In the third instalment of four articles, Sam Bleakley explores The Soul of Surfing alongside the stunning photography of Katie Rae.
Words by Emma Brown & Sam Bleakley | Photography by Katie Rae | 3rd August ‘18
You can read part one here, where Sam discusses the cultural context of the term ‘soul surfer’ and the often overlooked role of the wipeout. In part two Sam tracks the roots of surfing, from blessed Hawaiian wood boards to the chemical revolution in California and the emergence of ‘surfing style’ in the 1950s and ‘60s.
In 1963 (while the Dick Dale led reverberating electric guitar and drum based surf sound was booming) Southern California surf guitarist Johnny Fortune wrote and recorded the instrumental ‘Soul Surfer’. Soul music was also booming. For over one hundred years African American communities had been fusing European influenced songs with ancestral vocals and rhythms. The development of this music was game changing, ranging from clapping up-tempo joyful move-to-the-beat gospel songs, to slower songs of yearning. The first big soul hits were gospel songs with re-written lyrics from the likes of Ray Charles, James Brown and Sam Cooke.
In 1959 Berry Gordy started Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan. Motown's house band, the Funk Brothers, were jazz musicians (another African American art-form) whose rhythms were easy for middle class white listeners to dance to and consume. Their secret was playing tambourine and rhythm guitar on the second and fourth beats of each bar, with female singers like Diana Ross and The Supremes using irresistible upbeat vocals instead of their natural bluesy voices, modelled on blues great Etta James’ classic soul song I'd Rather Go Blind. A different style of soul developed in Chicago, Illinois, where Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions had been recording for Vee-Jay Records since 1956, and in the early ‘60s Curtis became passionately involved in the civil rights movement, writing about poverty, racism and injustice, soon launching Curtom Records.
While ‘Northern’ soul blasted out from Detroit and Chicago, the centre of ‘Southern’ soul was Memphis, where a powerful, dynamic ‘deep soul’ (spearheaded by Stax Records) and a smoothly-produced ‘Memphis soul’ (spearheaded by Hi Records) developed. Stax used driving rhythm and blues, played by their mixed-race house band Booker T and the MG’s, and funky brass riffs played by their horn section The Mar-Keys. Otis Redding was Stax's biggest star. The Hi Records house band, the Hi Rhythm Section, also developed a funky feel to which house producer Willie Mitchell (whose own big hit was Mercy Mercy Mercy, a jazz beauty written by pianist Joe Zawinul and first recorded by Cannonball Adderley) added strings, horns and backing singers. Hi Record's biggest star was Al Green. Other soul artists from the South included Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge who recorded with a group of white session musicians called the Swampers at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Although built with a backbone of Polynesians and Peruvians, globally surfing continued to be a white dominated activity, largely the privilege of the middle class in the USA, Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Soul singers, however, worked tirelessly for an end to racism. Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come in 1964 became an anthem. Before it was released Sam was murdered in Los Angeles, inspiring many African American musicians to achieve social justice through their work.
But surfing did touch on some powerful opportunities for equal rights, showcased in The Endless Summer, released in 1966. Director Bruce Brown and Californian surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August set out on a three months’ long around the world trip. They arrived at Los Angeles airport wearing suits and ties. That’s how you travelled then. Air flights were like going out to a fancy restaurant. Importantly the scenes giving surf lessons to Ghanaian kids at the height of the Cold War remain a great social icebreaker, while the ‘discovery’ of ‘the perfect wave’ at Cape St Francis, South Africa is the stuff of legend. Yet local context prevented many black surfing communities developing until the 1990s, finally injecting a fresh wave of soul into surfing.
The line-up at the 1966 World Surfing Championships in San Diego didn’t include a single African American surfer. The world’s best noserider at the time was Hawaiian raised, California-based David Nuuhiwa. He mastered the paradox of noseriding - apply weight, remaining weightless. He never hesitated, confident that he could pull anything off. Nuuhiwa’s epic ten-second soul-arch-nose-ride was widely expected to win. But a young Australian wildfire called Nat Young took the title, riding a smaller board with a revolutionary fin shape. It was completely different to the favoured ‘D’ shaped fins on the surfboards Nuuhiwa and most Californians were riding. In contrast it was long and raking, inspired by the dorsal fin of a dolphin. With this Nat had developed an aggressive style, carving arcs and ‘S’ shaped turns on the wave. Nat’s American friend George Greenough, riding short and stubby kneeboards, was showcasing on his knees what could be done standing up. Greenough thought that surfing could move from straight lines to short arcs, but the big boards would not allow vertical turns and the use of a low centre of gravity. Nat’s secret was his big feet. They spread like a frog’s webbed feet across the deck and stuck like glue. It was as if the power that Nat generated in his turns flowed upwards from those giant soles.
George Greenough was a visionary, and still celebrated as a pioneer soul surfer. But his ideas were part of a wider movement when lifestyles were pushed into experimental places, minds often fuelled by psychedelic drugs and spiritual practices like yoga and meditation. Greenough inspired a handful of young Australians, including Bob McTavish and Nat, to build shorter boards. Once the boards got smaller, vertical thinking (the mind going tall) then took over from horizontal thinking (cruising along the wave face) and surfing followed. Surfers could suddenly ride the steeper area of the wave. As boards contracted, so minds expanded. ‘Thinking with a surfboard’ required a new mindset of liberation from the smooth flow of longboard surfing to think in smaller, tighter arcs. Surfer magazine cartoonists such as Rick Griffin fantasised in their panels that some day a board would be flipped all the way over, a head-over-heels turn, right inside the tube.
George Greenough also made two pioneering films, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1968) and Crystal Voyager (1973). Greenough himself had persuaded Pink Floyd to allow the use of their music for the climax sequence of Innermost Limits. It was a sensation. Greenough had strapped a camera to his back and shot the first genuine in-the-tube footage, with Floyd’s Echoes from the album ‘Meddle’ providing the backdrop. It took the viewer on a deep and hypnotic ride with groundbreaking water photography. Surfboard designers and shapers studied Greenough’s ‘hull’ kneeboards carefully to see what could be translated across to standing up.
With the advent of the hypnotic potential to ride the tube - the place where time stands still as the wave zips up over your head and you try to gain enough speed to keep slightly ahead of that zipping up until you are spat out at the exit - religious overtones were inevitable. In 1969 Tom Blake wrote ‘Voice of the Wave’ to explore the religious elements of waveriding. After decades studying surfing’s cultural roots in ancient Polynesia, Blake’s concise philosophy was “Nature = God.” Other surfers explored the metaphysics of waves - pulses of energy moving through water particles, formed and shaped by various oceanographic factors. Surfing was inspiring deep scientific appreciation and study. Californian Ricky Grigg was a big wave North Shore pioneer, winner of the Sunset Duke Kahanamoku (the World Title of the day), and becoming a leading oceanographer and coral reef expert at the University of Hawaii. Ultimately Plymouth University launched the pioneering Surf Science & Technology degree in 1999, an interdisciplinary study based around surfing’s liquid flux, including meteorology, business, marketing, coastal tourism and surf sociology.
Following the radical reduction in board length from nine to six feet, by the early 1970s, what came from surfing was an animal arrogance, a slash ’n’ tear approach. The countercultural hippy movement in San Francisco had rapidly transformed into an aggressive political action aligned with black and feminist liberation. Around California anti-commercial surfers were promoting the rise of aggressive localism. ‘Locals’ discouraged ‘non-locals’ from surfing on ‘their’ patch through violent behaviour. Here ‘soul surfer’ was mixed with territorialism. But the aggressive Australian surfers soon cooled out, retired to the country, discovered Byron Bay and the exotic Indonesia travel experience, showcased in Alby Falzon’s 1971 travel film, Morning of the Earth. Alby had also started an alternative surf paper, Tracks, based on the highly successful American music and politics paper Rolling Stone. The Sydney-based surfers, including 1966 World Champion Nat Young, who moved to abandoned country farmhouses in New South Wales, lived off the land, designed and made their own surfboards, and rode uncrowded waves, eulogised in Alby Falzon's work. The ‘country soul’ movement, a total living experiment shaped by radical experimentation, is now seen as the golden era of soul surfing.
As psychedelic rock took over, the legendary Californian surfer Corky Caroll recorded an album with Californian and Hawaiian musicians called Laid Back in 1971, trying to capture the relationship between Hawaiian slack-key guitar driven tunes and the more relaxed era of surfing-as-sliding invented by Hawaiian royalty. But there is a sinister side to soul in surfing at the time. In Chuck Wein’s cult film Rainbow Bridge (1972), centred on a Jimi Hendrix concert at a meditation centre in Maui and chock-full of inspiring surfing by the masters of the time, there is a scene in which a hollowed out surfboard is used to smuggle drugs into the country. Later Hawaiian Jeff Hakman travelled to Australia with three ounces of cocaine glassed inside the hollowed out fin of his contest board. He won a big event at Bells Beach, and came home with the license to sell Quiksilver surf trunks in the USA, but later sold company shares to buy drugs.
1970s soul surfing icons continue to be celebrated today – in particular Australian Wayne Lynch, and Hawaiians Gerry Lopez and Rell Sunn (all inspiring Tom Curren in the 1980s). Rell was the Queen of Makaha, the embodiment of Hawaiian style, always treating the ride as a whole, in fluid motion from take off to kick out. Her middle name, Kapolioka'ehukai, is Hawaiian for ‘heart of the sea’. In the early ‘70's Rell was instrumental in establishing women’s professional surfing and twice finished third on the World Tour. She became Hawaii's first female lifeguard and earned a BA in Cultural Anthropology. Rell brought grace and soul to art of power surfing, but remained humble, and carried a great spirit throughout everything she did. "The aloha spirit is real simple,” she said. “You give and you give and you give…and you give from here (the heart), until you have nothing else to give." Consequently Rell devoted herself to the youth of Hawaii, forming the annual Menehune Surf Contest in 1977 held exclusively for kids at her beloved Makaha. In 1983 Rell was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was just 32, given months to live. Yet Rell chose to live life to its fullest, positively impacting everyone she met. Rell passed away in 1998, aged 47. Thousands gathered for her beachside memorial when her ashes were scattered into the Makaha surf. In a recent magazine article, contemporary American soul surfer Leah Dawson wrote, “Dear Rell, Your legacy and spirit remain so alive here…your imprint on society has influenced my life tremendously…I imagine you’re very proud of us women, who spend our lives in the sea, riding waves. Women all across the Earth are celebrating in the ocean, feeling that same sense of awe that you so poetically lived. I often watch footage of you, and I recognize that you were a surfing goddess. There was no comparison of your surfing to men’s surfing. It was so different. It was a dance. It was feminine in every sense of the word. It was powerful. It was controlled. Your grace in the sea was evident. Every photo looks as if you are in absolute celebration of the ocean and of life. What’s more beautiful than that?”
As boards got lighter, aerial surfing spawned, trailblazers like Lisa Andersen continued to push the boundaries of women’s surfing, generations were brought up on acquisition, and uncritical adoption of the latest ‘must-have’ technologies and gadgetry, and surfing’s retro revival for old 1960s longboards was taking off, ironically led by (a now older) Nat Young and made cool by a young Californian called Joel Tudor. The longboarding once modelled by David Nuuhiwa also became the domain of femininity and dance (modelled by Carla Rowland Zamora, Kassia Meador and Belinda Baggs) because the approach was orientated around footwork, flow and style, not power, speed and torque. It formed a whole new market, simply branded as ‘retro’. The retro movement led to a massive celebration of the anti-contest soul surfing era of the 1970s.
Enter the neon-lit ‘80s as new surf breaks were ‘discovered’ so ‘hot’ beach cultures followed: Biarritz, Byron Bay, Kuta Beach, Bondi Beach and Fistral Beach. By the ‘90s and ‘00s surf travel’s notorious independence now acted as a model for those who wanted ‘off the beaten track’ holiday experiences, and surfers were pioneers in Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Fiji, Madeira, Morocco, Liberia, the Philippines, the Maldives and Hainan Island, China. As local surf cultures finally flower in these places there is exciting potential for a new wave of soul surfing. While 11 times world champion Kelly Slater claims, “surfing is my religion, if I have one…and the barrel is really the ultimate ride for any surfer. It's the eye of the storm. Some guys say it's like being in the womb…” what will a new generation of Indian, Chinese and North African surfers think? They have plenty of cultural threads to explore. In Hinduism several Sanskrit words are used to denote ‘soul’ such jiva (individual soul), atman (intrinsic divine essence), and purusha (spirit). The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most significant Hindu scriptures, refers to purusha as having three characteristics - sat (truth or existence), chit (consciousness or knowledge) and ananda (bliss). Chinese tradition suggests that every individual has two types of soul called hun and po. Egyptian mythology explains that an individual is made up of various elements, some physical and some spiritual, the ren (name), the bâ (personality), the ka (vital spark), the sheut (shadow) and the jb (heart). A new generation of Egyptian surfers might claim that vital spark, shadow and heart form the soul of surfing.