The rise to wider public prominence of Soljah has been testament to a long history of five musicians honing their craft, both in the studio and by playing kinetic live shows around the country. With the recent release of their debut full album ‘Aotearoa’, Adam Burns talked with frontman Ben Ratima to discuss where they’ve been and where they’re heading.
Owning every opportunity that has come their way, there is something to be said about a band like Soljah. Touted as being in the same framework as Whakatane heroes Kora, this Northland/Auckland quintet have similarly hooked into a localised sense of place and being – vivid to the senses of most Kiwis – and like that other band of brothers, have come to own it in the live environment.
The past two years have also been spent in and out of the studio. Talking to me from Auckland’s North Shore, Soljah’s buoyant frontman Ben Ratima is gearing up for a live acoustic set that night, with guitarist Les Watene and keyboardist Jacob Nansen.
“Yeah we’re playing The Tin Soldier,” laughs Ratima. “It’s a pretty small venue but we’ll just be a three-piece tonight, an acoustic kind of feel.”
The breezy quality and approach of Soljah implies the power of instinct above all. Although a seasoned performer, Ratima does concede a feeling of nervousness now and then.
“If I haven’t had a rehearsal – sometimes we just talk about what we’re going to do – that’s when I get nervous”, he confesses. “Before we go on stage. We might’ve had a little practice on some things and I’m like, ‘I hope this works out’. I think it’s universal.”
It’s easy to understand why nerves might come into play at the moment. Soljah’s debut studio album ‘Aotearoa’ has just been released – three years on from their ‘Moving Up’ EP, and the inclusion of their song Unite on one of NZ On Air’s Kiwi Hit Disc compilations.
The new album has been in the works for two years, with the band juggling recording with work and family commitments and persevering on the road. The live stretch has been peppered with standout festival dates including Exodus, Raggamuffin and Selective Soundz.
Having been aligned with Warner Music early on, it was Sony NZ that ultimately backed their debut album with a P&D deal. With band members stretched across various locations between Auckland and Kaipara, Ratima confirms that getting everyone into the studio brought its own challenges.
“Yeah, heaps,” he chuckles. “Someone will go down and do a part and then another one will do their part on another occasion. So it took ages, because I live in Whangarei, some are in Mangawhai, Kaipara and Jakey (Jacob Nansen) is our city boy in Auckland.
“At times [when] we’ve been recording, it’s been a busy time for some of the businesses as well. Some of the boys have finished at five and started at seven in the studio. Sometimes we fit in eating and sleeping sometime around there!”
All five Soljah members have had solid musical backgrounds, most of them kicked off from an early age. Occupying Soljah’s rhythm section, brothers Raniera and Tawhiri Littlejohn started out in a family reggae band as teenagers. Ratima, who works as a music teacher by day, soaked up his father’s passion whilst growing up in the beautiful township of Kaipara, introduced to Eric Clapton, The Doors and The Shadows among others.
“My dad was the local muso in our town back in the day. So he was always around having a jam. And my step-dad at the time, he formed us a little kids’ band when we were about seven. Me and my brother did a couple of gigs, I was a drummer back then. I didn’t actually start singing until about 18-19 because I was quite shy.
“We were never allowed to touch any of the instruments before I was seven. I really wanted to, I was never allowed to touch them. So the more I wasn’t allowed, the more I wanted to. That’s what fueled it.
Rounding out the Soljah lineup is three-fingered guitarist Les Watene – a casual jazz music degree to his name – and keyboard player Jacob Nansen, whose own CV includes work with J Williams, Stan Walker and Kimbra.
Bringing together a bunch of distinct musical talents has undoubtedly helped shape a rich and multi-faceted sound. The jammy knack of playing years and years of live shows has evolved itself in ‘Aotearoa’ – an album of considerable range, but delivered with a directness that is infectious.
“I guess it’s just all of our styles just mushed up into one thing. We start with the foundation, which our drummer usually puts together. And then we get everyone’s different feels on top and that’s just how it comes out when you put that altogether. It’s never a conversation of ‘That’s a sound we wanna go for’.”
The Kora comparison is a ready one – soul chops over an assorted stylistic makeup, but with Soljah plunging into a P-Funk futuretopia, a deft appropriation of funk, classic rock, reggae and RnB. They are candid and down to earth, Ratima snaring that homegrown sensibility of love, life and family.
“If something hits me, like a dramatic change in life, that’s the only time I can write, when something happens – just a big swarm of emotion. I can’t just sit down and go, ‘Yep, I’m gonna write a song about that’.
“I think it’s real important to keep true to what’s going on in your head, not what you’re hearing from somewhere else. When I’m talking to the kids in my class, I just tell them to tell the truth, y’know? Speak the truth, and that keeps it real pretty much.”