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Pasifika Social Club

January 24, 2012

If Ry Cooder travelled to Rarotonga to seek out neglected talent, Will Crummer’s Shoebox Love Songs would be the result.

Will_CrummerSHOEBOX LOVE SONGS, Will Crummer (Ode)

As a boy growing up in Rarotonga, Will Crummer would climb coconut trees and sit at the top, singing. His mellifluous voice could be heard all over the village of Turangi, displaying what he had learnt during a childhood rich in musical influences. His mother had the loudest voice in church; local live favourites were the Pokata Band, playing ukuleles and log drums; and on a wind-up gramophone, he heard 1950s American pop by the likes of Nat King Cole, Pat Boone and Jim Reeves. He formed vocal groups and won talent quests, all the while championing and collecting Rarotongan songs.

In the early 1960s, based in New Zealand, Crummer was briefly a Pacific pop star, releasing two albums of Raro­tongan songs and performing in Auckland PI clubs and throughout the islands. But Crummer’s career went on hold while he raised his family and worked as a concreter, although his music continued to be heard on Cook Islands radio. It was his daughter, Annie, who would become a household name, through her cameo on the perennial 1985 hit For Today, membership of the female vocal quintet When the Cat’s Away, and her years performing overseas in big-budget musicals.

Almost 50 years after his albums Romantic Rarotonga and Love Songs of Polynesia, Will Crummer has revived his career with an album that should also spark an appreciation of traditional Polynesian music, the neighbourhood pop we take for granted. Shoebox Love Songs celebrates the music of his youth, while sounding as contemporary and immediate as last week’s party across the back fence. It conveys an exuberant joy of music-making with an infectious charm that insists you join in, even if it is only to grin along.

If Ry Cooder travelled to Rarotonga to seek out neglected talent, this would be the result: the Pasifika Social Club. In another decade and in other hands, Shoebox Love Songs would be crippled by cheesy synthesizers and the backbeat of a drum machine. Instead, Crummer is accompanied by a young Polynesian band that would thrive if electricity failed: a family of ukuleles, acoustic guitars, a rhythm section of log drums, found percussion – kerosene tins, plastic buckets – and an ominous pa’u (a sombre bass drum, pounded authoritatively by Annie).

These are songs of love and loss, be they for girlfriends, family or an island that will always feel like home. Like any good party, the emotions and drama have a natural flow; the tears are wiped away as the dance-floor fills for the irresistible Aere Aere Tamariki Turangi (originally a rugby victory song), the saucy What’s the Matter You Last Night?, and Do This Do That (a teasing cautionary tale about marriage to a beautiful woman). The songs are mostly traditional, their Rarotongan lyrics fortunately saved in a shoebox by Crummer when he left his Turangi home for New Zealand.

Shoebox Love Songs is produced by musician and Listener critic Nick Bollinger with songwriter Arthur Baysting. Crummer has chosen his cohorts wisely: they share with Cooder an ethos of authenticity and musical integrity, while making an album that is fresh, exciting and timeless rather than a worthy but dusty artefact. The only sweetening is on Omaina To Rima Kiaku, a duet in which Crummer and his old friend Dinky Ngatipa are joined by an exquisite Don McGlashan string arrangement. Where the album benefits from technology is in its warm, old-school microphones, which bring out the rich timbre and passion of Crummer’s voice. The honeyed vibrato he passed on to his daughter is captured in all its glory; the pair trade harmonies on Aue Taku Tane, a breathtaking romantic ballad. [A version from 1963 can be heard here].

The album comes with a DVD documentary about its gestation, Songs for a Bigger Island. Directed by Costa Botes – whose affectionate portrayals of forgotten musicians are developing into a side niche – it shows Crummer to be a man of style and grace. Bollinger accurately describes him as “the Pacific Roy Orbison”. Beaming with pride, Annie says, “God bless the island sounds. But Dad’s voice is … on a bigger island.”

Originally published in the NZ Listener, 2 April 2011

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