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Master's research a labour of love for Shihad frontman

Lead singer for Shihad and The Adults Jon Toogood, who is studing via distance for a master's degree with the School of Music and Creative Media Production at Massey's University's Wellington campus.


Musician Jon Toogood’s master’s thesis was not just a musical marriage of minds with his tutors from Massey’s College of Creative Arts, but inspired by his real-life wedding to his wife Dana and the Sudanese culture he has married into.

The Shihad singer who also leads the side project super group The Adults, adapted the band’s second album Haja to explore the cultural significance and music of the northern Sudanese people as part of his Masters research.  The album’s title comes from a respectful term for an older, experienced Sudanese woman. The second part of his research focused on the recording of the album itself, a celebration of the Sudanese music performed by women only called Aghani-Al-Banat, which was interweaved with the music and lyrics of some of the New Zealand’s rising stars with it.

Toogood, who studied via distance, visits Massey University’s Wellington campus next week for rehearsals at the recently established School of Music and Creative Media Production ahead of The Adults performing in Wellington.

His Masters supervisor Dr Oli Wilson and the album’s producer Devin Abrams are both senior lecturers the school. Both are also practicing musicians, working as keyboardists in The Chills and Pacific Heights (a solo project for Abrams) respectively.

Each had an influential role in how the album and the research developed. And each had a similar response to when Toogood first heard the melodic sounds during his wife’s wedding dance on the third day of his traditional Sudanese wedding ceremony in Khartoum.

He met his wife Dana, the daughter of a former United Nations diplomat from Sudan, at an event at Auckland Museum and ended up visiting her northern Sudan homeland, converting to Islam, and falling in love with her. He also fell in love with what he describes as the country’s “organic dance music” from an all-female dance performance sung in Arabic that he couldn’t help but stand up and move to.

Toogood says the melodic mix of percussion and vocals offers reminders for him of punk and hip-hop music too that he was keen to underlay with some bass lines of his own.

“I really wanted to push the Big Day Out [music festival] boiler room vibe, it really reminded me of seeing [bands like] MIA or Primal Scream.”

For his own enjoyment he asked if he could preserve some of the sounds of Aghani-Al-Banat, which roughly translates as girl’s music. He initially encountered some obstacles to recording the music that is performed by women considered ghetto-based and lower class-based music – despite what he believed could be a wider audience for it.

“I initially recorded renditions of my wife’s wedding dance on an IPhone,” Mr Toogood says.

“I then went into a recorded studio but because of the nature of this form of music in Sudanese society it’s not seen as a recorded form of music it’s music that’s performed live. The government have tight stranglehold on what’s programmed on media outlets, but this music is not considered by the government a respectful art form to be performed by Islamic Sudanese females –  Aghani-Al-Banat falls outside of that. It’s a mixed blessing it gives them the freedom to sing and perform what they want as they’re not going to get TV or radio air play.” Music that does get airplay is composed by men.

“When I went to record them in Aghani-Al-Banat, both the artists and recording engineers were uncomfortable,” he says.

“Because they were uncomfortable the recordings and performances weren’t as good so I went back to the original IPhone recordings where the performance was ‘on fire,’ he says.

“It was a mono-compressed digital file and how do you make that presentable to people in the west who want to hear things in high fidelity and sonically are used to hearing at a certain standard. All of the instruments I recorded over the top of it were recorded using high quality gear. But the mono files of the women were highly compressed they actually sat in the mddle of the mix really beautifully and I could actually build up a sonically superior landscape around it. However, I did really need Devin’s skills to make that work,” he says.

“With Devin I knew I needed someone because I knew how dance music oriented this music was and dance music is not  my experience of being in the recording studio...so I knew I needed someone that came from that world who could make it as sonically big as those records that I love. So I needed someone like Devin to articulate what I was hearing.”

At the same time he was recording music and enlisting the support of some of New Zealand up-and-coming artists such as songstress Chelsea Jade, rapper Raiza Biza and hip-hop artist Kingz to perform on it, Toogood was also researching the cultural influences from where the music originated.

Dr Wilson’s own research into the effects of new digital technologies in remote places also helped with the supervision of Toogood’s research that explored new worlds for the western ear.

“I think was Oli was invaluable on the research side of things advising me ‘you could push it further here’ you could go deeper here’ and giving me feedback.”

Dr Wilson is equally effusive. “It was especially satisfying to see Jon’s critical-thinking skills developing over the course of the project, and see how the final recording interweaves his theoretical study with practical music making.”

Mr Toogood concedes the theoretical learning process was a bit of an adjustment after nearly 30 years as a working musician and by his own admission being a less-than diligent student at Wellington High School. He is proud though of his working class origins and attitude he personifies and which he says is also reflected in the music of Aghani-Al-Banat.

“While that music is an indispensable part of Sudanese society, in that it is played at every wedding, it’s still seen as having its roots in being a working class or lower class thing. If you play that music you are probably working class or from a lower class,” he says.

“Coming from a New Zealand working class background, marrying into a [upper middle class] family where the mother would not want her daughter playing Sudanese music like Aghani-al-Banat is a bit jarring. But it made me love it even more. Because of my working class background I’ve always liked for music to have a voice for those people who don’t have a voice.”