The year New Zealand's voice broke

27.12.2003 By GRAHAM REID

Mareko and P-Money in New York, Hayley Westenra in London singing for the Queen, Salmonella Dub in Australia, a flying squad of bands in Austin, Scribe at the top of the singles and album charts, the Datsuns recording with former Led Zep-man John Paul Jones in Surrey, Brooke Fraser's face on the back of a bus ...

New Zealand musicians were everywhere this year. It was impossible to miss them - and we didn't.

The data can be a bit boring, but there were times this year when most of the albums in the top five were by people who live somewhere close to you. The kind of people who are big enough to make a living out of their music but not so stroppy about it they don't shop in the local dairy.

Our people. Nice people, like the guys in Nesian Mystik.

You could get silly with cliches - "came of age", "put New Zealand music on the map" and that kind of nonsense - but you can't deny it was a very special year for some.

It was a year when former TrueBliss member Carly Binding cracked an impressive debut album, when the songwriting skills of hip-hop acts like Nesian Mystik were recognised by Apra judges, and when familiar names who have dominated awards for decades gracefully gave way to a new generation. It was also a period when some we embraced a few years ago came back with second or third albums and, even if they weren't taken to our hearts and credit cards with the same enthusiasm, at least proved that just carrying on with this music-making thing was possible.

What made a career viable, however modest, was the business end of the business: Apra ensuring people got paid when their music got played; the network of print media and television video shows; organisations like NZ on Air with their various artist support schemes and now an eye on exporting.

In March another pack of Kiwi bands - the Coolies, Mint Chicks, Pluto, goodshirt, Neil Hannan Band, the Have and Little Thief - are to play the South by Southwest Music Convention in Austin and capitalise on the profile achieved this year.

Meanwhile, back at home most radio stations are not even thinking about the "Q" word from yesteryear and just accepting our own people are not only as good as the imports, but in many cases better - and more often than not speaking directly to the radio programmers' target market.

There is an infrastructure in place that wasn't there - or at least as integrated - a decade ago. It means a working musician doesn't feel so isolated.

And musicians worked damn hard this past year. The success of Hamilton reggae band Katchafire was hardly unexpected for anyone who caught them in their early days. Sometimes three nights a week they went out and found their audience.

Roots reggae has never gone away in this country, but if the year belonged to a genre it was hip-hop and its close cousins. There was a seismic shift in our musical culture as hip-hop went mainstream. Out of South Auckland, Dawn Raid just kept it coming: Deceptikonz, Mareko, Ill Semantics and a dozen other young contenders who we'll hear more of soon.

Nesian Mystik, King Kapisi and Scribe were playground, then household, names. We expect Lady6 and Emcee Lucia to be the same soon. Already the acoustic r'n'b group Adeaze have a gold-selling top five single with A Life With You.

We were listening differently and accepting that of course Blindspott would play with Deceptikonz. It seems hilarious now that a radio station once promised "no rap, no crap".

And bands came out of garages and on to stages: the D4 everywhere from London and Tokyo to the Kings Arms, local contenders the Have, Rock'n'Roll Machine, Mint Chicks and the Jackass of local rock'n'roll, Deja Voodoo.

If it was a year in which we got louder - Blindspott, Elemeno P, Steriogram, 8 Foot Sativa - we also had the equal and opposite. Singer-songwriters like Damien Binder and Ben King, the delicate charms of the Tokey Tones, the ongoing story of Goldenhorse and the Brunettes.

And never since the days of the "Dunedin sound" have we seen such a regional outbreak: Wellington musicians - sometimes it seemed there were only about a dozen of them - kept reconfiguring themselves for Fat Freddy's Drop, Trinity Roots, Black Seeds and various DJ outfits. The Loop label has pulled together some remarkable product, not the least their present CD/DVD/book which includes award-winning short films and natty videos alongside gentle electronica and roots music.

There was the audible growth and maturity of electronica this year in its many facets: Phelps & Munro, Concord Dawn, Rhombus, 50Hz, Shapeshifter toughing it out in Australia ...

Then there were the people who didn't fit the niches: Moana back with her third te reo album after touring in Germany, Twinset and expat Nathan Haines who waved the jazz banner, Sperber and Casey making their own niche between jazz and ambient ...

And some just kept on keeping on: betchadupa, Pacifier unleashing a loud tour and equally ear-punishing live album which resurrected the spectre of their previous incarnation as Shihad, Sommerset, Sola Rosa, goodshirt ...

This was the year when a local act - Scribe, a cover star everywhere - took the top spot on the annual singles charts and another - Bic Runga, now based in Paris - took the top album position. That's a sign of a very good year.

So how many dudes you know rock like this? Not many.

But more and more it would seem.

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