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DOSSIER January 2007
by Pierre-Alexandre Bescos






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“All cultures result from mixture, meetings and clashes.
Conversely, it is isolation that causes the death of civilisations.”

This maxim from Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz is self-evident: the finest projects take root in multiculturalism. Music is no exception to the rule, especially on the Vanuatu Islands, where the only rules are those defined by the thread of existence, nature and custom…


Unlike the many throwaway CDs that tend to surface around this time, Sunshiners is no bright marketing idea or opportunistic compilation good only for adding a touch of colour to the blues of Western nights and proving that summer is really here. The album is a bombshell of spontaneity and humanity, a live encounter between a handful of French grey-sky refugees and four rich-voiced Vanuatuan singers, leaders of local groups gathered together for the first time in search of new experiences: Gero Iaviniau of “Nayo”, the archipelago’s biggest band, John Kapala of “Krosroad”, Ben Siro of “Huarere” and Jake Moses of “Torotua” and “XX Squad”.

Together, these men have adapted a dozen unstoppable standards of British pop (also immune to any kind of rule) that had their hour of glory in the mid-80s and have now been taken off to bask in good-vibe sunshine on shores of unrepressed reggae! In Vanuatu, there is not a trace of dark attitude: reggae reigns supreme and the sole disciple to have left his mark on sand and hearts is Bob Marley, the legendary genius who fronted the Wailers. Local groups or “string bands” are to be found everywhere, exercising their skills at the parties and gatherings that punctuate the lives of each tribe. You might almost think the four singers from this antipodean archipelago were the original performers of these new-wave melodies, so spontaneous, simple and even naïve are their covers of the songs, which they had never heard before. You could even find yourself grinning as you imagine our Britpop idols enjoying a new life of ease in the Vanuatu sun.

Imagine landing disoriented on one of the archipelago’s 83 islands - northeast of New Caledonia, in the Southwest Pacific, west of the Fiji Islands, south of the Solomon Islands - place names whose mere mention makes you want to pack your bags and brings a persistent smile to your face. It was in this peculiar state of languorous excitement that reggae group Mister Gang’s Feal and Gaël arrived in New Caledonia. After the release of their second opus “Paris Lisbonne Pointe à Pitre” in 2001, they had begun a world tour. One evening at a concert in Corsica, representatives of the Union Syndicale des travailleurs kanaks et des exploités (Trade Union of Kanak Workers and the Exploited), the most powerful union in New Caledonia, invited them to play at the unmissable “Festival Megamiouz”. They did not realise that one of their songs was a hit on the island, but were soon to find out.

When they arrived in Nouméa, they were welcomed by a jubilant crowd. On stage, they gave it all they had in front of 25,000 spectators. Then, backstage, Feal got chatting to John from “Krosroad”. They talked about their lives, their respective countries and, of course, music, their great shared passion. There was immediately a chemistry between them. Following their meeting, the group decided to stay a little longer and set off to discover the island, one of the last paradises left on Earth. The following year, they were to record “Live In Kanaky” there. Between Korn or Positive Black Soul remixes and invitations from Baobab or K2R Riddim, the group went their separate ways, fuelled by rich bouts of infidelity. Without realising it, Sunshiners were already a going concern: the crucial meeting had taken place. Jamaicans build reggae on US soul and now the French would do the same with Britpop. Feal and Gaël set off on their musical adventure, heading for an unknown destination, but with the feeling that they were following a lucky star - or shining sun! - as they worked on this wild project.

Spending evenings exploring each other’s musical memories with a touch of nostalgia and a great deal of sun in their eyes, the partners laid down rhythmic and harmonic frameworks for reggae arrangements of 80s pop songs. First off the mark were an original version of In Between Days (The Cure) and the synthetic gimmickry of Such A Shame (Talk Talk). Here, they added an Ernest Ranglin-style guitar riff; there, a trombone reminiscent of Rico Rodriguez’s tour de force on She Drives Me Crazy, which won Fine Young Cannibals two Brit Awards in 1990. Another obvious choice was Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometimes by The Korgis, a James Warren song that soared to the top of the UK charts in 1980, just as Vanuatu won independence after decades of French and British condominium. A few years later, the song would be covered with greater and lesser success by Beck and Zucchero respectively. Some other ideas came to nothing as the project unfolded. The ins and outs of record-industry practice ruled out U2’s global smash hit Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, recorded an hour before their studio time ran out, with an urgency that only inspiration and grace could achieve, on improvised bass, acoustic guitars, a ukulele and beer bottles used as percussion. Other tracks, such as Precious Little Diamond from Holland’s groovemeisters Fox The Fox, will hopefully be released at a later date!


Gaël returned to Vanuatu, his sole passport a reggae instrumental of Rule The World. Shortly after his arrival, he met Gero Iaviniau and learnt that the Vanuatuan was a singer as they sipped kava, the archipelago’s traditional national drink, based on the anaesthetic root of the pepper plant and enjoyed in the nakamal, where the local population gathers at sunset. A close bond sprang up between the two that evening and has never weakened since. Over kava again, the Vanuatuans agreed on their musical future and declared their mutual trust. The following morning, Gero recorded Rule The World in less time than it takes to sing! Excited by this first Vanuatuan breakthrough, Gaël picked up his phone and managed to get through to Feal in Paris and play him this providential early harvest. 22,000 kilometres away, the project that many had thought unworkable was no longer a pipe dream. It was now real, embodied by a first vocal recording. Time would do the rest, but it was at this point that the “chimization ” venture began.

There are certain fundamental values that the Pacific has managed to maintain, principally its customs, one of the foremost being the tradition of kava: sharing the same drink and accepting the encounter. Exchange without compromise. Even when the contract was signed on the premises of Sony BMG in France with David Nalo, representative of an NGO working to promote Vanuatuan culture, acting for the four singers, the label’s entire team adopted the custom of kava time. The tradition is an officialisation, a welcome and a token of trust. In Vanuatu, more than anywhere else, the inhabitants are curious about origins, relationships and native lands. Also, great importance is placed on dialogue in the archipelago; the power of words given, exchanged or passed on. Whatever the language used - never mind that Vanuatuans speak English (often) French (much less frequently) or bichlamar - communication primarily involves direct eye contact, contrasting with lowered gazes in the West. Sunshiners offer this kind of cultural shock, but a very gentle, confrontationless one. Kava time is a timeless moment; Vanuatu is an archipelago where time does not exist.

So last year, Feal got away for two short weeks to track down John and Gero, and meet two new singers he knew only by their voices. Introduced to extraordinary melodies such as Depeche Mode’s Shake The Disease, totally at odds with their musical background, the four lads were initially surprised, then doubtful. But they listened to the new, freshly-recorded reggae arrangements with an amateur, but practised ear, and chose the melody or words they would speak according to their inclinations. For instance, according to the rules of his tribe, Gero could not sing love songs; working on the problem, he developed an even stronger affinity with the Frenchman. In one week, what should have been a simple recording session turned into a genuine dialogue, with music providing a way of getting to know each other. Gradually, the group made the songs their own, developing their personal take. For example, the Ziggy Stardust novices themselves chose the vocal inflections they would use on Modern Love, a peroxide classic from “Let’s Dance” that is somewhat neglected by Bowie today, despite a masterly version featuring the talents of guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan and Nile Rodgers.


In Port Vila, it was 9 in the morning as Ben Siro finished a brassy version of Supertramp’s Take The Long Way Home from their “Breakfast In America” album. He had heard the song for the first time the day before and had memorised it overnight, coming up with a version filled with feeling. The studio was basic, but the Parisians had brought the “essentials” needed for old-style hot and humid recording with them. They added the delightful imperfections of a raw version of the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me, and new covers of an unquenchable Rod Stewart standard and the second single taken from the second Tears For Fears album, one of the first records released in Compact Disc format: Baby Jane was slowed down and Everybody Wants To Rule The World turned into a reggae hymn and sure-fire live-audience sing-along.

For Sunshiners really show their full talent as a live act. The very first success is to have completed the project and brought the four lads to France. Their current trip has given the group a first opportunity to leave their country. Their journey from islands to island is ending on stage and you can expect the results to be explosive! There are taking no fewer than 18 people on the road, including most of Mister Gang, the guitarist from Kana, Tryo’s road manager and Fishbone’s Booking Agent (Ter à Terre), for a stage performance that has plenty of surprises in store. Perhaps some Vanuatuan standards? Gainsbourg numbers already covered by “XX Squad”? Or an original medley, including tracks from Spirit Of Eden and Soft Cell, the Eurythmics’ Here Comes The Rain Again and The Cure’s A Forest?

The Sunshiners album should be listened to in Pacific mode, with no notion of time passing from sunrise to sunset. It could be the soundtrack for the summer of 2006. In any case, the group are already “chimizing” Finland, Turkey, Greece, Japan and soon Spain, Canada, Italy, Germany and England… They will be on the road from next June, visiting the main French-speaking summer festivals and even crossing the Channel. Full circle, right? What could be more symbolic than the Don’t Dream It’s Over that closes the album, celebrating the twenty years since its first performance by Neil Finn, a neighbour from New Zealand, or to hear black artists covering the great chorus of Robert Palmer’s Every Kind Of People - later sung by Joe Cocker, a white singer who is a soul man himself?

Now all we need is for Robert Smith to sit down with the Sunshiners over a kava!

Records [up]
Sunshiners   Sunshiners
   2006 - Album
   buy it at iTunes

Welkam Bak Long Vanuatu   Welkam Bak Long Vanuatu
   2007 - Album
   buy it at iTunes

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