond because explanations are not always going to be given to you.”