By Ren Kirk
2011 saw the release of a number of notable Kiwi albums, among them, Sing Along With The Yoots, an instrumental album of classic Maori tunes reminiscent of rural New Zealand and the school yard.
Suddenly Joe Lindsay (aka Hohepa), also known as the gregarious trombonist from Fat Freddys, and his band of merry men, mostly consisting of Fat Freddy’s members and a few other close mates, were the talk of the (proverbial) town.
Drawing on the sounds of Don Drummond and of The Skatalites, calypso and ska flavours formed the basis for The Yoots’ catchy melodies.
Although some of the bands’ musical inspiration was from far off lands, their truest treasures proved to be the fruits of our own fair isles. As The Yoots dusted off classics such as ‘E Papa Waiari’ and ‘Tutira Mai’, breathing new life in to Maori waiata in original and unexpected ways, so too their popularity grew.
The summer of 2011/2012 hasn’t delivered in the weather department, but The Yoots certainly have in the festival department. Talking with the enigmatic and energetic Hohepa ahead of WOMAD this weekend proved to be almost as much of a delight as watching them live.
You’re a man involved in many musical projects within New Zealand, but how did the music journey begin for you?
There was always music round home, but it really started at high school when my music teacher asked if wanted to play an instrument. I wanted to guitar but there were none left, I wanted to play saxophone but none of those either, the only thing left was a trombone. In many ways it’s been good though, it’s quite a unique instrument and not many people play it. Also, if you can hum it you can play it on the trombone. When I left school I was more into drama than music, so the choices were Drama School or Jazz School. I thought there’d be more jobs in music, so I went with that one. I mean, actors are always waiting for the next job, but with music you can get out there and create your own. So yeah, I went to Jazz School in Wellington and that’s where I met everyone.
So between then and becoming involved with Fat Freddys Drop and forming The Yoots, were you in any other bands.
I used to play in another Auckland ska band years ago, The Managers years ago. After I failed Jazz School, well I dropped out, so yeah failed, I moved up to Whangarei. A friend asked if I wanted to join The Managers and from there I ended up doing a tour with an English band, Bad Manners. From there I went, yeah, this is what I wana do with my life, and moved back to Wellington and kept pursuing the dream. But I’ll always remember Bad Manners, especially this one guy… he would just bust it out on stage. He was about 200kg, bald and just had this crazy stage presence. He was a bit of an inspiration.
And somewhere along the way you got dubbed Hohepa - where does that come from?
Dallas (Tamaira) gave me that name after my first (Fat Freddys Drop) gig. Hohepa is Maori for Joesph, and Hopepa makes it a bit spicier or something. It’s kind of funny because Hau is Maori for wind and Pepa is pepper, like salt and pepper, so you end up with spicy wind. I don’t think he thought that one through.
Speaking of Fat Freddys Drop, has your involvement with this band changed or influenced you as a musician?
Absolutely, (my involvement has) especially helped me develop as a musician. There’s always been an amazing amount of creative freedom with FFD, which allowed all of us to develop own kind of style and voice, which is really lucky. It’s always been about that, about improvising and expressing; there’s a lot of space in the music to express yourself. Also taught me, and gave me experience, of working hard - gig after gig tour after tour, which is great. And just playing with people for a long time is invaluable. Toby (Laing) and I have been playing together for such a long time now we can just slot in wherever, don’t even need to talk. A lot of the same guys are part of The Yoots, so we’re really comfortable with each other and know how to get a great sound. It just works – even with different musical styles because it just becomes a chance to investigate something new.
What gave you the idea, or desire to form the Yoots?
We’ve been together for a while now, but initially I played two tone ska with the Managers, which was lots of fun and I was really into it. Then had the desire to learn and play the early Jamaican ska, which has a jazz influence, is slower and a nice kind of swing to it (Don Drummond and the Skatalites wrote lot of these early tunes and were a big influence). I remember being away with Freddys doing a gig at a super yacht conference in Majorca, and a London based kapa haka group were performing, Ngati Ranana. Afterwards we were all drinking beers and singing songs, remembering the songs from growing up in Northland and tunes from primary school like ‘Nga Iwiw E’, ‘Tutira Mai’… such great songs! So when I was back in Wellington and thinking about repertoire I decided to have a go with some of these tunes and some Yoots flavour. It’s such an honour and a privilege to learn these songs, these beautiful songs from within the Maori NZ song book - I guess you could call it that.
Where’d you go from there, how’d you recruit such a talented line up?
Basically I got my mate Craig (Poll) – who’d sort of pulled me out of retirement at 20 – well, I returned the favour and called him up for The Yoots. Got my little brother (Sam Lindsay)and a lot the boys that we play with; the Yeabsleys, who I went to jazz school and lived with for a time, Toby Laing, Mike Fabulous, P.K. Hoskin, Iain Gordon, Lucien Johnson, Will Ricketts and Adan Tiierina
That’s a big group of in-demand muso’s, do you ever get rehearsal time all together?
We don’t have really tight rehearsals or anything, which works cause we’ve got quite a loose feel in the way we do things. So long as we remember the songs and when to start and stop, the rest, the feel and the vibe is up to chance. Like the album (Sing Along With The Yoots), we recorded it in one night and most of the tunes on the first or second take. Lots of the tunes we learnt right before we did it and it was a great way to get a really fresh approach.
Speaking of the album, and the way the group has evolved to incorporate Maori waiata, how do you describe the bands’ sound now?
We’re calypso-ska-waiata, that’s the best way to describe it. It feels kinda tropical and it’s very reminiscent of, and sounds like old records really. Old sing-along kinda party vibe, with some great instruments and nice flavours.
I have to agree with the party vibe bit. I watched The Yoots performing at Splore and it was a really fun set, but not just for the audience, you guys looked like you were having the time of your life?
It is fun, and if it’s not fun you’re not doing it right. I don’t think music should be serious, although there is a time, but not life or death. It’s not brain surgery. Being relaxed and having fun on stage gives you the best experience, and means you’re not closed off to new sounds and inspiration. The other thing is, you are peoples excuse to have a good time - should be cheerleading for them to lose their inhibitions and have a good time, and you gotta lead by example. I’ve never being afraid to do it. I might look like a dick sometimes but I’ve never been afraid of it. If you spend your life worrying about if you’re looking foolish it’s pretty boring.
Next weekend The Yoots will be performing at WOMAD for the first time, but it’s definitely not your first time at the festival is it?
No, and it’s always just an amazing experience. It’s probably my favourite festival; if I’m not playing I go along, and I can’t say that of every other gig. This one has a habit of blowing my mind. It’s also inspiring for me to listen to other music, and I always come away with a new favourite band.
What do you like about WOMAD apart from the music?
Really like those Hungarian bread things... the food is always really good. I just like hanging out too, oh and the cool mystic bogan dude. He’s always selling dream catchers and stuff and I call him the Mystic Bogan – it might have been a term Riki Gooch came up with. I love going to the little workshops and getting a bottle of wine and sitting on the hill.
How do you think it’ll compare to other festivals The Yoots have played?
It’s probably a pretty good match. Yeah, it’s a perfect fit, just depends whether people bring their singing voices and get into the whole spirit of it – we want everyone to sing, and sing with their kids. Benjamin, my son, has got the right idea, he just grabbed the mic at Splore and there’s no holding him back. He loves getting up. I’m sure he’ll get shyer as he gets older, but while he’s like this I’ll go with it and enjoy. And we’ve even got Taungaroa Emile, ya know, the actor, he was in Once were Warriors… he’s going to help everyone remember the words
And will you get to enjoy the whole weekend at WOMAD?
Yeah, cause I’m also playing with Shogun Orchestra – which is mostly the same guys. Lucien Johnson has written some beautiful ethio-caribbean sounding stuff and he’s a really, really smart arranger and composer. It’s going to be a great weekend.
Since you have the luxury of an entire WOMAD weekend, who are you looking forward to seeing perform?
T his African group with pimped out wheelchairs (Staff Benda Balili, who perform on customised tricycles). But otherwise it’s down to what looks interesting, more a matter of discovery. Often the ones you haven’t heard of are the ones that wow you. It’s good to have a plan, but leave it to fate a little - you never know, you might stumble on to some Mongolian throat singer with a banjo.
Have The Yoots played overseas yet, any plans to?
Not really sure at this stage. It’s expensive to travel with such a big group, and everyone has other projects, but always open to the possibility. I’m not even sure how it would translate overseas. I’m sure the e- pat community would know the songs, but possibly it has more resonance in NZ, and just the familiarity of where we’re coming from. Not sure how it would work without same cultural understanding, but equally it could be awesome.
Can fans look forward to another album?
Once we’ve played WOMAD we’re gonna take that vibe into the studio - watch this space! And we’ve booked two nights… shit, who knows what could happen.
Tickets for WOMAD are still available at http://www.taft.co.nz/womad/tickets.html?gclid=CPf8rpPiv64CFVGApAodhnHcMQ
Watch The Yoots play the classic Maori waiata 'Tutira Mai' live