RAMBLINGS : NZ's air guitar king




Once confined to drunken parties or the front row at heavy metal concerts, air guitar is becoming a globally recognised art form. This story was written as the first New Zealander to compete in the world championships - a Hastings meatworker known as The Tobanator - was about to head to Finland, air guitar's spiritual home.

Toby Peneha, New Zealand's newly crowned air guitar king, was strumming invisible strings even before he knew what a real guitar was.
"I heard music and felt it and started moving my fingers. Maybe I'm just a born air guitarist,'' he says.

The 28-year-old air virtuoso says his early exposure to music was limited to velvet-voiced crooner Jim Reeves. Young Toby's hair was kept short, and he was at church almost every evening.

That was until he turned 14. He told his mother he didn't want to go to church any more, and his cousin lent him an AC/DC tape, Black is Back.
"I put the tape in, and it was, like, DUH-DL-DUH-DUHHH! That's when it happened, man.''

Toby is so full of energy he's almost popping out of skin. With every sentence he jabs his hands in the air, demonstrates an impromptu power chord, or breaks huskily into song lyrics from heavy rockers Pantera.

After the revelation of that first AC/DC album, he graduated to Iron Maiden, Whitesnake, Guns n' Roses, Metallica and Slayer, and there was no looking back.

A teenage stint as a vocalist in a covers band called Headstone, doing heavy metal versions of Elton John songs, gave him an outlet for his talents.
"I sang in the band and moved my fingers a bit. I can play a few chords on the guitar too, but not as good as I can move my fingers,'' he says.

But then Toby found a girl, had a son, got a job cutting up chilled lamb carcasses on a bandsaw, and never thought of following his passion for air guitar - until one night at the Grumpy Mole bar in Napier. 

By chance, Toby was celebrating a mate's birthday on the same night as the regional air guitar competition. His partner, Dayna, put his name in "because it was right up his alley and he'd be in with a chance''.

Much to his surprise, Toby, alias The Tobanator, was called on stage to play to Black Sabbath's Paranoid and Give Me All Your Loving by ZZ Top.
"I'd never played in front of a crowd - hell, I didn't even know there was such a thing as an air guitar competition. I thought I'd just go up and make a bit of a fool of myself, but instead I had them bowing down in front of me.''

Toby won himself a place in the national finals, at the Poenamu Hotel on Auckland's North Shore. The other contestants arrived well prepared and in elaborate costumes, while The Tobanator forgot his CDs and turned up in his normal clothes - Pantera T-shirt, PVC pants and Doc Marten boots.

Thinking he had no chance of winning he decided to enjoy himself instead, and started drinking with the South Auckland contestant at 8am.

"The others stayed in their rooms and didn't want nothing to do with us, they stayed straight all day and night getting ready. I didn't care if I won or lost, I just wanted to get up there and have a good time,'' Toby says.

The competition hinged on just on two 60-second excerpts - Pantera's Domination/Hollow in the free round, followed by a compulsory number from Jimi Hendrix.

Toby agrees to demonstrate: Legs apart, head down, he slaps out Domination's huge, throbbing intro with a thumb on an invisible base. He switches quickly to an air guitar slung so low it's practically hanging around his ankles. He slides his fingers down the fretboard and picks out the melody so fast his fingers blur.

Then with navel-length hair flailing back and forth he drops to his knees and grabs an imaginary whammy bar and the guitar wails and... That's it. His 60 seconds are up.

But it was his faithful rendition of Jimi Hendrix that really wowed the crowd, he says.
"Hendrix was left-handed so I flicked the air guitar around, even though I can't really play that way.''

Needless to say, The Tobanator and his non-guitar notched up a resounding victory. The much-hyped North Shore candidate, who had been sponsored by a radio station and interviewed at length on TV, failed to make even the top three.

His secret? "I was just being myself, they were trying too hard.'' 
His victory was all the more remarkable - or perhaps not - because he'd spent all day in a bar.
"Man, I was hammered!'' he says, his voice rising to a falsetto giggle.

Immediately after his win, Toby gave an emotional interview which was broadcast on the 6 o'clock news the following day.
"This means a lot to me, and the most it's gonna mean is to my three-year-old son, who jams with me all the time,'' he said, caressing his framed certificate as if it were a lover.

He also offered a few words of advice to aspiring air guitarists: "If you like to try it, man, just get up and be yourself. Move your fingers like you're really playing the guitar and you'll be away, man.''

But The Tobanator's path to fame is littered with tragedy.

Toby grew up in Gisborne, on the North Island's remote and rugged east coast, where his adoptive mother died while he was in sixth form. His father had died years earlier.
"My little brother and I had nothing, nowhere to stay, no-one to back us up... We slept at my mum and dad's grave, and the next morning I crossed the road, stuck out my thumb and we ended up here - there was nothing else for me to do,'' he says.

The brothers were picked up by someone from social welfare who set them up in a Hastings flat. Toby, 16 years old, found a job and tried to be a father to his brother. 

But trouble wasn't long in coming. He did all the things his parents had told him not to, and at a bar one night someone abused and punched him in the back of the head.
"I'm not much of a fighter, but I'll tell you what, I lost it that time,'' he says.
Toby was locked away for assault, and almost ended up behind bars again when he was falsely accused of robbery.

Nowadays, however, Dayna keeps him out of mischief.
The couple live in a Hastings suburb behind a white picket fence, where Toby finds his inspiration in their three-year-old son, Danyon. Like his dad, he's a natural-born air guitarist.
"He's the one that woke me up every morning, saying 'dad, dad, competition time, time to practise'... He's just amazing, and I'd like to give him a few of the choices I didn't have back then,'' he says.

But right now the family's concern is getting some money together and getting organised - Toby has never been overseas before, and has no passport, not even a birth certificate. The flight up to Auckland for the national finals was his first time in a plane.

So does The Tobanator know anything about Finland?
"Nothing at all!'' he crows. "But a Kiwi up there will look pretty different, especially a brown one with a beautiful smile. If I win I'll do the haka (Maori war dance), and I'll do it with full-on feeling.''

But then the interview is abruptly terminated by Danyon, who has found the cassette player. He turns Pantera up so loud the windows rattle, and straps on his own miniature air guitar.

Shyly at first, he works the invisible fretboard with his fingers and taps his feet to the thumping base. As his confidence builds he throws off his sweatshirt and leaps about the kitchen floor, thrashing out a metal riff. 

His mum and dad, still seated at the dinner table, join in and soon it's a three-man air guitar band, all three heads rocking back and forth, hands strumming silent chords.
"This is just a normal household for us, man'' says Toby.

Toby "The Tobanator'' Peneha finished second in the 2002 Air Guitar Championships, beaten in a controversial judges' decision by Londoner Zac "Mr Magnet'' Monro.

However, Toby won the hearts of the hard-rocking Finns. They voted him the audience favourite and treated him like a rock star during his five days in Oulu, a city just shy of the Arctic Circle. He was mobbed in the streets, ushered to the front of queues, and invited to the town hall to perform for the mayor of Oulu.
"I showed her what air guitar is all about, yeaahhhh!'' Toby says.

It was also the first time the Finnish media had encountered a Maori air guitarist or anything quite like The Tobanator. He featured in newspapers in Finland and Saudi Arabia and on the CNN website.

But Toby's fondest memory of the championships is the Finnish people. 
"Every day they made me feel like I won, they were bowing down and calling out Tobanator!''

Sadly, Toby placed second in the 2003 New Zealand Air Guitar Championships and missed out on a second shot at the world title. 

First published in Hawke's Bay Today, July 2002. This story was included in a portfolio that won New Zealand's Qantas Junior Newspaper Feature Writer 2002.

Toby "The Tobanator" Peneha.
PHOTO: Andrew Labett

"I heard music and felt it and started moving my fingers. Maybe I'm just a born air guitarist''
Toby "The Tobanator" Peneha

The air guitar capital
of the world

Yes, the Air Guitar World Championships really exist. I phoned Finland to check.
The seventh annual championships were held in the northern Finnish city of Oulu in August 2002 as part of a music video festival, with Finnish guitar legend Juha Torvinen heading the jury.
The top prize? An electric guitar. A real one, man.
The official website explains the purpose of the event: "According to the ideology of air guitar playing, all war and disease would cease to exist and all bad things would disappear if  everyone in the world only played air guitar. This is why at the end of every competition all people in the world are invited to play air guitar simultaneously.''
Oulu is the main city of northern Finland with a population of about 120,000, known for its IT industry.
Festival producer Marika Lomberg is at a loss to explain how Oulu became the world air guitar capital. 
"I guess the competition was born because we have special interest in all kind of bizarre things and competitions," she says.
"Here in Finland we love to gather together to watch each other making fools of ourselves ... And of course lots of Finns have this passion for hard rock music which makes our heads bang."
The Air Guitar World Championships is not the only unusual festival in this part of Finland - the nearby town of Sonkajarvi hosts the World Wife-Carrying Championships.
The tradition arose, apparently, in the 19th century when it was common practice to steal women from neighbouring villages.
Competitors have to carry their wives over a 253.5 metre track, two dry obstacles and one water obstacle.
The winner receives his wife's weight in beer.


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Copyright Peter de Graaf 2011 : Ramblings designed and built by Peter de Graaf : Last updated August 2011