Jenine Abarbanel is a familiar face around Leigh. She has her fingers in many community pies. She’s usually at local fundraiser and events, often as an organiser or volunteer. With her partner, Nat Torkington, she has two teenagers; they have a huge extended family in the area on Nat’s side. But there’s a bit more to this picture than a local cookie-baking committee mum. Jenine also has a degree in Aerospace Engineering and, with Nat (a banjo player of serious renown) she travels New Zealand and Australia playing the double bass and singing in their bluegrass band, The Pipi Pickers.
Jenine was born in Chicago but raised in California. She’s a statuesque Amazon who grew up hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevada mountains. She has a big voice with a solid American ‘y’all kinda’ twang. She doesn’t beat around the bush, and she really likes to laugh.
At school she was very academic, particularly in maths and science, which explains why she did that Bachelor in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southern California. “Yeah – so there I was in LA in the 80s, and … truth to tell, I don’t really remember a lot of it,” she admits. But she made it through and got to grad school (Masters) at Colorado State, doing research funded by NASA.
“I was completely convinced that we’d be living on the moon and Mars by the middle of this century, so I was part of this programme designing inflatable living quarters,” she says. “We’d write these papers, and travel to conferences to present them. Then we’d go home and write papers and go to the next conference. And so on, and so on. Nothing happened. I lost interest.”
Meanwhile Nat had arrived. They met online – in 1995. Before the World Wide Web was available to mere mortals, Jenine and Nat, in very different parts of the planet, had been taking part in discussion groups via the net’s precursor, UseNet. They were both members of a creative writing group called talk.bizarre. “So every year, we would have a huge party called the Talk.Bizarre Outrageous Blowout – T-BOB for short. They were pretty amazing parties,” says Jenine.
“One year it was at a huge ranch in New Mexico, and Nat came all the way from New Zealand. We had been talking online for quite a while but suddenly there he was in person, sleeping on my couch. We were married six months later.”
Both of their brainy and beautiful children were born in Fort Collins. But New Zealand was calling Nat – he wanted his kids to run wild on the beaches of Leigh. Then in 2004, just as the Torkington homesickness was peaking, George Bush was elected for a second term, the cocksucker. They packed their bags and left America.
In Leigh, Jenine was shell-shocked. “I left a very close-knit bunch of friends in Fort Collins, and I couldn’t seem to make it work here. And all the poor Leigh folk just had this, like, rhino appear in the village – with a loud American accent, crashing round. Everyone was just kinda… bruised.” Describing herself as ‘generally a happy optimist’, Jenine nevertheless grew depressed and bored. But as she says, “desperation can be really motivating.”
During this time, she’d sometimes go with Nat when he went out to jam with his musician mates. She’d always sung but never played a musical instrument. However, one night, about ten years ago, she looked at the huge double bass in the corner and asked, “So how do you play that?”
Garry Bigwood, one of the band members (he plays exceptional mandolin) loaned her the instrument, Nat’s dad Barry (who rounds out the foursome on guitar), lent her a couple of ‘How to play the double bass for bluegrass’ videos – and the rest is history. The Pipi Pickers played their first gig at a birthday party two weeks later, and have been in hot demand ever since.
Three years ago, Jenine started another band, an all-girl bluegrass group called Hot Diggity. They’re a talented bunch, with some most excellent vintage frockage going on and classic bluegrass instruments which get a damned good work-out: mandolin, fiddle, guitar, double bass and banjo. Most of the gals do vocals as well. If you like bluegrass music, you’ll want to see Hot Diggity live.
Jenine spent eight years as the beloved but slightly scary Mahurangi College computer technician; she and Nat run an annual ‘Kiwi Foo Camp’ (an invitation-only ‘un-conference’ where a bunch of very clever people from very different backgrounds – nanotechnology, politics, art and psychology for example – come together with no agenda to see what happens); and they run a similar thing for Spark (bright young Sparks brainstorm with experts in say, law, education, medicine or politics to fuel creative futures within different industries).
The extracurricular activity that really feeds Jenine’s soul however is the Whangateau Acoustic Music and Social Club she founded a couple of years ago. It’s held at the beautiful, historic Whangateau Hall (great acoustics) on the last Monday of each month and usually comprises an open-mic first half, followed by guest artists who may come from anywhere: Matakana, Wellington, America, the UK. $10 gets you in, ($15 if it’s an overseas act – plane tickets don’t come cheap) a cup of tea and a bikkie or two. Some very magical things often happen at these friendly gatherings.
It certainly seems that this all-American girl has found enough to do to be going on with. Check out her various web pages below and see if you can keep up.