Music and MĀoridom

- With Ria Hall & Rob Ruha -

Music is a universal language – or so say the Collective. And with this in mind we’d be crazy to overlook the significance of indigenous music and it’s inherent value to a country and its people. Luckily for us, here in Aotearoa, our indigenous music still has a strong presence throughout the country. With kapa haka in schools and the plethora of voices advocating for the resurgence of Māori language and culture, we’re miles ahead of some, but we still have some work to do. We asked two seminal Māori musicians to share with us their thoughts on music and Māoridom – what it means for them and for us as a nation. 

Give us a bit of background on the two of you. Where did you grow up? How do you think this has helped shape who you are today?

Ria Hall: I grew up as the youngest of four girls in beautiful Tauranga Moana, raised by my father. As a result I am very strong in my convictions and who I am. I’m grateful for the ebbs and flows of my upbringing: being raised in my tribal area amongst my hapū and whānau has given me a great sense of strength in my identity, which I believe allows me to move very comfortably in the musical world – mainstream and Māori.

Rob Ruha: Growing up, I was taught that my Māoritanga is a powerful tool and will ensure that I achieve any aspiration I have. I was raised in a small East Coast town called Wharekahika or Hick’s Bay, in a papakāinga with my grandmother, five of my mum’s siblings, their kids and partners for the first part of my life. When I think of those times growing up on ‘The Coast’ I remember warm summers, everyone’s front doors occupied with people waiting to invite you in for a kai, and a marae that was always alive with activities for the community.

And when did you first start singing? What does music really mean to you?

Ria: Music is life. Māori people sing from birth – it’s just a part of our cultural narrative – so to pinpoint a time is a hard thing to do because I’ve been doing it forever. Professionally, I probably started when I was 17 while I was still in school and very much involved in performing arts and kapa haka.

Rob: I first started to sing in kapa haka when I was a young boy – a story that many of our rangatahi share. In 2014, I was launched into the New Zealand music scene with powerful support and guidance from Maisey Rika, Tama Waipara and Ria, and I have never looked back. Music has been, and will always be my world.

You’ve both had pretty full-on schedules the last couple of months! How do you keep it up?

Rob: Lots of rest, good food, water and touching base with friends and whanau who are working in music. Finding inspiration in others and what they are doing always gets me excited about what I could do next! Although, the enthusiasm to wake up and do something you love is never hard to find.

Ria: I just finished ‘Soul Sistas of Matariki’ – it was an incredible experience to be surrounded by these women. We were sharing our own stories and life experiences through this musical journey. We were embodying what Matariki is – a time to come together in unity. I find at times like these it’s easy to keep going.

The tradition of storytelling is central to te ao Māori. How did growing up Māori influence how you use music to tell your stories?

Rob: The primary function of Māori music is to tell stories. Our traditional songs and haka are like the portable hard drives of our culture. My entire existence has been to serve this understanding and continue the tradition in a kapa haka context and a contemporary context as a solo artist. All of my compositions tell a story and I like my instruments to take on a character too. One brief I gave my percussionist for my waiata ‘Takiri’ was to be the thunder and lightning, so he mimicked the sounds in nature and captured the way our souls react to the power of these natural phenomena.

Ria: My culture is my backbone. And when creating, I tend to think from a cultural perspective because that’s what I know. It’s a natural occurrence that takes no thought process. It happens like the air I breathe.

Ria, can you tell us a bit about ‘Aotearoa’ and why you think it is important for te reo Māori to have a stronger presence in mainstream media?

Ria: ‘Aotearoa’ was born out of an idea to unite our country through te reo Māori. It was a no-brainer to be involved in this song when I was asked. I hope that our country will continue to support Māori language music, given that it’s the language of this land. There has been an attitude that songs in Māori are not good enough for mainstream radio – not that we care about opinion, we just want the language and messages heard because they represent us best.

Do you think that it's becoming more ‘normalised’ for te reo to be consumed by mainstream audiences?

Rob: As the pool of first language Māori speakers grows, so too does the pool of te reo Māori composers. It is a natural progression. I think if the music is good, people will enjoy it and play it regardless of the language the lyrics are written in.

Are we are seeing more examples of collective community? Have you noticed it transcending race?

Rob: Do you mean people coming together regardless of race, background or language, for a common cause? Yes. My album Pūmau is an example of that. The Kingitanga and Kotahitanga Movements are examples of that. I have been all around the world promoting indigenous views on contemporary issues through my music and they have been received, supported and celebrated. I hope this grows more.

Ria: This is a time where we need to come together and create a collective understanding. It is only through understanding and love that we can work as a collective community. Our society has a bit of growing up to do in that respect.

Why do you think that music inspires us?

Rob: Because it gets performed to a room full of people, but still has the ability to take you away to your own special place. People appreciate and love that.

Ria: Our lives would be dull without it. I know that mine would be!

Do you have any final words about the importance of music and generosity in Māoridom?

Rob: The Māori world I grew up in celebrated and championed values like working together, humility, giving to those in need, innovation, speaking the truth, love and spreading hope. Taking and selfishness were looked down upon – no one want to be called a hamu. This world is preserved and promoted in our music. Māori music is our history books, our manuals for today and our windows into the future. This is what I want to leave my children and my people. This is why I create music.

Ria: Manaakitanga is a word that encompasses so much. The essence of it is about being selfless and putting others before yourself with love. Music is no different. It is an act of sharing, thinking about the audience and how they feel. And the audience respond accordingly. Reciprocity – the way our nation should be thinking as we move forward into the future.

Words by Jd Nodder

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