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Review: Free West Papua concert

Tuesday 22nd July 2014

On a Friday night in central Auckland a familiar scene unfolds inside St Kevin’s Arcade. Rubenesque and red-headed Silke Hartung is marshalling the queue for yet another Wine Cellar/Whammy Bar multi-stage spectacular.

Singer Mara TK comments on the risk protestors in West Papua take, “I feel sad for them, I really do”, he says.

Photo: Supplied

The bill features last year’s Taite Prize winner alongside the lead singer of arguably the finest soul band in the country, as well as an inventory of Auckland’s best folk and Americana musicians.

That’s just the top three acts. They’re all here to support the West Papuan Action group as key member Maire Leadbeater addresses the crowd inside. “There’s one man in prison, I’m wearing him on my t-shirt. Philip Karma, who’s serving a 15 year sentence for nothing more than raising a flag.” You can hear the emotion in Maire’s voice. Philip Karma is one of many.

Maire leaves the stage for Electric Wire Hustle lead-singer Mara TK. He looks out from beneath a set of feathery lashes. They’re pale and downy. As he closes his eyes to sing, those long lashes descend like ostrich quills. The audience is seduced before he utters a note. Mara has no idea how alluring the mere act of blinking can be.

He seems intent on loosing himself in the performance. Dressed in a well-worn denim shirt, jeans and baseball cap he could be a slight and lean trucker towing down the miles. He starts this rare solo set with a heavy tremolo gently pumping out a warm, slightly fuzzy guitar sound. His voice is clear, resonant and soulful as he sings his first chorus “I hear you calling in the night, my heart is begging you to answer.”

The Wine Cellar audience listens silently. The set features a fine cover of the Curtis Mayfield song People Get Ready before Mara uncoils the environmental allegory Black Water, a new Electric Wire Hustle track set to feature on the upcoming second album Love Will Prevail. These songs take on new forms unencumbered by the often bombastic beats and signature synth-sounds that spice up EWH’s flavour. Instead the focus is on Mara’s sincere story telling.

When I offer him a handshake after the show he comes straight in with a hug. That old denim shirt of his is superbly soft. With a big smile he tells me next time EWH play they’ll perform Tomboy exactly as it appears on Every Waking Hour. That debut album is a local classic, almost unobtainable in the record store. The closing track, co-written by Jeremy Toy, is the band’s high-water mark, yet whenever they play the tune is almost unrecognisable.

Journalist Paul Bensemann says, "I do know there are at least 60 political prisoners and some of these guys have been arrested and put in jail for long periods, merely for raising an independence flag or taking part in a demonstration".

Photo: Supplied

It’s often a challenge to identify the song before a barrelling improvisation takes hold. It’s one of the strengths of the band, it’s that quality that helps them thrive in front of crowds who live on dance music, but I’ve always wanted to see Tomboy performed true. I mentioned this on the radio a few weeks back and Mara heard. It’s quite embarrassing really. This guy is one of those kiwi musos who effortlessly pours out the funk, but I digress. This conversation is taking place in front of wall covered in pictures of West Papuan activists in prison. “I feel sad for them, I really do” says Mara.

Standing a few feet away is local journalist Paul Bensemann, who last year made a clandestine visit to West Papua to hear stories of an oppressed people. “I don’t know the correct number and maybe nobody does, but I do know there are atleast 60 political prisoners and some of these guys have been arrested and put in jail for long periods, merely for raising an independence flag or taking part in a demonstration. There’s no real freedom of speech over there, and the issue I’m most interested in; there’s no real freedom of the press.”

Bensemann disguised himself as a bird watcher and spent eight days in West Papua last year. “Often media offices are raided. They keep themselves alive by having an incredible network, even inside the military.” I asked Bensemann what the West Papuan’s he met would make of this concert held across two underground venues in the heart of Auckland featuring some of our most celebrated artists? “I think they’d cry, because many of them think the worlds forgotten about them. They’d find this incredible.”

LISTEN to the audio story:

*Victor Mambor is to talk at the Auckland Law Faculty on August 1st and 2nd about the situation in West Papua.


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This well-travelled musician seems to have momentarily settled down producing music features for Radio New Zealand.
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