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A cultural magpie, Te Tairawhiti Arts festival director Tama Waipara has an eye for picking performances. His curation RESPECT! brings together four dynamic wahine to pay tribute to the late Aretha Franklin through song as part of the Te Tairawhiti Arts festival running through October. The first of its kind, the multi-layered festival will bring together creatives from across New Zealand showcasing diverse forms of art.

A timely choice with the recent passing of Franklin herself in 2018, RESPECT! promises to be a strong performance from strong women. After the act’s warm reception at the Auckland Arts festival, the group now turns to Gisborne – this time with the addition of Jackie Clarke and Ria Hall. This was a no-brainer selection for Tama with Jackie being an ex-Gisborne girl herself, and Ria Hall, an artist who fuses together Māori and English lyrics with an urban edge. Jackie and Ria join previous RESPECT! performers Annie Crummer, New Zealand pop artist and songwriter and soul vocalist Bella Kalolo. 

Jackie Clarke is no stranger to the stage, and no stranger to New Zealand audiences. A long-time entertainer, singer and comedian, we’re lucky Jackie “gave up house cleaning when she discovered people would pay to hear her sing”. Starting out in the Wellington music scene in the 80’s, she’s sung with country combo The Darlings, quartet The Lady Killers, and Dave Dobbyn.  She’s judged TV ONE’s talent show Showcase and NZ Idol, and presented documentaries Wise WomenSong and Twins. She’s been a third of the kitsch kiwiana group When The Cat’s Been Spayed, which even boasts its own Country Calendar special. She’s hosted large-scale events like Christmas in the Park, the NBR Stadium Spectacular and Sky City Starlight Symphony and has had numerous theatre performances including Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamboat and Little Shop of Horrors. These are but a few examples plucked from the long list that is Jackie’s repertoire – she’s a woman of extraordinary skill. 

However, in her 35+ years in the entertainment industry, the one thing that has persisted for Jackie is the kick she gets performing with other women. She loves being immersed in the resonation of harmonies and communal female energy, which RESPECT! is perfect for. Jackie enlightens me that Aretha Franklin’s music is intrinsically designed for group performances, where an assemblage of backing vocals and lead parts get to star side by side. It’s music for women, not woman.

An extraordinary vocalist is the least Jackie could say about Aretha Franklin. She sees Franklin’s music as bold and unapologetic, as is the way she presented herself to the world as a performing frontwoman. The “queen of soul’ was a distinguished role model particularly for women of colour, a musical colossus of the 60s who wanted to tell everyone about the self-assured black woman showing her power and her worth. “A declaration from a strong, confident woman”, Respect became an anthem for the Women’s’ Movement and civil rights.

So what does R-E-S-P-E-C-T mean to Jackie? Discussing the song’s relevance over 50 years later, the message is more relevant now than ever before given that women are still calling for respect when it comes to gender roles and material and economic inequality. When the late Aretha Franklin was asked why Respect was so successful, she explained “everyone wants to be respected.” Jackie too acknowledges that respect can be brought to all relationships and a space needs to be made for those of all genders.  

As both an artist and a person, Jackie treasures her individuality, reminding me of the strength in ‘you are the only person who can do you’. As well as a personal asset, this is something she has had to apply to her experience in a tribute performance. She respects that no one will ever be able to sing Respect like Franklin herself and there is no merit trying to be someone you’re not. What RESPECT! does is capture the spirit of Aretha, and use her as inspiration to enhance their own performance.  

Jackie also recognizes her own curiosity, and attributes where she is now to an openness to opportunity. She tells me she’s always had the optimism to dive into things, and figure out ways to make them work. And she challenges the folk of Gizzy to do the same – to expand their horizons and explore and engage with the talent that will set Gisborne alight over most of October. With film, theatre, music, dance, visual arts, and whanau events, there’s something for every cultural observer. Jackie notes that in her day, the thought of an arts festival in Gisborne “was light years away”, but this now shows that Gisborne is ready to make itself known as a place of creativity. She hopes that the interest stimulated in Gisborne as a cultural hub will have a sustained effect, and benefit not just the artists, but the whole community.

Accessibility to the arts is a key focus for festival director Tama. Thanks to substantial support from Creative New Zealand, the Ministry of Education, Gisborne District Council and principal sponsor the Eastland Community Trust (ECT), ticket prices are ‘unashamedly accessible’ for ‘world-class’ calibre, in addition to many free events. Jackie is much anticipating her return to the Gisborne stage and we are looking forward to seeing RESPECT! (just a little bit!) perform at the War Memorial Theatre Gisborne on Friday 18th October and Saturday 19th October. 

Tickets are available at www.tetairawhitiartsfestival.nz

Story by Lauren Turner.

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