Jamie McCaskill sometimes makes up the numbers in the Auckland-based Modern Maori Quartet, a foursome who take a crowd-pleasing, part acting/part-crooning, fun and fresh approach to the territory of the famously popular Maori showbands of yore. And sometimes the fill-in guy gets lucky, right? Certainly on this occasion because, with just two months notice, Jamie got to go with them to Uzbekistan, where the MMQ had been asked to compete in the Sharq Tolanalari World Music Festival. Now that’s got to be a rare opportunity for a lad from Thames.
I’ve been the fill-in guy for the Modern Maori Quartet (MMQ) for nearly two years now. When someone in the group isn’t available I am more than happy to jump in as needed – though I never expected this call. After being heard singing the traditional Chinese folk song, Mo Li Hua, at the Auckland Chinese Lantern Festival in February this year the Modern Maori Quartet were invited to compete at the Sharq Tolanalari World Music Festival in Uzbekistan.
“A competition? Sorry where?” was my reaction on the phone when I was asked about my availability. “And fill in for Francis Kora?” Francis had to stay behind with prior commitments with his other famous band. “Um… sure, sounds cool.” I didn’t know what was more daunting. Being ask to fill Francis’ shoes or going to a country I had hardly heard of and knew nothing about. I believe it was filling Francis Kora’s shoes to tell you the truth.
I joined up with the boys (Aucklander Matariki Whatarau of Ngati Tamatera, James Tito from Taupo, and Dunedenite Maaka Pohatu of Ngati Tamanuhiri/Ngati Porou) in New Plymouth, where they were coming to the end of a regional tour as part of the Taranaki International Arts Festival. I was straight up on stage with them in a humble little hall in Eltham. I forgot how easily this fantastic show band charms its audiences and how super-tight they are musically. I think I spent the whole performance in awe, while at the same time trying to recall the five days of rehearsal I had with them a month prior.
I also couldn’t help but think how well this particular style of Maori music and Maori humour would go down to an international audience.
First stop on our tour was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. MMQ’s managers, Yee Yang Lee (aka Square) and Sums Selvarajan are from Malaysia and used their contacts over there to secure a gig to warm up for Uzbekistan. We played to an audience of about 250 people, and a good warm up it was. A lot of our banter had to be improvised to a non-New Zealand audience, as some of them would have no idea what we were talking about. It went down well with good laughs received and a fantastic applause of appreciation for the music. To be fair there were a few New Zealanders in the crowd to help the audience along but all in all I think we won them over. Too much Maoris.
Our first introduction to Uzbekistan was with the not so delightful crew of Uzbekistan Airways. If this was anything to go by we were not in for a very good time. The horrible wine and food while watching Dr Doolittle on a communal screen was painful. It was like they had got the old crew together for a reunion on this one flight, and they hadn’t done this job in 20 years. But that review will be for my travel mag article I think.
Arriving in Toshkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, things couldn’t have been any more opposite. We were treated like royalty from the get go. Police escorted our own bus to the hotel. Our money exchange taken care of at a good rate. Food provided. Luggage taken care of. It was then that we realised the enormity and importance of the Sharq Tolanalari International Music Festival for Uzbekistan.
Sixty-six countries coming together to compete for the grand prize of US $10,000. That doesn’t sound like that much compared to the scale of the festival, which definitely attracted a lot of world-class talent.
On the train from Toshkent to Samarkand, the city where the festival is held, we were put in a carriage with delegates from other countries. To me they all looked like very experienced world-travelling musicians, and that I was fish out of water. But I never let that show. I think. Arriving in Samarkand there was music playing and flags waving. It was like the Olympians of world music had arrived in town. Our translators/minders Lobar, Zarnigor and Fayoz were holding the NZ flag so we headed straight towards them and were led to our bus.
After being police escorted through the beautiful city of Samarkand to our hotel, we relaxed with a few $2 beers at the bar, then joined a parade to pay our respects to the supposed greatest ruler of all time, Amir Timur. Down in the lobby every country was dressed in traditional outfits and we were in finely cut suits. Hardly traditional. That fish out of water feeling was becoming more prominent.
Our first performance was a community type gig in a suburb of Samarkand. Each country allocated to that community were only required to play one song and after a bit of discussion we decided to stay away from our competition songs and do a mash up the boys call the Pakanga Medley. We had already decided that all songs performed there were going to be in te reo.
We were a hit! People who had no idea what we were singing about and had most likely never heard our language before were wanting their photos taken with us and we had to be bustled into the bus to keep the crowds away.
Back at the hotel was like a music festival in itself. Still in our suits, a self-important, funny looking German music manager tried to bring us down by commenting that our suits were not traditional NZ garments, but we shrugged her off as more and more people were attracted to the Maori vibe we were creating. Garage party in Uzbekistan anyone?
Maaka attracted a huge crowd while jamming in the lobby and was joined by musicians from Indonesia, Egypt, Dubai and Latvia until Indian and Pakistan drums drowned everyone out. Reggae to a traditional Pakistan beat was, one would say, an interesting flavour.
After another community gig at a local music school it was competition day at the amazing historic Registan Square. After being patted down and walking through a metal detector, a first for me and the boys, we were led into the most beautiful green room anyone has been into. After a few TV interviews we were on the biggest stage in the festival.
We blasted out our intro song Haere Mai then the te reo version of Royals, our ballad Pungawerewere (written by Rob Ruha) and launched into a haka written by our very own James Tito. It was electric and the crowd roared. We may well have been the first Maori to perform a haka in Registan Square. Following the performance fans mobbed us again. Eh? Were just horis from NZ. What is this?
On prizegiving night we were awarded one of the 10 prizes – the award for Most Emotional and Daring Performance. Talking to other competitors who have played the festival before revealed that the good results usually are giving to countries where Uzbekistan can get political gain. In 2015 China was the country to win the grand prize!
Apparently as a patron of the festival, President Islam Karimov, was heading to China the following week, so this result would have set him up for good times there. I’m pretty sure there is no political gain awarding NZ with a prize, so we will take that credit on merit for our performance I think. Kia ora to that!
Back at the hotel it was last night party time with our rugby loving friends the Georgians who gifted us a bottle of Georgian wine and a wee jam into the night.
I had never been a subject of so many photos with randoms in my life as during this whole experience. All in all, it was a most successful trip for MMQ, and if you ever dream of being famous in a country with the most beautiful women in the world then head to the Sharq Talonalari World Music Festival in Uzbekistan. It’s mean!
Nga mihi ki a koutou Modern Maori Quartet! I guess modern Maori music and humour does go down internationally after all and these fish were back in the water!