Aotearoa, November 2020
Gail Ingram: Tena koe, Phoenix. You’re writing a book and media project to honour your father Tama Renata and his extraordinary life of music. Tell us a little about your father, how you remember him as a person and as one of Aotearoa’s finest musicians.
Phoenix Renata: Anyone who knew Dad would recall his cheeky, contagious laugh and his mischievous smile. His stage persona was extroverted, full of confidence and brave; his talent intimidated some of the most admired artists in the world. Yet, when off stage, he was shy, gentle and extremely humble. He was a complex and unique character – a force of nature. He had a compassionate, generous heart, and music was an extension of his soul.
He has been called a genius because of his phenomenal guitar playing, and his myriad musical abilities. He could hear and produce perfect pitch, he played music by ear. He could listen to an extremely challenging and intricate song just once and instantly play it back as though he had written the song himself. He was able to play in a way that resonated with people and moved them.
He was also a spirited player with endless skills – one was his talent for playing with speed. In the 80s, he was named the ‘Fastest Guitarist in the World’ by his peers. He worked in every area of the music industry, played in every music genre you could think of and, on top of that, he played multiple instruments, including the bass, saxophone, percussion and vocals.
Linn Lorkin, one of New Zealand’s most talented musicians, wrote a song about Tama called ’When Tama Plays’. The song describes him perfectly, but it is the opening and the ending lines of the song that captures the essence of Tama:
Solid as a Kauri Stump, Tama has a face like the Sun.
Wears his jandals right on stage, he’s a cheeky son-of-a-gun.
When they analyse his style, try to see what makes him a Star,
He says “What a load of Bullsh*t, Hey! I just friggin play my Guitar.”
GI: Tell us about your kaupapa for the project. When did you start, what inspired you and what is involved in terms of your research and planning? And has COVID impacted the project?
PR: For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to write a book about his life. When I was growing up, our home was full of music. Dad was never without a guitar, our lounge was a studio, the best musicians in the country were always jamming, there were instruments, microphones, amps and speakers in every room. Constant live music filled the air.
I began this project after Dad’s passing in Nov 2018. The process has involved a lot of research, and I have interviewed over 120 people so far. I still have another 50 or more to speak with. My project includes not only writing a biography, but creating an archive of photos, music and videos, creating a docu-series show, re-mastering and releasing my Dad’s solo album, with the ultimate goal of making a movie.
His reputation within the music scene is formidable. I saw first-hand how some of the biggest stars and most respected players would revere my dad. There is no denying the impact he has made on the NZ music scene. However, given all that admiration and acknowledgement, he is relatively unknown to the general public when he should be one of our biggest stars. The mainstream media in NZ have ignored his role in our music history.
He lived an extraordinary life and has an inspiring story that I know will move people. He is an unsung hero, who has never been given the platform that his talent and contribution to music duly deserves.
I want to discuss systemic racism in the media, radio, television and music industries. I have seen the effects of colonisation and generational trauma. I feel deeply about how the post-war era, urban drift and gang affiliation affected my whanau. I have witnessed the outcome of child abuse, self-destruction, addiction and fame. All of these things impacted Dad’s life and music career significantly.
I intend to bring these factors to light and to take a deeper look at the man that Tama was. I want to tell his story in a raw and real way so that he can be recognised as a genius and a survivor.
The research and gathering phase have been a healing and life-changing journey. I had many travel plans for interviews that have now been postponed. I had planned to travel to Australia and places around NZ. But I do feel incredibly lucky to be able to work comfortably from home and utilise the lockdown time to write. I am thoroughly enjoying the writing as it is helping me to grieve and to learn more, not only about my Dad, but also about myself and where I come from.
GI: You have interviewed many people that worked and played with Tama, and whose lives he has touched. Are there any stories or interviews that have particularly stayed with you?
PR: Every single one. I often think of the daunting task I have, collating all of my interviews, because each person has a unique perspective and brings an incredible story with them.
The contrasts between the people I speak to are outstanding. One day I am sitting with an extroverted rock star, the next I am speaking to a classical jazz player or musician from the NZSO, and the next I might be interviewing a movie director or talking to a local who works at the freezing works in Napier. The contrast is startling and heartwarming. The same is true for the stories, from a fleeting and spontaneous moment between Dad and Roberta Flack to man who had been my dad’s best friend in primary school in Gisborne.
GI: Black Lives Matter in 2020 has been a wake-up call for many around the world. Has this movement made a difference to how you feel this year and your approach to the project?
PR: It hasn’t made a difference because it’s something I have always acknowledged and have always intended to write about. I’m glad the movement has awakened people, who were blind to it or didn’t take it seriously before. It’s horrifying to see that history keeps repeating itself. The challenges people of colour face today are the same as they were in my parents’ generation decades ago. The effect of colonisation, such as generation trauma, is a large part of my story and my father’s story. As a Māori myself, I am witness to racial discrimination regularly – it’s nothing new for my whanau. I am privileged because I have lighter skin and, because of that, I am shown much more lenience than my Māori whanau, I have received more opportunities to thrive in my career, health and status in the world – and that is an outrage to me. Systemic racism affected my father significantly, which I will be addressing in my book. Black people have always been an inspiration to Māori and Pacific people because they are the originators of so much that the rest of the world emulate and celebrate, from fashion and language to creativity and culture. For decades, we have identified with them and seen a reflection of our struggles through theirs. Just as they fight against police brutality, harsher sentencing and discrimination, so do we; as they struggle with cultural theft and appropriation, so do we. The list goes on and on.
African American people are a strong inspiration to us not only through art, music and culture but as activists and heroic survivors.
Dad was an activist for equality through his music. Dad’s band Herbs helped to fight against apartheid, and as a result of their musical contribution and support, Nelson Mandela honoured them with a formal in-person thank you.
GI: When can we expect the book to be finished and where will we be able to find it?
PR: I am optimistic that my book and docu-series will be released at the end of 2021, along with the re-release of my dad’s re-mastered album, Workshop.
For news, updates, photos, videos & more, follow Tama’s social media:
YouTube: Tama Renata
For Tama’s music, merchandise and book, they will be available soon on Tama’s website: www.tamarenata.com
GI: Kia ora, Phoenix, he pai ki te korero ki a koe!
Tama has been described as a great Kauri tree, and indeed he was. King of the forest: a strong native with many arms and branches spreading wide, magnificent in its beauty, wise and knowing in his powerful presence. As we begin our journey through Tama’s life we start at the root of his magnificent Kauri. The roots extend past the width of the crown, they are the foundation of life. If the roots are damaged, the tree becomes infected; if nurtured the Kauri becomes one of the longest living trees in the world. The roots are Tama’s ancestry, laid partly exposed yet mostly hidden deep in the depths of the earth. To climb the heights of his glory and bask in the view from the canopy of this native King, we must first start at the base and unearth the buried roots which stabilised him, and drew him to the light from the time he was a very small seedling.
From Te-Whanau-a-Ruataupare in Tokomaru Bay, Tama was an award-winning, powerhouse musician known for his speed and dexterity on the guitar. Named a musical genius and ‘god of guitar’ by his peers, Tama was inducted into the Music Hall of Fame alongside his fellow members from reggae band, Herbs, in 2012. His career spans over 50 years; he’s worked as a composer, performer, studio engineer, mentor, music producer and touring artist. Tama has played with many NZ Legends, and he has caught the attention of global superstars, including Santana, Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Rick Waiteman, Johnny Farnam, Roberta Flack and David Bowie. He composed and performed the unforgettable theme to the soundtrack of the film ‘Once Were Warriors’ (see video, above), which became a national anthem. He has countless accomplishments in the world of music. His outstanding contribution to the music industry cemented his name among great legends of Aotearoa. Tama is considered a Taonga in the Māori world.
Phoenix Renata is an entrepreneur, award-winning makeup artist and creator of beauty empire Phoenix Cosmetics. Phoenix has worked extensively in the makeup industry since the age of 15. Her portfolio showcases work for New Zealand’s top fashion designers, including Zambesi, Trelise Cooper, Annah Stretton and many more. Phoenix has worked in film, television and fashion fields. She is the only makeup artist to have her own consecutive makeup shows at NZ Fashion Week. Phoenix developed her makeup line and, at the age of 21, opened her first makeup boutique. She grew her business into 12 stores nationwide, as well as a store in Australia and a beauty school, alongside a thriving wholesale business. Phoenix Cosmetics operated for 16 successful years and was sold in 2019. Phoenix is now embarking on a personal endeavour to honour her father Tama Renata. She is releasing a biography and doco-series about his colourful and musical legacy.
Gail Ingram is the award-winning poet, creative writing teacher and author of Contents Under Pressure (Pūkeko Publications 2019), a novella told in poetry, as well as editor of two poetry anthologies and two journals. Her work has appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Landfall, Mayhem, Barren Magazine, Rewilding: An Ecopoetic Anthology, Fib Review and others. As a poetry editor for takahē magazine and a fiction editor for Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction, she has interviewed several writers. However, this was a special interview for Gail as Phoenix is her sister, a sister she didn’t meet until she was 22 – since she was adopted at birth. It has been wonderful to discover over the years that her whole family has writing in the blood. More at her website: https://www.theseventhletter.nz/