History, Music and its Words

Tanita Tikaram and her worldly imagery

June 21, 2016

This may be one of the most difficult posts I have chosen to write. Many of my sparks begin so quickly. And because time is so limited, there’s hardly a moment left to follow through on an inspirational thought or piqued interest in an artist, in this case singer and songwriter, Tanita Tikaram. Some of you may be familiar with her work and yet because this New Zealand-born folk singer and writer is not part of the mainstream world of music, many of you may not be.

It is hard for me to acknowledge that while I list Tanita Tikaram among my all time favorite songwriters, I have only ever had her debut album, Ancient Heart, in my small music archive. And before I make an unqualified remark about this being her best work of all the albums she has produced over the years, I had better watch my step. I have only listened to Ancient Heart, over and over again, and amazingly, am not yet familiar with the rest of Tanita Tikaram’s oeuvre.

All I can do for now is talk with admiration about the few impressions I have of one of the worlds least recognizable and underrated folk musicians. Even though I’ve listened to one record, as far as I’m concerned, Tanita is up there among the greats of which both Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez would be the two most prominent female artists. Nevertheless, I somehow could always relate on a personal level to what I always believed softly-spoken and yet opinionated Ms. Tikaram was trying to tell the world.

Not to do with her obvious physical features, I felt her ancient Maori influences breezing across my front door’s steps. Knocking on my door, she was inviting me into her life and world. That she had an ancient heart needed no convincing, but what truly endeared me were her lyrical and somber timbres of Good Tradition and World Outside my Window. She spent lines talking about family and the frailties of the heart. From the outset, she recognized cultural differences and wanted to break those walls down.

I could relate to all of that and I felt comfortable in her presence. That she appeared as shy as I am naturally did not impede. I did not always listen to her thought-provoking lyrics, and when I didn’t, I was at least always tapping my fingers to the melodic and rhythmic features of her music. It almost felt like a beatsy cross-over between traditional sixties folk and jivey rhythm and blues mixtures from that same decade and the next. There was, of course, also the unintended commercial element of pop. I say it was unintentional because I have never perceived Tanita to be a commercially-driven girl.

She was not out to make money and become world-famous. All she wanted to do was have a good time doing what she loves best while also telling, but never preaching, about her lives, our lives and the worlds we lived in. She was always trying to burst out of her shell, trying to make suggestions on how we could make our world better, but somehow never got far enough. This is always a bit tricky to do anyway when you are essentially dabbling in high art.

I love the way she ducks and jives with her acoustic guitar. What a wonderfully authentic instrument for any talented musician to have in their collection. Even more wonderful is when the instrument is played skillfully, sometimes with great gusto but mostly with a lot of gentle sensitivity. In the commercial world of pop and rock, image is unfortunately everything. It’s an attention grabber second to none and often diverts ears and eyes from a blatant lack of talent and dedication and unwillingness to really put more hard work into developing abilities and craft.

Tanita, talented girl, shy too, never needed to show off or grab our attention with sensationalism and dashes of artistic derring-do. But, in the nicest possible way that I can say this here, I was instantaneously attracted to her. Her deep, dark voice was one thing. Her prominent physical features were another attraction. It’s got nothing at all to do with colonial fetishes for the exotic. It’s got everything to do with being able to relate and identify with the earthiness and raw simplicity of our origins and always being proud of our roots, ironic in the sense of my suspicion that Tanita was a shy girl when I first encountered her.

Speaking of simplicity, when I first saw her music video version of Good Tradition, I fell in love with her turtle neck tops and her lovely lamb’s wool knee-length skirts. Apart from modesty and respect for self and others, it all oozed class to me.

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