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March 1, 2004 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Paul Ubana Jones

As a fledgling axe-wielder myself, let me tell you just how hard it is to play guitar fingerstyle. The thumb of your right hand plays the three lowest strings, and your index, middle and ring fingers take care of the rest. The quavers should trickle out freely like drops of water, but if any note should be played slightly out of time, or if the intensity should be just out, you’d better watch out, because anyone can hear the terrible, grating sound that results. It’s an unforgiving style of music, but at its best, there is no need for drums or bass, for a good fingerstyle guitarist can play the bass line rhythmically enough at the same time as the melody to make any other instruments redundant. Imagine all this then, with a voice so unique it makes you feel the way Keats did when he first read Chapman’s Homer – like opening your ears to textures you’ve never dreamed of before. How Paul Ubana Jones manages to mix everything he has as nicely as a fine blended whiskey is beyond me, but I’m happy to let his warm, intoxicating music wash over me.

A soft, English accent greets me down the phone when I ask him why he hasn’t played many at Orientations recently. ‘Students have changed a lot over the years,’ he says, but some things never change. His last Orientation show, at Waikato University, sold out with a crowd comprised of 19 year olds and 65 year olds, and everyone in between. ‘That’s what varsities are for,’ he says: ‘diverse thinking.’

Diversity is something that Ubana Jones has always embraced. Of English and African descent, he was classically trained in both the cello and guitar in London, but counts his influences in different genres from all over the globe, and not just the blues and folk that tend to be linked with songwriting guitarists. His press biography says that he has played in France, Canada and North Africa among other places, so I don’t know why it came as such a surprise to hear that he lived in Zurich for eight years. ‘The greatest education for me has been travel, meeting people and sharing music with them,’ he says.
Highlights in a globe-trotting career that has lasted some three decades, the last fifteen years of it here in New Zealand, include playing with Norah Jones and Keb Mo’, with whom he started to build a bit of a professional relationship, playing with them for four nights. On the other hand, his gig opening for Bob Dylan was really just a one-off, even though he’s admired the man ‘for a million years’. If he could tour with anyone? Robbie Robertson rolls straight off the tongue, the ex-Band member’s name followed quickly by Joni Mitchell. But they’re just ‘wee dreams’, muses Ubana Jones, and ‘if they transpire, that’s great.’
He corrects me when I carelessly refer to the songs that he performs by other musicians as ‘covers’ – a cover should be as close as possible to the original, but his songs have always been about redefining and reinterpreting. In fact, it’s just as difficult performing well-known tunes, because an audience comes with their own preconceptions. ‘People want to hear what you do with it,’ he confides in a low voice, and listening to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Angel’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ played solely with flawless fingerstyle guitar and a rich, soft voice, these hypothetical people should be pretty happy with everything Ubana Jones gives them. Not since Johnny Cash have I seen someone that can so powerfully forge his own shape out of other people’s songs. His own songs stand up admirably next to these classics, as if his strong performances couldn’t possibly be played to anything but the most thoughtfully conceived songs.

Dominion Post music reviewer Simon Sweetman once boldly declared that ‘in any other country, he would be a national institution’. When I read such positive words, and combine them with the renown and recognition that must come with opening for so many acclaimed musicians, it is comforting to know that I’m among good company in singing the praises of Paul Ubana Jones.


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