They have a funny name, this band from New Zealand that call themselves the Pipis Pickers. Nevertheless, they have a serious dedication to their craft, not only as far as their penchant for bluegrass is concerned, but also for furthering it at home with all due diligence. The band itself blends classic and contemporary styles that range from upbeat instrumental excursions, to mesmerizing mystery ballads, all executed with a skill and savvy that have won them a burgeoning fan base throughout their native New Zealand and in nearby Australia.
A family band in the truest sense, the group currently consists of Nat Torkington on 5-string banjo player, his father Barry on guitar, Garry Bigwood on mandolin, and Nat’s partner, Jenine Abarbanel on double bass and vocals.
We spoke to Jenine and asked if in fact there’s some sort of substantial interest in bluegrass in areas dubbed Down Under.
“I would definitely not say ‘substantial,” she replied. “‘Growing interest’ would be more accurate. Bands like The Pipis and my other band Hot Diggity and Rhode Works are working hard to spread the love. And Paul Trenwith with Hamilton County Bluegrass Band of course. And the Auckland Bluegrass Club has recently had a change of leadership and has a new invigorated club that is focusing a lot on developing new skills and encouraging jam sessions.”
Jenine herself is actively involved in what she terms “a folk music club” of her own, one which she says is focused around bluegrass.
“That’s mostly because those are the bands I like to feature,” she says. “We don’t have enough pickers in these parts to really host jam sessions, so instead I’m cultivating an appreciative listening audience. And that really seems to be working. Lots of people around here now consider themselves bluegrass lovers. The Pipis have become favorites at New Zealand and Australian music festivals through their vibrant performances, open and inclusive jam sessions, and slow jam workshops.”
Despite its slow build in popularity, Jenine says that the country does have a bluegrass tradition of sorts that started in 1967 when a Banjo Pickers Convention was first convened in Hamilton, south of Auckland. Initially, it only lasted around five years. In 1979, a mini festival arose from its ashes in Christchurch, New Zealand, but sadly, it didn’t take flight.
“That was only a one-time thing,” she notes. “And then, 40 years of nothing. For years, bluegrass has been lumped in as the ‘weird cousin’ of New Zealand folk music. Barely tolerated, most of the time.”
Then the Pippi Pickers came along. We’ll let Jenine take up the narrative from here:
“Okay. So, back in the 1960s, Barry Torkington was a young fella living on his family farm here at Ti Point. Every morning he’d go out to milk the cows. And in the milking shed there was a radio playing the National Program. The National Radio program had one Flatt & Scruggs album and every morning at the same time, they’d play one track off the album. Barry soon started timing his milking to make sure he heard that track, that was the music for him. He loved it.
He started following bluegrass music, attending festivals when he could. In his early 20s, he bought a banjo and taught himself to play it. Then he started a family and put the banjo in the closet. Once a year or so, he’d bring the banjo out and play around with it. One year his son Nat, about 17 at the time, said, ‘How does that work, dad? Let me give it a go.’ He took it, and his fingers just seemed to know what to do. He started playing a lot. Barry took him to Merlefest, IBMA, Peter Wernick banjo camp, the Strawberry Festival out in California. Nat developed a love for Béla Fleck, so Barry bankrolled a New Zealand tour for Béla and Tony Trischka, and they all became good friends.
Nat went off to University down in Wellington, but kept playing banjo, and was a regular member of the Wellington Bluegrass Society. He also brought the internet to New Zealand in his capacity as administrator at Victoria University. He built and ran the first web server in New Zealand, and became well known internationally for his work on the developing web. This was about 1992-94.
In 1995, he came out to Colorado to attend a party of internet friends. I was a member of that group of friends. Three weeks after the party, Béla was doing a series of three concerts in Colorado, so Nat asked if he could couch surf until the shows.
He never left my couch.
Fast forward to 2005, Nat and I have two kids, they’re about to start primary school. Nat wants them to go to school here in Leigh, so we move back to Ti Point. The adjustment was hard. I struggled emotionally with the move. I wasn’t doing great. It was a hard time.
Nat and Barry would go off to their friend Garry’s house once a week to play bluegrass. Garry was a blues guitarist whose band, The Leigh Buoys, had broken up when all the other members moved away from the area, and Barry was introducing him to the Gospel of Bill Monroe. I sang a little, so sometimes I would go with them and sing songs I didn’t know. Garry had a double bass gathering dust in the corner of his living room. Barry gave me a couple of ‘Murphy Method’ videos on playing bluegrass bass. He gave me tapes of Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, and Claire Lynch to listen to in the car. Then Tony Rice and New Grass Revival. We started playing gigs about three weeks after that. That was November of 2006.
The four of us had a good thing together and we started making friends in the bluegrass community in Australia and New Zealand. Started playing festivals here and over in Australia. Garry picked up the mandolin to round out our sound in 2010. We don’t have a song writer in the band, so it’s all just our spin on other people’s material.”
The band currently claims two albums, As Is, Where Is and With a Spade.
Meanwhile, in 2014, Jenine connected with four other women who had expressed an interest in playing bluegrass and formed a side project they call Hot Diggity.
“We all played different instruments, sang in different vocal ranges, and brought a different range of other talents that put together a really complete and effective package. We were only together a year when our fiddler, Slavka Franclikova, decided to move back to the Czech Republic. We were devastated, but not for long because before she’d even left we met the excellent fiddler Krissy Jackson and she has been yet another outstanding addition. We have two song writers in the band, Heather Carrigan and Deb Mackenzie, so we do a mix of traditional bluegrass songs and originals.”
The aptly named album Worth the Wait was the result.
“I don’t think I can express how very unlikely Hot Diggity is,” Jenine suggests. “Bluegrass in New Zealand is not very common. Women in bluegrass even less so. Then finding five different instrumentalists? And we all like each other and work well together? We’re all amazed and grateful every damn day, I tell you. It’s a shocking, rocking, moving, and deeply important thing to all of us. It is our sanity and our joy.”
She’s also encouraged by the reception both bands have had at home. “Oh, it’s great,” she insists. “People who haven’t seen us — Pipis or Diggities — play before approach with a cautious skepticism you can see on their faces. About 30 seconds in, it’s just, ‘Oh wow, what are they doing, why didn’t anyone tell me this was a thing, where had this been all my life?’ And it’s all love from there.”
She says that these days, the Pipis play two or three festivals in Australia a year, but don’t really tour. “Diggities have done a micro tour of the North Island of New Zealand when all the stars aligned and the five of us were able to take a week to travel and play together. Mostly we play single shows around the northern parts of the North Island. Music isn’t a full time thing for any of us, so we have to fit it around jobs and kids and you know, life.”
Still, she hasn’t let life get in the way.
“I’m considered an ultra-progressive maverick over here. You know what I mean? Down Under, ‘good bluegrass’ means playing songs that Bill Monroe might have played exactly as he would have played them. It’s like a scoring system, like Olympic figure skating or gymnastics. I think that also might contribute to putting some people off the genre. You need originality, creativity, and adaptability to appeal to listeners outside the tried-and-true bluegrass lovers.”
She admits it’s been a challenge.
“I think it (bluegrass) puts a lot of people off. It’s complex, and often involves a level of self-involved geekery that can really make people want to turn to something easier and more accessible. Same for a lot of jazz. But when it’s done right, ohh, it just speaks to people, doesn’t it? Some people love bluegrass for bluegrass. And that’s great. Doesn’t matter how the bluegrass is presented, you just love it, right? But for a lot of people, pop music is popular for a reason. It’s easy, it’s accessible. So, I see my job as a bluegrass musician is to bring that accessibility to wider audiences. And not by ‘dumbing down’ the music, or adding pop music style, but by adding the engagement element on the performance side. You can bring people in. It’s the gateway to bluegrass. Once you’ve got them, you can work them up to the ‘hard stuff.’”
To that end, Jenine has dedicated herself to bringing as much exposure as possible to bluegrass in her native environs. The band recently launched a festive dubbed Kiwigrass, patterning it after RockyGrass, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and other events of a similar nature birthed and bred in Colorado in particular.
“Barry has been wanting to host a bluegrass festival in New Zealand for decades,” she explains. “My other job these days is as an event organizer — tech conferences mostly — and Barry and I have been really involved with the Australasian Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association and organizing Mountaingrass. Like I mentioned, we play two or three festivals a year in Australia and we’ve been really, really wanting to get those Australians over here!”