The opening performance of the Silver Scrolls. Photo: Topic Images / James Ensing-Trussell.

I hear a song from inside the maze: At the 2019 Silver Scroll Awards

Last night’s 2019 Silver Scrolls culminated with Aldous Harding taking the big prize for her song ‘The Barrel’. Stevie Kaye was there.

The Silver Scrolls, the annual songwriting awards run by not-for-profit music copyright collective APRA, are the only New Zealand music prize-giving I’ve paid particular attention to over the years. My interest isn’t primarily in the results, but the delightful tradition of the nominees’ songs being covered by other artists at the ceremony – the more unlikely the combination the better. It gives a certain shared-universe/crossover-episode shading to the event, while also providing a ‘sewing machine and umbrella on a dissecting table’-style frisson of sonic worlds colliding. There’s always the risk of dull reverence or experimental failure, of course, but where else could we get Ron Gallipoli’s Bryan-Ferry-in-the-freezing-works deconstruction of Lorde’s ‘Green Light’ in 2017, or the haunting hum of the Mint Chicks’ version of Anika Moa’s ‘Stolen Hill’ back in 2006? And if anyone has a lead on audio of Rhombus covering Dimmer’s ‘Getting What You Give’ in 2004, let me know.

This year’s musical director was jazz icon Nathan Haines, back in the spotlight on the back of the 25th anniversary of his blockbuster album Shift Left and his return to performing after recovering from throat cancer.

He drew on a parallel world of jazz luminaries rather than the usual scrappy indie chancers, and the evening’s most successful performances were of songs not in the running for the main award. The induction of Ruru Karaitiana, Pixie Williams and Jim Carter, the team behind the wartime lament ‘Blue Smoke’, into the NZ Music Hall of Fame was accompanied by a deft, touching documentary – especially notable given the pop music industry often pretends pre-1960s recorded music never happened, or was transmitted to us from an impossibly distant past – as well as a tearjerking rendition from vocalists Lisa Tomlins and Kirsten Te Rito accompanied by a murderer’s row of musical talent, the Black Quartet deftly interpreting Carter’s iconic slide guitar.

SOUNZ Contemporary Award – Te Tohu Auaha winner Michael Norris’ Sufi-evoking ‘Sama’ was playfully reimagined fusion-style under dramatic expressionist lighting, while Maioha Award winners Tyna Keelan, Angelique Te Rauna and Matauranga Te Ra’s ‘Te Ao’ was given a shimmering, tender treatment by another large ensemble incorporating the Auckland Youth Choir.

The Hammond organ swirl of Blerta’s ‘Dance All Around The World’, with Jonathan Crayford doing Bill Stalker’s narration, managed to eclipse both Bruce Hopkins declaiming Avantdale Bowling Club’s ‘Years Gone By’ and Mini Simmons’ Shorecore-revival-ing Benee’s ‘Soaked’.

MC Madeleine Sami succinctly dismissed Louis Baker’s tilt at Aldous Harding’s admittedly idiosyncratic ‘The Barrel’ with “Ah, I love a bit of white-boy soul”. More successful, if not seamlessly integrating its conceit, was  Takadimi Ensemble – featuring a tabla-wielding Manjit Singh – and Chelsea Prasiti covering Tiny Ruins’ soaring ‘Olympic Girls’. Saving the best for last, soul diva Bella Kalolo and her band foregrounded the Tin Pan Alley/Great American Songbook-y smarts of the Beths’ ‘Happy Unhappy’, the only song from the five nominees for the main award to truly thrive as a cover.

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‘The Barrel’ took the award, with Aldous Harding’s pre-recorded video acceptance an echo of Lorde’s 2017 equivalent for ‘Green Light’. When you’ve had the gravitational force of international success bend local awards towards you, you’re unlikely to have stuck around at home to pick up the silverware.

It wouldn’t be the Silver Scrolls if it wasn’t a contested site/mixed bag. But the big difference I noticed from being in the room – rather than dipping in and out of a livestream – was the surprising quality and intensity of the speeches.

Ria Hall (whose Rules of Engagement was one of 2017’s most slept-on albums, and her Newtown Festival performance this year made everyone else seem like they weren’t trying) had more than a few incendiary words on the diversity failure in New Zealand’s music industry that set the tone for the night. Her speech touched on gender imbalance in the industry – good to see Homegrown’s dude-centric/’manel’ lineup announcement getting roasted beyond the timeline – being creatively bold, and making music in te reo Māori, points echoed respectively by Victoria Kelly, Jacinda Ardern and – heartbreakingly – by Ruru Karaitiana’s son, Ruma Karaitiana.

Ruru, born in 1909, spoke te reo as a first language – ‘Blue Smoke’ was originally written in Māori – but in the 1940s the New Zealand music industry wasn’t ready for contemporary pop in anything other than English. If in years to come nothing else is remembered from last night’s awards, let’s hope the focus on these issues (with echoes of Coco Solid’s equality-in-music campaign Equalise My Vocals) helps shake the music industry out of its apathy.

“The conversations to diversify have begun and will continue,” said Ruma Karaitiana. “I encourage us all as creators, artists, champions and adoring fans of our industry to engage and act now. So we can really create a thriving, sustainable, mana-enhancing music industry ecosystem.

“So, e hoa mā – be bold, be brave, kia māia.”


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