The blackened statue of Moai Hava (‘one who is lost’) sits blank faced in the World Museum, Liverpool. Taken by the British in 1868, the volcanic ash is the only remaining reminder of his past and his legacy. Throughout its turbulent history, Easter Island has seen itself surrender to the hands of slavery, colonialism, famine and disease, not to mention the conflict of civil war. Yes, the Easter Island Head is a long way from home. Loneliness is not the only result of cultural or indeed physical decline, but it can be incredibly painful.
Long distances aside, the band Ex-Easter Island Head very kindly wrote a piece of music for Moai Hava (‘Music for Moai Hava’), and then played the piece in front of him – for him – using a 27-piece ensemble. As you do. That’s how friendships are born. So, even miles from home, away from his brothers and sisters, the situation that presented itself was worthy of singing ‘You Got a Friend in Me’. When music herself leaves home base behind, she too departs on a journey.
It is three in the afternoon, and the shimmering cymbals smack the dry, arid ground, rebounding up into the dry
air in what is an incredible mirage. Heat oozes off the high drone. Flares are lit, and the rolling percussion starts to move, dancing in the heat.
Ex-Easter Island Head’s music is heavily influenced by the music of the South Pacific, so it may not come as much of a surprise to feel these balmy climes and heated temperatures kiss the skin. Tropical chords, bathed in the sunshine, strum their way into the exotic light. A ship’s bell tinkles gently, in between the heavier bouts of percussion. Despite the British foundation, the music reminisces over the Pacific and its temperate climate.
The collective make use of twelve electric guitars that simultaneously overlap with each other, revealing a crystal sea that sparkles in the shining mirror of the sun. The chorus of electric guitars shine with luminous colour, and as new rhythms begin to emerge they become clearer in tone and in beauty. Crystalline structures begin their life in this sheltered place,and the clear, warm conditions are ideally suited to the clear shards of rock and stone.
It is bright, clean and, despite the multitude of stringed instruments, incredibly spacious; a shimmering, healthy haze where you can breathe easy despite the heat. There is never a dull moment. The indigenous instrumentals sizzle and simmer in the sun. This is apparent in the second movement, which billows softly and has a completely natural, tranquil feel as it shimmers in the percussive haze. It is hard not to be seduced by its gorgeous sound. Not only that, but this movement is extremely refreshing considering the thickly strummed, rhythmic army of its predecessor which, it seems, could emulate the arrival of the British Navy with its controversy and confrontation between the peaceable natives and the harsh rhythmic settlers. The removal of the stone is set to music. The percussion lies back, waiting in anticipation for the music to come to a head, which will inevitably happen. But despite the threats and foreign influence, the softly romantic tone and the detail within shine a true light on the band’s love for music’s more exotic, instrumental side. It is kind to the stone, as we’ve seen in the past with their public performance.
The band are well known for their unusual ways. Alternate tunings open up a vast new world for the explorers to discover. Sometimes, the guitar lies on her side, and the process of ‘bowing’ the strings with allen keys – not to mention adding another bridge – and inserting metal rods underneath help to broaden the sound. It isn’t just for show – like most things, it’s what you do with it that counts. But it’s fair to say it isn’t something you see every day. The collective aren’t afraid to stick to the traditional sound of a clean electric guitar, either. Rhythmic patterns crash with tidal intensity, not so much pounding the drum as smashing against stone, which is no doubt exactly what the original theft entailed.
At other times the clean, ringing arpeggios enjoy a special kind of clarity that could only be matched by a higher register, harp-bright. It can be rhythmically complex, not for the sake of complexity but for the sake of brave experimentation; they take percussion out of the strict box it frequently finds itself in when it comes to Western music.
The third movement, for example, divides the beat into an odd time signature, not only hammering but pounding in such a way that it puts the opening, sublime movement firmly in the distance. The chugging rhythm displaces rock and sends the historic stone tumbling. Then, even more dramatically, the drums switch to double-time and the tempo rockets into the fourth movement. Just like Moai Hava’s lost land, peace isn’t even on the horizon.
The strings are locked in the beat and tied to a single chord, a padded wall of amplified sound that stretches on and on. Along with an ensemble of local, Nottingham-based musicians, Ex-Easter Island Head have expanded their sound dramatically while keeping the flow and intensity intact. It never sounds like a garbled onslaught, which could have easily happened with so many amplified guitars present. It’s a cohesive structure that stands strong – something that Moai Hava himself does to this day.