Paul Ubana Jones’ self-titled debut was released in 1989. It in fact won the Best Folk Record category at that year’s New Zealand Music Awards. I was at intermediate school. I did not know this record then. But around this time I first heard about Paul Ubana Jones. My aunty had come home from high school one day raving about the guy with the huge afro who played guitar at her school; a free lunchtime concert. She had got him to sign her schoolbag.
The first Paul Ubana Jones album I ever owned was 1997’s Blessings and Burdens (also the winner of Best Folk Album at that year’s New Zealand Music Awards).
I’ve seen Paul play so many times that I’ve lost count. But I always remember that first time. It was mesmerising. I had to find an album by him – I bought one (almost) straight away. The following day. The next time I saw him perform I bought the remaining albums – including this one. The self-titled release. I love all of Paul’s albums but hearing this was like seeing him perform that first time. It sent shivers down my arms, the hairs prickled – a jolt of music coursed through me.
I’ve been an enthusiastic cheerleader for Paul and his music ever since I heard this record; pretty much ever since I first saw him play.
I can’t be objective about it – but that’s the wonderful thing about music, you don’t have to be. You shouldn’t be. You leap in, you follow your heart, you go with your gut.
One time, at university, a mate and I drove four hours or so from Wellington up to the ski-field to see Paul play a very small gig in one of the lodges. When the gig finished we drove straight back to Wellington. Well, actually, we introduced ourselves to Paul and sat and had one drink with him. A whisky. Then helped him to his car with his amp and guitar. We shook hands, said goodbye.
And then I saw him play again and again. I got to know Paul over a few years. I’ve worked the door for him and then I got a bit more established as a writer so I interviewed him a couple of times, I’ve reviewed him too, continuing to sing his praises.
Always, always, I come back to this record. I have a copy of this album on vinyl – I got Paul to sign it for me. My first signed LP. Such things are important. You collect the music and it’s good to make it special; a talisman.
Through Paul’s music – and through conversations with him – I’ve discovered a lot of music, discovered a lot about music. His versions of great blues and folk songs stand. His knowledge of classical music has been inspiring. I love the cover versions that Paul offers. His Dylan stuff, his Muddy Waters, his Tim Buckley, the Gil Scott-Heron tunes. Through seeing Paul play, through listening to his albums I’ve learned a lot. I’ve done my best to share his music with many friends.
The centrepiece of this record – the tour-de-force – is the tune called Raga (Bird Without Song). It’s 11 minutes long, sometimes it goes for nearly twice that length when Paul plays it live. He always plays it live.
I’ve seen him as the opening act for Bob Dylan and Norah Jones, Keb Mo’ and B.B. King. And one time, opening for Natalie Cole, he was requested to not sing – she was obviously not wanting any threat of being upstaged and had demanded her opening act be instrumental. Paul sat on a seat in front of 1200 people or so and played one song – his Raga. A 20-minute instrumental version to fill his allocated slot. Good lord it was wonderful. I could tell he was ever so slightly fucked off with the deal – like he’d been told just before the gig, “hey buddy, keep your trap shut”. He let his fingers do the talking that night. The way he does any night when he’s on stage.
I’ve played this self-titled record so many times. Every time I play it I have a new favourite song.
The way he makes Hoochie Coochie Man dance; the way it comes alive in his hands. The mournful and lovely Daddy Don’t Live Here Any More. The mantra song: The Music Is Why I’m Here; his mission-statement. The thoughtful cover of Tim Buckley’s Blue Melody. His own Mountain Song – another highlight of so many of his live shows over the years. And the sweet, sweet I’m Counting On Love.
This music is carried with me wherever I go. I’ve driven around the country with it. I’ve seen Paul play in a handful of different cities. I’ve gotten drunk with this music. Stoned. Bathed in it, hungover. It’s been shared with friends, it’s been one of my best friends. Me and this album. We’ve sat together on many a night over the years. If I never heard it again I could still recall every bit of it.
Sometimes I think about if I had to keep a finite number of records – finite, as in barely over double figures. (Like you could ever narrow it down lower than that!) This record would always be in the list.
I never saw Paul Ubana Jones play when I was at school. He never signed my schoolbag. When this album came out I was listening to The Beastie Boys and Guns’n’Roses (hey, nothing wrong with that, some days I still am listening to those bands). When this album came out I had no idea that I would sit with Paul and talk deeply about Nick Drake and John Martyn and take his tip to discover the poetry of Gil Scott-Heron (a profoundly influential figure for me).
And here I realise that Paul Ubana Jones has been a profoundly influential figure in my life. It’s not often you get to call one of your heroes a friend. It’s not often you get to sit down with a record again and again and again and never ever tire of it; always want more from it AND always hear more.
I discovered this record – not really a folk record at all – a blues record I guess (and if it is a folk record it’s something of a folk-hero record actually) many years after it was released. It always sounds wonderful to me. It always has. And I’m sure it always will.
The night I returned home from the hospital after the birth of my son this is one of the records I sat up with. Just me at home. My wife and son in the hospital. I cradled a whisky and drank in this record. Flipped it over in my hands as it played. My signed copy of one of the most important records in my life. Of course it was the thing to sit down with, alone, as part of one of the most important nights of my life.
If you haven’t heard this record you must. Really. You must.