The Maori legend of the beauty Hinemoa, who swims across Lake Rotarua to reach her forbidden lover Tutanekai, is part of the spiritual landscape which New Zealand’s Bonjah once called home. Three of the five members hail from Tauranga, which is situated in the Bay Of Plenty region of the north island. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” says guitarist for the blues and roots outfit, Regan Lethbridge. “It’s right on the beach; it’s where we grew up.” It also might not be the most difficult of placenames in the area to pronounce (see: Whakamarama, Ohauiti) but perhaps it was their hometown which influenced Bonjah’s decision to initially name their group Bonjahbango. This did not work out so hot when the band moved to Melbourne in 2007, and now on the brink of their first big overseas adventure together, Lethbridge still finds it a bit galling to explain.
“We went on tour in 2008, and about one venue in 22 got [the spelling] right,” he laments. When Lethbridge and his bandmates were still going by their bouncier former title in Melbourne, the days were rough but magic. “When we first got here we couldn’t get gigs so we’d just set up on the street and live off our CD sales. They were really, really awesome days,” he says. “We’d go out three or four days a week and just play music. It was pretty special.”
The journey is set to get bigger when the guys head to London this month, and then jettison over to Germany where they’ll be playing the JuWi festival. Footage from last year’s JuWi depicts some rather incredible scenes, and Lethbridge admits he isn’t entirely sure what they’re in for. “I know that it’s the largest student festival in Germany. There’s about ten or twelve thousand people,” he ponders with that upward inflection. “The festival booker’s sister bought our CD [while we were] busking years ago and gave it to [the booker], and he got in touch. We said, ‘Look, if we’re going to come all that way is it possible to give us a good slot?’ He said ‘How does 10pm on the main stage sound?’ And we’re like ‘Oh... my God,’” he laughs. “We’re playing after the biggest hip hop artists in Germany, so it’s either going to go really well or... [lead balloon territory].”
Having played an astonishing number of shows around Melbourne and Australia in the last couple of years, the trip will also provide a chance for Bonjah to knuckle down to some songwriting. “The inspiration we’re going to get from the trip [will] be awesome, because we’ve obviously never been that far as a band,” Lethbridge says. “We’ve played that many shows – into the hundreds last year – we just want to take some time out from the touring side and spend six months creating the best thing we can create.”
Playing a pile of live gigs clearly takes its toll: not just on the musicians but on the songs too. In order for the boys to continue enjoying the tracks and keep them fresh each time they play for an audience, an effort has to be made to spritz the lettuce a bit. “Each time we play a song there’s little changes and little differences... In the middle [of single Fly] we just said, ‘Right, at this point someone’s going to start a jam. Whether it’s Dan on the drums or Dave on the bass, or myself,” Lethbridge says. “And then we just don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s little things like that that keep it fresh for us.” Soulful, bluesy guitar and bass combined with jaunty woodblock off-beats, dreamy melodies and impromptu reggae yells certainly lend the band to improvisation: it’s a sound that is at once familiar, and also very emotive.
Speaking of emotions, the good vibes go around and around with these guys: paying it forward is very important to them. Having previously been involved with a few benefit causes including the Leukemia Foundation and the Variety Children’s Charity, this year Lethbridge heard about Make-A-Wish, whose mission is to grant the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses. “I just thought, ‘That is such a cool idea,’” he says warmly, “and I contacted them the next day and said we’d love to be involved, and how can we help, what can we do?” In addition to setting up donation boxes and handing out informational fliers, one dollar from every ticket sold to their approaching Melbourne gig will be donated to the charity. The cherry on top was their announcement last week regarding some special guests who will perform at the show: three youngsters from Make-A-Wish are set to sing a song with the boys. “We’re now ambassadors, which is pretty amazing,” Lethbridge beams. “[We’re] putting a bit of good karma out there, which is cool.”
It’s not some slick Bono-type move though, as a recent performance by the band on New Zealand’s Sunrise program will attest. Lethbridge was sashaying about with bare feet, which looked sort of weird when you imagine Kiwi mums with nice powdered hair watching while they sipped their morning coffee. “I know,” he says guiltily. “My mother had a word. I just don’t really like shoes to be honest: to this day I don’t play in shoes. I mean I’m respectful; if I’m going to a wedding I’ll put on shoes.” It’s okay Regan, we don’t mind. Keep spreading the awesome positive vibes.
BY ZOË RADAS
BONJAH play their final show before heading overseas at The Corner Hotel on Friday June 8, and one dollar from each ticket sold goes to Make-A-Wish. Go Go Chaos is out now through Shock.