18 Jan 2022
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Ben Kemp

Bio

In the space between. A place neither hear nor there, a place where traditional forms of art hesitantly tread. A place where Ben Kemp has been all his life.

New Zealander singer-songwriter Ben Kemp spent his formative years as a child in Gisborne with mixed Maori and German descent, traversing the worlds of Pakeha and Maori, yet never feeling fully accepted by neither. As a man, he has sought and found his identity in the most unlikely of places, far removed from the rural outskirts of Gisborne, in the relentless hustle of Japan.

And so, from the Land of the Rising Sun, the son of Aotearoa returns.

Ben Kemp, together with his band Uminari, has formed an artistry unique in the entertainment world. Blending the soulful acoustic imagery of his upbringing in New Zealand with the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, Kemp has coined the phrase Polyn-Asian, and returns down-under to bring audiences a thought-provoking taste of his unique Pacific-Rim sound. It is beyond the boundaries of the conventional, and outside of what can be considered World Music. Ben Kemp and Uminari perform between the lines both musically and culturally, intricately texturing sounds from the Pacific and the orient.

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So who is Ben Kemp? His relative anonymity in New Zealand obscures a prolific artist; Kemp has already released two albums, 2005’s 'A River’s Mouth' and 2006’s 'Papatu Road', while playing in excess of 200 live shows in Japan and New Zealand, including two “under the radar” tours to his homeland.

“I have this vision, a frighteningly descriptive vision, that I have carried with me since a child,” tells Kemp. “It’s of a Pohutukawa tree that was perched high upon a bank at the ocean’s edge; for some reason everything I do revolves around that image. I remember it as a child, travelling in the Far North of New Zealand, standing there clinging on to the land that was being relentlessly ravaged by the ocean pounding against the edge of that eroded bank.

“The vision of that tree, standing strong while the waves crashed around its very foundation, was the thing that awakened my journey to find my identity.”

For Kemp, born in 1972 to maternal Maori heritage and paternal German / New Zealand ancestry, identity was not something that came naturally. Raised in Manutuke (current pop. 636) on the southern outskirts of Gisborne, Kemp felt at odds by a predominantly Maori community that cast him as ‘too white’ (although he does recall performing a haka on the marae grounds at Whale-Rider famed Whangara) and emerged into more ‘white’ communities where he was considered Maori. He grew up in a cultural space, in-between.

“As a child I always had this identity conflict; I went to a predominantly Maori primary school as a Pakeha, then went to a predominantly Pakeha high school identifying as Maori. I lived in that space for quite a few years, so inwardly I held my culture very close to me,” he says. “Coming from someone who has grown up with a mixed sense of identity and belonging, I feel like I’ve long been on a search for answers about my “Maori-ness” and identity.

“Acceptance within these communities hasn’t easily to me as my family have been considered outsiders since my grandmother married a Pakeha. I believe there was even sadness in my own grandmother to witness the Maori blood diluting with each generation. It is only since I reached my twenties, and have been crafting my own art forms, that I’ve had the ability to get closer to knowing my roots. I understand that this is my own head space and something I must come to terms with on my own.”

It’s a long way from Manutuke to Japan, where he first moved to as a 23 year-old and then returned to permanently five years ago, yet it’s a journey that Kemp has taken to both find himself and to form the unique sound that he will bring back to New Zealand in 2007.

Yet it is somewhat odd that he returns home virtually unknown, despite his rising profile in Japan. Also a poet, Kemp has published work in New Zealand by Trout by Auckland University Press, Deep South by Otago University Press and was invited to read at Montana National Poetry Day as one of two emerging poets.

“Poetry allows me to express without the layers, it provides me with the bones I need,” he says. “That grounding in poetry in turn gives the music of Uminari an element of introspection, honesty and depth. For me that kind of honesty is something that I can’t hide and there’s a real beauty and charm in honesty. I don’t want to present a façade – my integrity as an artist and human being over-rides everything. I want to keep developing that.”

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The genesis of Uminari was in 2003, when Kemp was busking on the streets of Shimo-Katizawa, boasting one of Tokyo’s more vibrant music scenes.

“Things weren’t going that well for me that night,” recalls Kemp. “I was on the bones of my arse and that night I had broken a few strings. Koyu Suzuki, the bass player, was standing behind me, watching – he actually had been running late to another gig, but stayed because he was fascinated with the way my music appeared very unstructured but he realised that in fact it was very structured. It’s funny how that one decision he made to stick around has changed the course of where we are now.”

Since then, two more players have been added, resulted in a quartet of accomplished, multi-talented musicians armed with the capacity to fully explore their creative explorations. Bassist Suzuki is the band’s producer and is a graduate of Boston’s Berkley College of Music. Flautist Mitsuru has absorbed traditional Maori flute styles of Koauau and Ngaru, and played on legendary jazz label Blue Note’s 60th Anniversary album. And percussionist Taro plays styles from around the Pacific Rim, from the traditional styles of his homeland, Pacific Island techniques and the obscure Peruvian instrument, the Cajon.

Kemp and his band are continually unearthing new and exciting ground as they evolve and mature. They continue to emulate instruments previously unfamiliar to them (such as the koauau, nguru, putorino and pukaea) and explore new territory in technical terms (for example, using chanting and microtones – both of which are less familier in Western musical traditions).

Kemp’s themes draw from Aotearoa, his sense of ancestral ties, generational wisdom and the bountiful nature and peppers them with Japanese colour, symbols and ideas. Just like the cultural fusion that has shaped Kemp’s identity, the clash of Maori and Japanese cultures now shape his music and performances.

“I believe it is important for Maori arts to be continually challenged,” says Kemp. “This helps evolve the culture and ensure its dynamism in a rapidly changing world, it breathes new life into it. To me, it’s a beautiful and meaningful fusion. I want to question the accepted definitions of Maori art and be a part of its regeneration.”

Ben Kemp and Uminari seek to challenge the accepted definitions of their cultural art, but of their craft as a whole. In the realm of Western music, based on structured notes, Kemp searches for that space in-between.

“On an emotional level I’m interested in the space between the notes or the uncharted area that isn’t often explored in Western music,” he explains. “There’s always an emotional level that I’m looking for and right now I tend to find it in minor keys and microtones. When you think about traditional western music and instruments, you can rarely get to the space between F and F sharp, for example. That’s the area I’m interested in and want to explore. That space feels un-mapped, no-one seems to exist there.

“In the song writing process, first and foremost I focus on the lyrical, I actually shape the music around the words. I won’t sacrifice the words, I’ll throw in a one-off etxra beat to fit around the word.”

Kemp’s songwriting process recognises the need for breathing space for cultural entities to take shape. Just like the cultures that evolve over millennia, Kemp believes his works are an ongoing evolution.

“I’m very patient with my music, I let the songs reveal themselves in their own time, let them brew in their own time. If a seed is planted then it will always germinate, but it will do so when it is ready to.”

The seed for Ben Kemp and Uminari has been sown, now it is time for it to germinate, and for music world to reap its fruits.

Releases

Genres

Location

  • Outside Of NZ


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