Reggae beats lend a rhythm and flow to Nattali Rize’s passion for social and environmental causes. By Susan Chenery.

Nattali Rize and Blue King Brown’s rebel beats

Singer Nattali Rize.
Singer Nattali Rize.

The mud was reaching swamp proportions by the time Nattali Rize took to the Byron Bay stage at Bluesfest at Easter. People slid and slithered in relentless rain in the dark. But still they kept coming. The audience swelled from the marquee and danced out into the vengeful deluge. This was a home-town girl bathed in those luminous beckoning laser lights. Dreadlocked and belting out her protest songs. Singing out her message in no uncertain terms. But the rhythms of her 10-piece band, Blue King Brown, brought a sunny Caribbean flavour that belied the strident lyrics. Rhythm, Rize says, “starts with a heartbeat. We all have one. And it is a constant. Rhythm is in everything.” Just back from recording in Kingston, Jamaica, and on her way to an American tour, Rize was a small but commanding figure. Throwing it out to the audience. “The energy exchange,” she says, “is why we do it. It is going toward a euphoric state.”

Carlos Santana found her magical and invited Blue King Brown to open his shows on his 2008 Australian tour. The legendary guitarist described them as “the voice of the street and the band of the future”. Rize describes that experience as epic.

The streets from which that voice rose were those of these small regional towns of the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. Rize and her partner, Carlo Santone, were formed in the alternative reality of a place that had attracted a committed counterculture. “You grow up surrounded by people who are just constantly creative. There was a different level of consciousness of people in the community,” she says now. 

More than a few people in the audience at Bluesfest had known them as buskers pounding drums in the villages of Byron Shire. “I just remember,” says journalist and former resident David Leser, “that one day she was busking at the Byron and Bangalow markets and the next thing I see she’s completely wowing thousands of people in the Mojo tent at the Blues festival. I thought, ‘Is that the cute little chick with the Rasta tilt who was singing for her organic doughnuts? Yes, I think it is, but how on earth did she get from there to here?’”

Rize and Santone had first come to Bluesfest as hopeful teenage buskers. “We would just be blown away and inspired by the calibre of musicians. Now when we arrive, we know the people working at the gate, and we know the backstage crew. We know all people at the market stalls.” The pair have since played most of the world’s major music festivals, including Glastonbury.

As a student at Byron Bay High School it was not at all unusual for a teenage girl to be fire twirling in the street. “And then me and the girls saw the drummers. And we were, like, we could do that. I am sure we could manage that.”

Master percussionist Greg Sheehan took Rize and Santone under his wing, forming a band called Skin.

“They were only about 17, I think,” he says now. “Even back then Rize had a lot of strength of character. She was determined, focused, didn’t do drugs, didn’t drink. She was so strong and she has very steadfastly kept on that strong path. She has hardly changed at all.”

There was “no stopping at McDonald’s” for the vegan Rize. She would tell Sheehan off for throwing orange peel out the car window. “She would say the birds can get on the side of the road to get it and get hit.”

Rize is so often photographed looking fierce with a metaphorical, and sometimes actual, fist in the air; her social and environmental activism so seemingly strident in interviews that I am expecting a righteously angry and slightly scary person.

But as she sits at my kitchen table for this interview she is neither aggressive nor anything other than lively, amused, and matter of fact. “We have our moments,” she says on the anger issue. “We all know that violence is not the solution and anger is only useful to a point. And once it reaches that point, it becomes destructive, so you have to be aware. And I know that there is a balance to everything and that you can’t get a message across that will really penetrate somebody’s heart and mind if you deliver it in a way that is filled with resentment or anger.”

Rize is exotically beautiful with huge kohl-lined eyes, very white teeth, and a long, angular Modigliani face. There are rings on every finger and heavy jewellery around her neck that spills down her denim jacket.

Formerly Natalie Pa’apa’a, her mother is a Samoan who worked with an indigenous organisation. “So I grew up with an extended family of indigenous people and that helped instil the sense of community, and definitely that is a part of why I love having such a big band,” she says, laughing. “I like to roll with a crew.”

Contrary to her public image, says Sheehan, “she has got that beautiful Samoan gentleness”.

Says music promoter Alison Pearl, “Nothing came easy and nothing is by accident. They came from the ground up and worked very hard. They were very focused, they were committed, they studied, they were very dedicated.”

Even now, admits Rize, “we are certainly not floating along in any sense. We work every single day. More hours than most people would work. We are very driven. We are always just reaching for the next frontier.”

From its classical West African and Indian drumming beginnings, the music has evolved, shifted, and gathered momentum. Ranging across cultures, taking in blues, world music, soul and groove, and arriving at the destination of urban roots.

“It is a combination,” the 29-year-old says, “of my mixed heritage. My mother is Samoan but I am also Native American, Mexican, part French, part Norwegian, part Irish. I have a very broad mixture, but I grew up in Australia. For me now the way I think is influenced by all my experiences.”

After studying music at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Rize and Santone moved to Melbourne.

Their 2006 debut release, Water, an anthematic protest about the displacement of indigenous people, went into high rotation on Triple J. But there was always a powerful pull towards reggae.

“I have been a fan of reggae since I was a little kid, but I wouldn’t have understood what Bob Marley was saying. But I felt the music and I connected with that. Obviously the intention behind his words was getting into me, because when I grew up I thought he is singing really important stuff. I think that is how I fell in love with reggae.”

There is intention behind all of Rize and Blue King Brown’s music: solidarity with the dispossessed, the downtrodden, the exploited.

A rising up from prescribed oppressive thinking. There will never be sugary four-to-the-floor confection songs from Blue King Brown or Nattali Rize. It is not just music, it is a philosophy that reaches higher and higher. “We live it, we walk it, we talk it.”

“There is a lot of commercial music that doesn’t necessarily cater to the higher consciousness and morality of human beings. It is more a product. It is designed to keep people in the cycle of consumerism.
It is time to say something real.”

Rize is well aware of just how far amplified sound can carry and that she has a voice that can be used and will be heard. That she can shout out for those who cannot speak for themselves. “Some people say music can’t save the world but, you know what, music saves the world every single day. There is not much else that can bring people together. And constantly every single day people are listening to music. You can’t tell me it doesn’t have an impact.”

Rize is almost an evangelistic crusader and a campaigner. “I have always been interested in justice, I think.”

The back-up singers in Blue King Brown are two West Papuan sisters, Lea and Petra Rumwaropen. “Their father was a West Papuan musician and freedom fighter. They had to flee West Papua because he sang songs of freedom.”

When they raise a flag for West Papua on stage they know that in that country the act could send you to jail for 16 years. “We are doing it for a nation of people who are struggling for the right just to raise their own flag.”

She belts out the vocals for a growing movement of awareness of brutal oppression in a place to which journalists and human rights workers have been denied access. A country that is rich in goldmines. “The Indonesian military invaded West Papua over 50 years ago, in 1961. It has been a campaign of genocide, and I don’t say that lightly. Over half a million people have disappeared or been killed. They have been systematically suppressed for over 60 years, and this has happened on Australia’s doorstep. Some of the things that are going on right now, you wouldn’t think it is possible for another human being to do what they do to the Indigenous people there. They are going in and torturing them, raping the women, cutting off their breasts in front of their children.”

Rize and Santone have joined campaigns against coal seam gas extraction, Aboriginal deaths in custody, the sex slave trade. “The facts and figures on that one just break your heart,” she says. They have worked mentoring young people in remote desert communities.

Like all good revolutionaries, she believes she is fighting a rotten system. “Slavery in all its forms. Mental slavery is so ingrained in this system because we have been kept within a very narrow paradigm of thought from primary school to adulthood. And debt slavery; we are living in debt. The system is an illusion set up to make us think we are free, but we are not. We despise the monetary system.”

A child of the counterculture, a potent combination of idealism and pragmatism, Rize trusts in the power of transformation. “There is a shifting consciousness that is happening around the world right now. It is a conscious revolution. Everything I am talking about, West Papua, consciousness-shifting, these are big struggles and they take up your life, but that is the vision.”

Blue King Brown’s third album, Born Free, which was released last November, was mostly recorded in Jamaica. “If I am not making music I am usually thinking about making music. There is just a feeling you get and, yeah, there is going to be a song today. Or you can feel this is a song, this is important. You have to kind of rush to get it down before it goes. I have found that that feeling is just more obvious, more frequent and easier to read and stronger when I am in Jamaica.”

Rize recently released “Rebel Love”, with the heavy rhythm Notis, one of Jamaica’s premier live bands and production crews. She had met Wayne “Unga” Thompson when he was touring Australia with Jamaican musician Jimmy Cliff. “It is like, ‘What is going on here, how did that just happen?’ We just met and wrote this whole song together. What is happening in Jamaica right now is they are calling it the reggae revival because there is this whole resurgence of roots reggae bands and conscious music.”

There is a grace about Nattali Rize and her rebel revolution; her melodic call for unity and compassion; her shifting paradigms. There is spirit in her spirituality. “If I couldn’t play music I would surely die.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 11, 2015 as "Rebel beats".

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Susan Chenery is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.

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