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A winding path

Tama Waipara, director of the upcoming, inaugural Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival, talks to The Weekender about the winding path of his international musical career to his more recent behind-the-scenes roles . . .

From the Manhattan School of Music to taking on the role of Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival director, Tama Waipara’s career trajectory might seem like a winding path.

And it has been, but in a richly productive way. His experience of performing onstage to working behind the scenes has given him a keen sense of kinship between production and performance. Now based in Gisborne to put together the inaugural, 16-day festival in October to showcase this region’s arts, Tama’s focus is on place and people.

The arts festival is a platform for connection, he says.

His involvement in festival programming evolved from his 2011 role as music programmer for Rugby World Cup events based at Auckland’s Queens Wharf. In the following year he joined the Auckland Arts Festival as programme manager with a specific focus on Maori and Pacific works.

Apart from a brief stint as programme leader in the Auckland City Council arts and culture team, Tama has held the role of senior programme manager for the Auckland Arts Festival for the past six years.

That experience led to his appointment as director for the Tairawhiti Arts Festival.

“Connecting audiences with artists and arts experiences is something I’m passionate about,” he says.

Born in Rangiora, Tama has strong whakapapa links throughout the district but particularly in Manutuke where his father is from.

“A big part of coming home for me is the opportunity to be closer to my whanau. I grew up in Opotiki but Turanga-nui-a-Kiwa has always been my turangawaewae.”

The Waipara whanau moved to Opotiki and it was there that Tama began to learn how to play the clarinet. He completed a Bachelor of Music (Honours) in classical clarinet at the University of Auckland. He was later accepted into the Manhattan School of Music in New York but a year into his studies he suffered a head injury. Following hospitalisation, he was diagnosed with post traumatic migraine and attempts to play the clarinet resulted in further complications.

During a nine-month break from his studies he discovered singing and songwriting. While he eventually recovered and completed his degree, this new passion created a new opportunity. Signed to ObliqSound records he recorded his first album.

“I was signed to the label for four years and got to do a lot of exciting things. My debut show was at Central Park’s SummerStage in New York.”

He spent the next few years of the early 2000s touring, performing and writing. Home for most of that time was New York with a four-month stint in Munich.

“When I left Aotearoa it was as a clarinettist and when I came home I had a new career as a singer/songwriter. That changed everything. I left the record company and produced my own EP.”

He has since released two more albums the last of which won the 2014 New Zealand Music Awards best roots album category.

“The opportunities I’ve had over the years have always been supported by whanau and iwi, so coming home makes perfect sense to me and I’m excited about the opportunity to showcase our artists.

“Music was the path for me but a wonky path with lots of curves and twists in it. Creativity doesn’t box itself neatly and nor should it.

“My passion for working behind the scenes eclipsed my involvement in front-of-the-camera or on-the-stage. Connecting audiences with artists and an arts experience is something I’m passionate about.

The corollary is the more active I’ve become behind the scenes, the less active up-front I’ve been — but I do have a passion for seeing other people do their thing.”

ORGANISER: Tama Waipara is the director of the upcoming, inaugural Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival. Strike Photography
Tama Waipara.