Alpine soundscapes

August 4

In 1998, the Rippon festival brought New Zealand music to the mountains of Wanaka for the first time. Twenty years later, TUKI festival is taking homegrown to new heights. 

No one said it would be easy. A loss here, a legal tussle there, the trials of the digital age. But Wanaka’s TUKI music festival, and its pioneering progenitor, Rippon, have staying power.

The festival has been a celebration of music, people and landscape for more than 20 years, and its modus operandi has not deviated one iota as the world and the industry has altered radically around it. As a flurry of New Zealand music festivals have popped up and dropped away, as promoters have jostled for local audiences, the founders of Rippon have stuck it out by keeping an open mind and with one basic credo: it’s about the people.

Rippon was born from a simple need. It was the late nineties, and music teacher Lynne Christie had shifted from Wellington to Wanaka. The Central Otago town was a dazzling piece of terrain which was experiencing simmering economic prosperity, but when it came to live music it was a “barren desert”. Lynne had been a disciple of the Dunedin Sound, the Dunedin-based scene of the early eighties, a time and place where New Zealand music not only came of age, but broke new ground as one of the key innovatory settings of the post-punk era. “What I had grown up with, in Dunedin, was The Chills were playing, The Clean were playing, and Sneaky Feelings and The Verlaines,” Lynne says. “Every weekend would be another band. And I just thought that was normal.”

At the same time, New Zealand music was in retreat. Aside from a handful of pop flurries, its spread across commercial radio was thin; major labels ensured international titles ruled the airwaves, and the platforms for homegrown artistry were limited. Lynne says if there were New Zealand creative signposts during that time, they were largely anonymous. “Back then a lot of the stuff we were hearing was not from our own backyard. There just seemed to be a lull.”

As far as festivals went, Australian promoters Ken West and Vivien Lees had brought the Big Day Out to these shores in 1994. Elsewhere, The Gathering New Year’s Eve festival at Takaka Hill, near Nelson, favoured “positivity” and “collective experiences” and implemented a booze-ban, tapping into local strands of club culture, which by 1996-1997 was becoming an increasingly commercial force. But there was little else to speak of, certainly not in Wanaka’s far-off pocket of paradise and nothing that was not-for-profit, Lynne says. So she did something about it.

Lynne rallied some cohorts and channelled the DIY spirit of the last Kiwi pop golden age to set up a not-for-profit named Lake Wanaka SouNZ to promote music in Aotearoa. She then approached Rippon Vineyard owners Lois and Rolfe Mills and mooted the idea of a festival. She thought it would be a tough sell, but they were “surprisingly open” to the idea. “It was the most beautiful land so we didn’t think it would fit in necessarily with their audience. But they were very happy to have music there and share their land.” Overlooking Roys Bay on Lake Wanaka, the vineyard was a spectacular biodynamic backdrop for the punters and musicians. The first Rippon was held on February 6, 1998 and attracted a crowd of nearly 2000. It would become a must-do biennial stop-off during summer’s tail-end for the next 16 years.

There were stumbling blocks. Rippon didn’t break even until the third event in 2000, losing bank on its first two pursuits when it was annual date, and there was a lawsuit when a shared PA failed at a Dave Dobbyn performance the day after the inaugural event. “Those things you don’t realise when you’re doing it because you just love music and love people and love the land. Every day is a learning experience.”

Over time, Rippon especially became associated with the emergence of New Zealand’s independent wave in the early-2000s, as bands such as The Black Seeds, TrinityRoots, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Kora followed in the footsteps of Salmonella Dub, and laid the foundation for a burgeoning local dub and reggae scene.

One act that epitomised both the multiformity and ahead-of-the-curve qualities of Rippon was Christchurch’s Shapeshifter. The band first played at the festival in 2004, at a point where they were still an independent entity quietly penning and recording their second album Riddim Wise LP in Melbourne. Founding member Devin Abrams also performed the afterparty that same year as Pacific Heights. He left Shapeshifter in 2014, and says he has fond memories of Rippon, which he calls “the fine wine of festivals”. “It was delivered with class from the promoters who were friends with most of the artists they booked. They looked after everyone like family, and made sure the artists were accommodated like no other festival that I had experienced before.”

Fat Freddy’s Drop, one of the many bands to spew out of Wellington around that time, brought their enthralling live locomotion to Rippon in 2004. They reached uncharted peaks a year later as their debut full-length Based on a True Story went gold on its first day of release and spent two years in the Top 40, despite being independently released with no marketing beyond word of mouth. “I think Fat Freddy’s Drop really changed the landscape by doing that,” Lynne says. “It was a really fascinating time. It was moving away from the traditional record label model which still survived, but they’ve had to change hugely to still attract artists.”

As far as highlights went, finally booking Shihad in 2006 after eight years of stalkerish toil was greatly satisfying. “That was fantastic seeing such an epic band rule the stage and that kind of performance makes everyone else raise their game.” In 2008, former TrinityRoots drummer Riki Gooch brought a 29-piece ensemble of players to Rippon and unleashed a wide-screen update of George Clinton’s psychedelic funk as Eru Dangerspiel, proving just how ambitious and daring local artists can be when a stage makes them feel at home.

Rippon was reborn two years ago with a new name, TUKI, and a new site with alpine views over Glendhu Bay, but with the same approach to putting together a line-up. TUKI 2020, which the team calls “a right mashup”, will typically offer something for everyone’s playlist, from Dunedin heroes The Chills, to the country/soul of Tami Neilson, to Alien Weaponry’s world-beating welding of thrash metal and Te Reo.

Even after 21 years, Lynne is still flying blind at times in a constantly changing industry, but if there’s one thing she has learned, it’s that people are paramount if you want to be part of something awesome. “People in the audience, people in the staff, the musicians, the contractors−we are very lucky, and if you’re happy enough, I think it’s our place to pass on good things.”

Catch the one-day, two-stage TUKI festival on February 8, 2020, at Glendhu Bay, Lake Wanaka.

Adam Burns is a journalist with a passion for music and sport. Based in Central Otago, Adam is a regions reporter for the Otago Daily Times and a music contributor to its weekly newspaper-insert, The Weekend Mix.

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