Eight years in the making, Dudley Benson's Zealandia is a New Zealand album like no other. Nick Bollinger unpacks its music and its messages.
Around the turn of the decade, Dudley Benson’s profile in this country was high - at least for an independent music maker whose work didn’t fit any of the conventional boxes. But if the Canterbury-raised, Dunedin-based artist has been less visible in recent years, it’s only because he’s been working on this.
Eight years in the making, Zealandia has involved orchestras and choirs, electronica and taonga puoro, bagpipes, harps and harpsichords, painters and designers, not to mention the time and effort that has gone into the writing of it, or the raising of funds necessary to produce it.
As a listener, it has been worth the wait.
Zealandia is the name sometimes given to the huge mostly-submerged continent, of which Aotearoa/New Zealand is but a fragment. But this idea of an unseen land, a country yet to be invented or fully realised, is itself a kind of hidden element that underlies the whole of this album. It’s planted right at the beginning.
Who are you? Where is my mountain?
These are the existential questions normally addressed in the Maori mihi, the formal introduction you might hear at the start of a hui. But Dudley Benson sings the questions as though they don’t yet have an answer; as if they are being considered for the first time. And that leads into a poetic retelling of the Maori creation story, set against an inventive arrangement of harpsichord, voices and percussive loops that might be tectonic plates rubbing together.
After this epic mythological overture, we are fast-forwarded to the present. The land is now inhabited, by both Maori and pakeha. But the next question Dudley puts is a challenge, specifically asked as a pakeha addressing other pakeha: ‘Can we decolonise ourselves?’
What that might entail is probably better suited to a thesis than a pop song, but ‘Birth of a Nation’ at least posits the idea. And in the songs that follow he suggests all sorts of reasons why, at this point in history, it might be worth considering how we, as a nation, could make a new beginning.
One reason is to halt the destruction of the planet.
"We’re all boat people in the end," he sings in ‘We Could Have Been Gods’ – a song inspired by a conversation with the painter Jacqueline Fahey, and as a portent of global warming and looming destruction, it’s a powerful image.
The sense of something lost, especially in terms the natural world, runs right through these songs.
‘Rutu’ takes its inspiration from Rita Angus’s remarkable self-portrait of the same name, which portrays the pakeha artist in what appears to be Polynesian skin tones. The sound of the track is gorgeous and sun-drenched - arranged, like most of these tracks, by Benson with the orchestrator Andrew Baldwin.
But the palette turns darker in a track like ‘Cook Beleaguered’ – inspired by Nigel Brown’s painting of a sick-looking James Cook – in which a full orchestra faces off against synthesiser and programmed drums.
Zealandia is over an hour in length, with no fat on it. But if it has been put together with the precision of a symphony, it’s not without a sense of mischief, fun - and sex. In ‘Opo’ he adds to the catalogue of songs about the country’s most famous dolphin, while singing from the point of view of a young woman in love.
And then there’s the moment in ‘Solo’ where symphony collides with synth-funk, while Dudley once more surveys the cultural landscape.
Put simply, records this rich don’t come along very often. As far as ideas go, Dudley Benson has acknowledged that, as a pakeha, he’s taking a risk exploring issues of colonisation or the Maori spiritual themes that crop up through the record, yet to my ears, none of these discussions could be more timely.
Many years ago, the great New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn said that a musician "must develop an awareness of the place he lives in, not attempting a mere imitation of nature in sounds, but seeking its inner values, the manifestations of beauty and purposes it shows us … and perhaps using it as something against which he can test the validity of his own work."
It seems to me that Dudley Benson has done precisely that. And as far as validity goes, Zealandia passes every test.