After moving to New Zealand to study, Julia Soares returned to her New Caledonia home eight years later with her Wellington band in tow, ready to show them ‘an island that vibrates with music’.
You can hear the joy in Julia Soares voice as she recounts her homecoming set at New Caledonia’s once-in-a-lifetime music festival Bloodwoodstock. It had been eight years since she’d performed in her home country. Now, as the sun set over the ocean, she stood with her band Uncle Fester in an abandoned military base turned stage, with the crowd screaming in anticipation.
She felt incredible.
“It was the most amazing feeling,” she says. “It was special for the boys but it was even more special for me. It was amazing. I am so grateful we had that experience.”
Blackwoodstock Festival runs for three days on an idyllic spot on New Caledonia’s west coast. It’s a miniature Glastonbury with jandals instead of gumboots. A paradise for music-lovers, the festival is held every September in Fort Téremba in Moindou, approximately 90 minutes from Nouméa. It’s a historic and important site.
“You’re inside this old war fort and there’s a guillotine machine and it’s just this energy and this vibe that is just…” Julia struggles to find the words. You can tell it had a huge impact on her and the audience. “We opened with one of our songs in French, and everyone could understand the lyrics and they were really happy because for them it was an acknowledgment of my first language.”
“The energy was amazing. What makes it so special is the location. It’s something you’ve never seen before. It’s extraordinary in its location.”
Despite that musical energy, it was a nerve-wracking experience for Julia. This was the first time she’d performed for those she knew from home since leaving in 2010. She’d come to New Zealand to study and had started a band with her partner Marcus Brown on drums. She came to study, and she’s still here – with her band.
Uncle Fester is a Wellington-based prog-metal band that combines Julia’s first love of metal with her island roots and experimental hard rock. Julia and Marcus join Kerry Mitchell on guitar and Dhanesh Parmar on bass. Their trip to her home meant she could show “the boys” where she came from – at the best indie festival this side of the world.
“Blackwoodstock – how to describe it,” she laughs. “It’s just fireworks, that’s what it is. They really care so much for this festival and so much is put in place to make sure everyone has the best time and is in the best possible mind-frame to give to each other, to give to the crowd.”
The experience will stay with the band forever, she says. “We stayed right by the beach – what more could you want. We felt like rock stars – it was awesome.”
And the crowd loved their homecoming. “New Caledonian crowds are a bit wilder,” Julia says. “We played on sunset and they were starting to get really excited.”
She took the experience back to Wellington, where it has continued to inspire her to bridge her two cultures. She has written songs in French and says her vocals are take inspiration from her homeland. “I’m trying to do my origin justice and not forget where I came from.”
Julia grew up around music – you can’t help it in New Caledonia, she says.
“There’s music everywhere. You go to the markets and there’s someone playing music. You go to the beach and there’s someone playing music. Everyone has some kind of old guitar of ukulele in their home. Everyone has musical ties. There’s choirs singing amazing harmonies – it’s an island that grooves.”
New Caledonia’s small archipelago offers a feast of music. Its slow island vibe has developed a natural affinity with reggage and jazz and music plays an essential part in the indigenous culture. Traditional music and dance is everywhere you look, each region having a unique musical representation of its history and culture. The island’s Melanesian music has also drawn from the influence of French settlers. Every year the New Caledonia Music Festival runs over Bastille Day (July 14), and the Francofolies Festival features three days of partying to French language music from 8-10 September.
“We live on a tropical island where the timeline is just different. You say let’s meet at seven and everyone shows up at quarter to eight. It’s like a perpetual holiday. People feel relaxed.”
Julia started singing at a young age, her family encouraging her to embrace her love of music. “I come from a family where music is an important part of our culture. My grandfather was a tenor – everyone in the family has a link to music.”
This is a familiar story in New Caledonia, she says. “New Caledonia is an island the vibrates with music. There are so many cultures you have influences from Polynesia, influences from Asia, from French, and a lot of American music too – it’s quite a big mix. A lot of country even too.”
From this Pacific stew of musical styles, Julia found a love of metal – but also the blues.
“Metal was my first love and the one I stayed loyal to. Metal and rock music have followed me my whole life. Blues allowed me explore the wide range of vocals – from rock, that rasp technique, and then the control too,” she says.
But metal is her heart. “Metal is a music that allows you a lot of freedom. Compared to the image it has it’s a very accepting and inclusive family. It feels like the rock community has this aggressive image but the people are really lovely.”
It’s that community that keeps her living in two countries. Blackwoodstock Festival’s metal and rock celebration and Uncle Fester’s Wellington birth place will always have Julia connected to both New Zealand and New Caledonia.
“My band isn’t just rock – it’s got complicated rhythmic patterns and intricate vocal lines. We create interesting music. And we put my musical heritage into the music”.
And it works – in fact, it grooves. Just like her home.
This content is brought to you by New Caledonia Tourism.
Music is at the heart of New Caledonia and was captured in the tropical electronic track from Crooked Colours, an Australian electronic act that combined programmed beats and live sampling in a campaign to capture the island’s tropical hidden paradise.
With Nouméa only three hours from Auckland, New Caledonia is fast becoming a destination where travellers can take in some truly unique sights, sounds and tastes.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.