Kiwi as, Ken
THEY'RE as Kiwi as Buzzy Bee and Highland dancing at the A&P show, those Topp Twins.
They love New Zealand’s provincial towns so the yodelling cowgirls will be right at home when they come riding around the mountain (figuratively speaking) next month.
Armed with guitar, mouth-harp and spoons, and stocked with characters like side-burned, rollie-smoking, Ken and Ken, and Camp Mother and Camp Leader, the twins bring an old-fashioned style of entertainment to their audiences.
So how does a sister act from 1950s Huntly, with 1970s feminism bubbling beneath their skins, flourish in 21st century New Zealand with its high-tech film companies, Maori arts brio and iconoclastic comedy?
“There’s no one else like us,” says Jools Topp.
New Zealand stand-up comedy has taken off and made a name for itself, but the Topp Twins belong to more of an American vaudeville, British music hall tradition, she says.
The Topp Twins’ style and characters is recognisably kiwi though.
“What we choose for all our characters and concepts gets a laugh because it’s kiwiana. People say ‘that’s Dad, that’s Gran’. We allow ourselves to laugh at ourselves. Old school New Zealand is who we are.
“The Topp Twins break the rules even more. We get off stage and walk among the audience. We cross that line.”
Lynda Topp first crossed that line in an impromptu moment during a gig at a Palmerston North art gallery.
“All we did back then was country but then we realised not everyone liked country music,” says Topp.
“Lynda recognised our audience had glazed over. She walked into the audience and said ‘we had to endure this as kids so you have to as well’.”
Engaging the audienceIt struck a chord, it scored a laugh. That was the moment the twins realised they needed to engage their audience.
“That was quite weird. We took that one step further and created these characters that have a relationship with the audience and one another. Camp Mother is always telling Camp Leader off.
“When you do a gig it’s about whatever happens on the night. Whatever pops up in front of you, you have to be on to it immediately. That’s what makes it magic. We’re about having fun with our audiences. The music is a vehicle for that.”
Born in Huntly in 1958, Lynda and Jools Topp made their debut at five years old when they performed Walking in the Sunshine with boaters and canes at a cousin’s 21st party.
They were brought up on movie musical-comedy and country standards. When Lynda heard her first yodel she became obsessed about learning it.
“She used to ride to the nearby farm about 30 minutes up the road on horseback, listen to their old wind-up gramophone, jump back on her horse, race home, get out the guitar and try and remember what she had just heard.”
In 1977 they sang at the International Women’s Convention in Hamilton. With original songs like Paradise and We’ll Fight For Our Freedom they became the darlings of the women’s movement.
“Feminism never goes away,” says Topp. “It’s part of your makeup.”
The twins’ political point of view “quietly bubbles away” but every now and then it explodes like a volcano, says Topp.
“There was a time we were invincible, we could change the world. We marched on protests against the Springbok tour and nuclear warships.”
Homosexual Law Reform BillIn the 1980s they sang in support of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill.
“We won all of those. We didn’t do it on our own but we were highly visible. We were the Joan Baezes of New Zealand.”
In one anti-nuclear warships protest, about 2000 women marched in silence down Auckland’s Queen Street.
“We don’t march so much any more,” says Topp. “People have got more personal about their politicians. Problems are internalised. People worry about their jobs, their finances. They have stopped worrying about how to create a nuclear-free world.”
Along with the passing of the protest march, Topp laments widespread use of plastic.
“We don’t grow vegetables any more. Lynda and I think the next generation will call our generation the plastic generation. In my cupboard it’s glass jars and containers. It looks more beautiful.
“Camp Mother and Camp Leader, and Ken and Ken, bring back that moment in time. It’s OK to feel some soil in your hands.”
And that is the old-fashioned, down-to-earth New Zealand Jools and Lynda Topp aim to restore.
“We bring what we can to little towns in New Zealand to bring people together. It’s silly and fun and beautiful. Sometimes we just need to laugh together.”