Why Bella Kalolo will be a top act at new arts festival The Guerilla Collection

by Gary Steel / 31 October, 2018
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Bella Kalolo. Photo/Stephen Langdon

Soul singer Bella Kalolo is about to star in The Guerilla Collection, a free Pacific arts festival exploring the future of Auckland in 30 years.

Bella Kalolo lets off the latest in a long line of volcanic chuckles. I’ve just told her that my four-year-old’s verdict is that “she sings funny”. We both agree the child needs to be rescued from the evil clutches of Frozen fandom and given a crash course in soul.

“I nearly had to sing ‘Let It Go’ once!” she admits. “I’m so glad I didn’t have to!”

We both agree, too, that Moana is a much better film, with much better role models, and a story that has some relevance to Pasifika. It’s Auckland’s status as the most populous agglomeration of Polynesian peoples that indirectly brings us together today, for Kalolo is one of the star attractions of an event exploring the possibilities of an Auckland set 30 years into the future.

The Guerrilla Collection, a free festival created and curated by the terminally hip dance company Black Grace, takes the form of many 30-minute “movement pieces” over three days, and it turns out that Kalolo is involved with two of them. And while she’s sworn to secrecy about specifics, she says that one of them is a collaboration with Paul Fagamalo and the other with Black Grace founder Neil Ieremia.

Thirty years from now, says Kalolo, “I’d like to think that everyone’s still involved in the culture in some way, shape or form. I’d love to think that if the children in the future don’t go to church, they’ll still go round to mum and dad’s and have a feast after church, which is the [traditional] closing of the week and the opening of the next week. I guess it’s just seeing what traces we end up leaving behind, whether it be a word spoken to someone or a song that’s been recorded.” 

Kalolo, whose gutsy voice beamed out authoritatively from two impressive albums of retro soul and funk in 2009 and 2013 respectively, has unsurprisingly — given her relentless energy and incredible pipes — become something of a go-to girl on the festival and show circuits over the past decade. Think: substantial roles in stage productions like Hair and The Lion King, the Pink Floyd Experience and an Aretha Franklin tribute along with Annie Crummer and Aaradhna that featured in last year’s Auckland Arts Festival. In fact, if she had a Wikipedia entry (and why doesn’t she?) it would be packed with surprising detail, like collaborations and guest spots with everyone from Dave Dobbyn to Don McGlashan (she sang the original version of the hit “Bathe in the River” before Hollie Smith got her teeth into it), and even a singing date with soul legend Chaka Khan. She’s performed at Glastonbury with Fat Freddy’s Drop and has backup bands at the ready in both Auckland and Wellington that she combines for international dates, like a recent music festival in Rarotonga. As we speak, she’s in the last throes of the latest World of Wearable Art Awards in Wellington. 

Born in Christchurch and now based in Mt Roskill, Kalolo was raised Samoan but has mixed blood (Samoan/Tongan/Māori), and she’s just sent her DNA off to ancestry.com to find out if the rumours that her biological dad was part-Chinese have legs. We discuss Winston Peters’ recent comments about toughening immigration rules around refugees to have them tacitly accept “the Kiwi way of life”, and what that means, exactly. “You go spend a week in Ōtāhuhu and then you know what the Kiwi way of life is, because it’s heavily Polynesian out there!” 

Kalolo, though, is a relentlessly positive individual who says that joy is a key component of her life — “It’s just an innate thing that I’ve never been without, something I was born into”  — and likes to think she can prise joy out of even the prickliest of customers.

As for that interrupted recording career, she blames it on the nails. “What’s really annoying is because I have long nails to do shows all the time I haven’t been able to play my guitar,” and guitar is a key compositional tool. Having said that, she’ll be “dropping several summer jams” over the next few months that will be just a little different from the overtly retro-soul feel of her two albums.    

The Guerrilla Collection, free entry, ASB Waterfront Theatre, November 2-4. Fundraising Gala, November 1. 

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