Tomorrow People

“BBQ” Reggae Tour, Cabana, June 8
By Nadia Kersel

I walk in and feel like I’ve arrived at a long awaited party.  Everyone knows someone. The line through the door splits off as we’re each called to join large groups of familiar faces. We’re gathered in close to sing, drink, and dance to our favourite sounds – reggae. And with not a single BBQ in sight. Ah yes, that term – “BBQ Reggae”.  Back in 2012, in a long, snobby rant local critic Simon Sweetman sourly denounced “BBQ Reggae” as:

…music for people who don’t like music. Music for people who know they have thumbs but don’t really know what that means…music made by people without a single original idea; by people with nothing to say.

Six years on and Tomorrow People have claimed “BBQ” Reggae as the title of their latest album. They’re owning the term and taking the mickey out of those who look down their (purposely raised) noses at this distinctly Pacific flavoured reggae.

It’s really not that hard to wrap your head around the appeal of Tomorrow People. It’s pretty simple:

People LOVE Reggae.

People in Aotearoa LOVE Reggae.

My kind of People LOVE Reggae

Us: brown-skinned People

State-house-self-taught-musician People

School-hall-siva-night People

Heavy-supper or hangi-plate People

Church-singing on Sunday People

Gat-at-every-par-tay People.

Tomorrow People are our People.

BBQs optional. Kao se umu!

It’s not that surprising.  The familiar rhythms of reggae remain grounded in peaceful resistance. It’s the music that was brought up alongside us, as the soundtrack of our childhoods.  The music that island cover bands played at the school hall social, or blasted through the wharekai servery window. The kind of music that activates our freedom of self expression – on dancefloor, on stage, on hikoi. Now, with digital platforms and more freedom to choose than ever before, we still choose reggae.  And so does the next generation.

Tomorrow People give us what we like and they do this well, in three languages no less: English, Te Reo and Samoan. On the Cabana dancefloor, groups merge and we’re ready for the opening beats from our guests of honour. When it comes, the entire crowd’s centre of gravity drops all at once.  We let our dance happen, muscles relaxing into skank, slow wine and rock-aways. The band is generous, peppering their original setlist with respectful, untwisted covers of Bob Marley, UB40 and Fiji.

Tomorrow People’s rapport with their audience is confident and caring.  They’re dedicated to this space where they can connect and make people happy. Kelekolio’s charismatic toasting carries this mission – inciting the crowd into movement and celebration.  The lead vocalists are fine-tuned to it too, and to one another despite recent changes in their line-up. Their instrumentalists effortlessly bind it all and keep the rhythm flowing. It’s such warmly held space. This feels grounded and full of promise; like opening your curtains to a sunny morning…and then remembering it’s your day off.  No wonder they’ve self identified their music as “Sunshine Reggae”.

For me, Hamo Dell is the shining star of this performance.  She brings the bobbing audience into wide-eyed, dropped-jaw stillness, holding us steady as she fluently ushers us through her vocal range.  One moment sweet and bright, the next belting and full. Again, like sunlight. It’s with this easy grace and intimacy that Hamo Dell reminds us just who we’re partying with. This is festival, big-stage sound – right here, in our dark little Cabana. The passionate and grateful crowd finds a voice again and sings along, every word of every song, in all three languages.

Crafting their brand of “sunshine reggae” for nearly a decade now, Tomorrow People’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.  Last year they were nominated for Best Roots Artist at the New Zealand Music Awards. This year they are the recipients of two Vodafone Pacific Music Awards – for Best Pacific Group and Best Pacific Language for their trilingual hit Don’t Wanna Fight It/Sa’ili Le Alofa/Whangai Aroha. Band members Tana Tupa’i and Avina Kelekolio also received the Music Manager’s Award for Self-Managed Artists of the Year.  This band is legit doing it all themselves – and role modelling what a self-determined music industry career could look like.  All this recognition, just a few weeks prior to this gig at Napier’s immutable home of live music, The Cabana. I reckon maybe it was a party.

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