Show Chapters

Songwriter's Choice: Ariana Tikao


Ariana Tikao composes and performs music in Te Reo Māori and English, in a wide variety of settings. She draws on folk and pop, with a strong emphasis on Māori chant, and her music is inspired and influenced by her Māori ancestry and the landscape of Te Waipounamu: the South Island. Besides releasing albums of her own music (From Dust to Light, Tuia and Whaea), she has taken part in projects such as John Psathas’s No Man’s Land (as singer), Kenneth Young’s In Paradisum with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (as singer and taonga puoro player), and the Ihimaera album. With Philip Brownlee, Ariana co-composed the first concerto for taonga puoro, Ko te tātai whetū; she also performed in the premiere with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. On 22 February 2012 she sang ‘Whakaaria Mai’ at the Christchurch Earthquake Memorial event in Hagley Park, which was televised internationally. Ariana’s music career began in Christchurch in 1993 with the folk duo Pounamu. 

North by North – The Bats

It begins with a persistent bass line that sets the expectant mood, like road movie music. I didn’t have TV back then, so only just realised that the video they made at the time, 30 years ago, was just that! When I first saw The Bats live – probably at an orientation gig in the early 1990s – I remember thinking Kaye Woodward was particularly cool. Looking back, seeing women musicians such as Kaye, Jan Hellriegel, and Fatal Jelly Space performing live – although different stylistically – helped validate my own place in that world, when I was a new songwriter and performer. I bought Daddy’s Highway on cassette in 1991 when I was a student at Otago Uni, and it was one of the albums I consistently played in my room up on the City Rise in Dunedin. Getting back to the song – once the bass is established, the drums and then guitars come in creating a solid groove, but with a sweet dark undertone, and Robert Scott’s vocals enter: “Some people are happy most of the time, but they don’t know they’re in line ... ” then that catchy chorus, “North by north by (north by north)” ... those stretched-out echoing backing vocals of Paul Kean. Epic!

 

Papatuanuku – Jacquie Walters

I was a founding member of the folk group Pounamu in 1993, with Jacquie Hanham (now Walters), and Leigh Taiwhati. We played regularly at the Arts Centre in Christchurch, at student events, and toured mostly in the South Island. Leigh left after a year, but Jacquie and I carried on for another couple of years. Some time in 1993, we were sitting in Leigh’s bedsit across from the Arts Centre, and Jacquie played us this song she had written, based on a dream she’d had: ‘Papatuanuku’. It made me cry. It is about the ancient beauty of our land: “I walked through the giant punga, in the beginning of the memories, when the land and the sky were new lovers still, my eyes were the colour of the arahura stone, and it was free then the land was free then.” It is very much a South Island song, reminiscent though of one of those Celtic epic story songs. It begins and ends with a delicate strumming guitar riff, but the dynamic escalates when the strumming guitar enters, and the song becomes a plea to address the environmental degradation that we humans are causing: “ ... The paths that I trod are trampled and dusty and no longer blessed, the spirit that I was calls out, and only a few can remember the reply, the voices of the land are twisted and flooded by the new.”

 

Drive – Bic Runga

“Let rain fall from concrete coloured sky ... ” I like the vividness of this image in Bic Runga’s song ‘Drive’, the title track of an EP that my friend gave to me (on cassette) for my birthday the year it was released, 1995. The song has a beautiful simplicity and a plaintive, tragic feel to it. Lyrically it continues on with the driving theme, when Bic sings “Keep my heart turning on, axles around you. Keep our love burning, just like it used to do.” It makes me think of the relationships I had in my teens and early twenties (some of them real, and some imagined) and how sometimes we try to keep the thing going, even though we know it has come to a dead end. I had already started writing songs by the time I got the EP, and met Bic one time when she played at the Boulevard Bakehouse. We would often be there on Thursday evenings listening to James Wilkinson, the audience lining the stairs, lit by candlelight. This night however, it was a young Bic Runga singing with a guitarist. She was probably still at school. I remember her holding a pen up to the guitar strings in lieu of a capo. Chatting to her afterwards I recommended that they play at the Folk Club, which was where I had started out playing a couple of years earlier. Within a couple of years Bic would go on to release the album Drive and went on to international fame; she recently celebrated 20 years since that release. I wonder if she ever did play at the Folk Club?

 

Our Mother Is The Earth – LA Mitchell

It begins with a soft pulsating electronic rhythm. And then a syncopated mesmeric vocal enters which riffs on well-known whakatauki, whakapapa and the Māori Creation Story. Her vocals are sublime. The song builds with a lot of vocal layering, and a playful build to the melody. The recording was part of the Ihimaera project where the legendary Charlotte Yates chose NZ songwriters to work with poems written by Witi Ihimaera and set them to music. Christchurch musician LA Mitchell created this offering which I would say is acapella-based, with technical complexity in its arrangement as well as vocal delivery. I was also one of the musicians selected for this project, so got to witness the live version of the song at the Auckland Arts Festival in 2011, with Lauren’s talented accompanying singers who were aptly described as “singing angels”.

 

Little Survivor – Julia Deans

This has a timeless quality like an old blues song. It features horns by some of Christchurch’s top players: Cameron Pearce, Gwyn Reynolds and Scott Taitoko; double bass by Richie Pickard; and heart-string-pulling vocals by Julia Deans. Reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s ‘Gloomy Sunday’, it brings you down into the depths of despair, melancholy and loss. Written perhaps at the point in a break-up where you realise that there is no hope for reconciliation, and even though you might imagine coming out of it strong and triumphant, you realise that for now, you just need to do the hard yards of being heartbroken. I love all of the songs on ‘Modern Fables’ but this one – the opening song – has to be my favourite. I’m looking forward to her next solo album, which is due out soon. Check out the exquisite singles that have been released in advance of the full album: ‘Walking In The Sun’ and ‘Clandestine’.

 

Arahura – Marlon Williams

When I first met Marlon Williams, he was ordering a fluffy at Le Café in the Christchurch Arts Centre: he was probably about four at the time. I am friends with his mum, Jenny Rendall, whose painting is the cover artwork for my Tuia album. I feel like I qualify as one of Marlon’s “aunties” so of course feel hugely proud of his talent and successes. He has gone from high school band Woolley Fish and chorister at the Christchurch Basilica, to international star in just a few short years. Like many songs in my Songwriter’s Choice list, ‘Arahura’ is another South Island themed song, which Marlon says was inspired by his ex-girlfriend’s “Coastie” dad. Through his Kāi Tahu mum, Marlon has whakapapa to the West Coast and the song speaks of their deep connection to the Arahura River, New Zealand’s major source of pounamu. “Te Rauparaha, the greenest of eyes, he came a long way for a shimmering prize.” I was sad that this song didn’t make it on to his sophomore album, released in February 2018. But lucky for us there is a beautiful live version of it recorded by RNZ. At the beginning of this video, Marlon says the song is about the “uncaring nature of geographical features when it comes to the affairs of men” – a kaupapa many of us in Aotearoa have become all too familiar with of late!

 

Greg Johnson – Swagger

This song by Greg Johnson is one of my favourite songs of all time. It is so plaintive and pure. Its musical emphasis is on the slow but meaningful piano and vocals. It celebrates being in love:. “Playing 500, and the deal was 21.” I discovered Greg’s music through my husband Ross, who I got together with at the end of 1996, the year in which this song was released on Vine Street Stories. This song reminds me of that time, so it has major sentimental value. “Pretty well stunned, by all the things I see. If I swagger, it’s cos you’re good for me ... If I’m a fool, then you’re sanity. If I swagger, it’s cos you’re with me.” That descending, stretched out singing of “swa-a-a-a-a-a-gger” towards the end of the song is sublime.

 

One and Only – French for Rabbits

It was difficult to decide which French for Rabbits song to choose, as there are so many well-crafted songs in their repertoire. I decided upon ‘One And Only’, as I have a soft spot for simplicity (in music). Brooke Singer, the band’s main songwriter, commented in one interview that she often couches reality in metaphor, which can make it difficult for a listener to interpret. But this song is contrastingly raw and personal. It is a memory song starting with the beginning of the relationship: “I met you when I was only 18, lay down in the wet grass, tracking words, upon our skin. But my heart like a willow to the water, to be your one and only lover.” It continues on to memories which highlight happier times, but there is a wistful tone to these reflections. I first met Brooke through the Christchurch music scene when she was in Raggamuffin Children, and we have played together live and recorded together. We were even semi-related through marriage at one stage, alas, echoing the subject matter of this song, that relationship ended too.

 

Titokowaru – Moana Maniapoto

I hoped to get Moana and the Moahunters to perform at a women’s festival I was helping to organise at Canterbury University in 1992, but sadly with our tiny budget, we couldn’t afford them. She has remained an inspiration though. I admire her tenacity, as well just how incredibly articulate a speaker and writer she is. This waiata is a great one to boogie to, but it also highlights one of our country’s greatest hero stories. Tītokowaru is described on Moana’s website as a “great warrior, a military and spiritual leader, who led his people in the quest to hold onto land being taken by colonisers.” The song also talks about Te Whiti and Tohu, the leaders of the peaceful Parihaka community in Taranaki, who used peaceful resistance to hold onto their mana motuhake. I have always loved songs that tell stories, and this one contains so much great kōrero, and is sung in te reo Māori, with an English rap incorporated into it. Moana has long been an advocate for te reo Māori, taonga puoro, and Māori & indigenous rights. The really hooky chorus includes the following lyrics: “Maungarongo e, puritia te whenua mō te iwi Māori. Maungarongo e, ko nga kupu poropiti e.” It should be a set text in all of our schools – what a great way to learn history!

 

I Know Not Where I Stand – Shayne P Carter 

This was one of my faves in the APRA Silver Scroll long list of top 20 NZ songs for 2017. I ended up meeting Shayne Carter when he curated the live performances for the Silver Scroll Awards in Dunedin that year, and I performed alongside James Webster, Horomona Horo and Al Fraser as “Oro” doing a cover of Alien Weaponry’s thrash metal song ‘Raupatu’ (on taonga puoro!). When the Offsider album came out in 2016, I initially didn’t “get” the rudimentary piano playing, and found it jarring. But it grew on me and now I love it! Shayne’s friend Roger Shepherd explained in an interview that it fits his “post-punk ethos”. In this song, the discordant piano stabs create an insistent loop, which is joined later by an intense string part. Lyrically, I find this song very moving, as (in my mind anyway) it deals with identity issues, and I guess for me as someone who grew up as a “half-caste” or “part-Māori” in the South Island, I can identify with not quite feeling whole at times, particularly as a teen and young adult. 

 

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Ariana Tikao’s website

 
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