Dangers of the crossover
When I attended Rosehill College, the pride of Papakura's educational system, back in the late 1980s and early '90s, the school had two official uniforms.
The first uniform, which was worn grudgingly and scruffily, consisted of the sort of grey shirt and blue jersey with which so many institutions, from schools to prisons to mental hospitals, homogenise their inmates.
The second, unofficial uniform, which was worn underneath those colourless shirts, and which burst proudly out of its hiding place on the school's rare and coveted mufti days, showed the letters AC and DC on either side of a lightning bolt and featured either a nihilistically black or garishly purple background.
By the end of the '80s the Aussie metal band was fifteen or so years old, and its members had acquired stock options and golf club memberships. At Rosehill, though, AC/DC's deadhead lyrics and two chord drones were still seen as a symbol of rebellion. The band was so popular that anyone who spurned it was seen as a cultural traitor. I got teased for months after I wore a T shirt that honoured The Smiths rather than the Aussie metallers on mufti day.
I felt like I was entering familiar territory, then, when I turned up at the waterlogged campus of the 'Atenisi Institute this year and heard AC/DC blasting from a stereo. I soon realised, though, that loud guitars are not as popular in Tonga as they are in South Auckland.
After one of my first days teaching at the Institute, I accepted a car ride home with Salise and Hai, two of the school's biggest metalheads. As our vehicle skidded and roared through the crumbling backstreets of Nuku'alofa, launching chickens into the air and pigs into puddles, Hai put an old AC/DC cassette onto the stereo, cranked up the volume, and hooted with a strange anticipatory delight. Soon 'Highway to Hell', the title track to AC/DC's most famous album, was bringing Tongans onto their doorsteps and verandahs. An old man stepped out of a Free Wesleyan Church and frowned meaningfully at the din. A couple of boys sprinted down the drive of their 'api and stared at us, wondering if we were the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Men and women in passing cars gave us thumbs down signs and shouted curses from which I was magically protected by my ignorance of Tongan.
"Tongans don't like loud music" Salise explained when we got back to my place. "They don't even like rock. Kava songs, love songs, reggae - anything mellow, island style, that's what they like. Not AC/DC." In Nuku'alofa, fans of bands like AC/DC are not snotty-nosed bogans but avant-garde provocateurs.
I soon learned that Salise doesn't need a stereo to play music. He's an extraordinarily talented musician, who can knock out a classical piece for Spanish guitar as easily as the riff to 'Highway to Hell' or 'Smoke on the Water'. I've been working on winning Salise over to my tastes in guitar music, by lending him CDs by Nick Drake and John Fahey, but he remains a devotee of the heavy stuff. Together with a couple of mates, he has formed a band called One in Blood, which is battling against the Tongan distaste for rock music.
This semester Salise is doing a research project - autoethnography is the fancy term I'm using for it - in which he reflects on the difficulties of making loud guitar music in Tonga. I've been giving him music and texts which relate the struggles of path-breaking musicians in other countries, and asking him to relate them to his own experiences. I'm not so much interested in discussing the technical aspects of music, which are beyond me, as in hearing Salise talk about the sociology and politics of rocking out.
Here are some of the notes I've given to Salise. Some of the musos who frequent this blog, and in particular the great Bill Direen, might have their own responses to the questions I ask.
You have been listening to Miles Davis, and reading Nick Kent’s classic portrait of the trumpeter. As Kent notes, Davis was a compulsive innovator who repeatedly crossed from one genre of music to another during his career, as he sought out new sounds and new bandmates.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]