Here are 10 songs that tackle the subject of religious faith and managed to make waves in the wider culture.
God Defend New Zealand
Thomas Bracken (words, 1870s) and Joseph Woods (music, 1876)
New Zealand’s national anthem starts with the image of us all prostrating ourselves before God and the lyrics throughout are as devout as our other official anthem, ‘God Save The Queen’. Many people will only know the first verse of ‘God Defend New Zealand,’ which is sung in English and te reo at the beginning of each All Blacks’ test. As a result, the strongest religious sentiments in the song are lost – for example, the fifth and final verse that pleads for god to “Make us faithful unto Thee” and suggests we should all be ‘preaching love and truth to man / working out Thy glorious plan.”
Even just focusing on the first verse, this isn’t a great song. The lyrics have an awkward lyrical rhythm (which forces singers to stretch ‘free’ and ‘strife’ over two syllables), which can possibly be traced to the fact that it was a poem initially (written by Thomas Bracken in the early 1870s). In 1876 there was a national competition to set it to music, which was won by John Joseph Woods. It became a national hymn in 1940 and was adopted as our second anthem in 1977. The te reo version is undeniably cooler (“Aotearoa” is a better hook line), but people flipped out when it was sung on its own before a World Cup match against England in 1999 (see David Farrier’s documentary for this and other stories about the anthem). Here is the standard version, performed by Hayley Westenra.
Put Your Hand In The Hand
Allison Durbin (1971)
This song is a cover, but seems important to include, as Allison Durbin was a massive pop star on both sides of the Tasman (recording a hit duet album with John Farnham). This single reached No.5 on the local charts and No.24 in Australia. You might have thought that the counter-cultural influence of the 1960s would mean that releasing a Christian song would have been out of vogue, but Durbin – with her long hair, floral shirt, and hot pants – is the model of a hip chick of the era. Also, this was the period of “Jesus people”: Baxter-influenced hippies for Christ, the musical Godspell, and pop/God crossovers like Three Dog Night’s ‘Joy to the World’ being big radio hits. Instead of Christianity being the moral code of “the man”, a new generation were going back to the New Testament itself and finding plenty of grist for their pacifist cause.
How Great Thou Art / Whaakaria mai
Howard Morrison (1981)
Out of all the songs on this list, this one had the biggest impact at home, spending five weeks at No.1 and staying on the charts for a total of 31 weeks. It is a live recording taken from Howard Morrison’s appearance at the Royal Variety Show at Auckland’s St James and wasn’t originally intended for release. The song was written by 19th century Swedish composer Carl Gustav Boberg – but it is the te reo lyrics that give this version its power. This translation was actually done by two of Morrison’s musical mentors – Canon Wi Huata and Reverend Sam Rangiihu – in 1959. In some ways, it can be seen as a wider reflection of how Christianity was turned from something forced upon Māori into something that many of them adapted to their own needs. The Howard Morrison Quartet had been performing for a couple of years by the time this translation had been written, and they eventually added it to their repertoire. When this live recording was released in late 1981, it joined a run of te reo songs at the top of charts: a few months earlier Dean Waretini had released ‘The Bridge’ and Prince Tui Teka was hot on Morrison’s heels with ‘E Ipo’ (both singles also took the top spot). Morrison’s delivery almost seems humdrum as he delivers the English words in the first verse, but watch out: things get seriously spiritual when the chorus in te reo kicks in. Great indeed.
Reggae had a great impact in New Zealand during the 1970s, boosted at the end of the decade by an Auckland show by Bob Marley in 1979. The political aspect of the music resonated with Polynesian and Māori listeners in particular, and helped inspire a strong local reggae scene and a growing Rastafarian movement emerged alongside it. Herbs were one of the key Auckland reggae groups at the time, so it’s no surprise to find them writing a song about ‘Jah’s Son’ (‘jah’ being the Rasta term for god). The lyrics encourage the listener to look into their own heart to find a path forward, a message that is made explicit in the final verse: “He asked me if I know the way / I said yes, but I’m not sure about other ways / the truth’s in you.”
Hoi Polloi (1993)
This band remains relatively unknown in New Zealand, despite building up a considerable audience in the US. The main reason for this is that their work was most popular within the CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) music scene, although their US label, Reunion, did push for crossover success (and had a distribution deal with BMG). ‘Spin Me’ is the title track of their second album (from 1993), which also produced the song ‘Angel’; this topped the US CCM charts (as did ‘Tiptoe’ off the next album). Yet ‘Spin Me’ seems like a better representation of their sound, with emotive singing by Jenny Gullen over slightly funky, alternative rock licks. The production is very 90s with the result that they sound somewhere between The Cranberries and INXS. As always, their faith is introduced to the lyrics subtly, so it’s only in the last verse that the meaning becomes clear: “Kingdom come, kingdom fall / King coming to end it all … Song for you, song for me / Song for man if he would see.” Fun fact: Prior to being in Elemeno P, Scotty Pearson played drums for Hoi Polloi and toured extensively through the US with them in the late 90s.
Thou We Are
Unity Pacific (2003)
Tigilau Ness (father of Che Fu) was one of the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel band in the mid-1970s, who were central to the Rastafarian movement in Auckland. He started Unity Pacific in 1975 (as just “Unity”) and played regularly in the decades that followed, although he and his band didn’t release an album until 2003. The key to understanding ‘Thou We Are’ is the lyric “We are a long, long way from our home Israel,” which is a reference to Israel’s place in the Old Testament as a holy land, from which the Twelve Tribes of Israel (eg, the faithful) spread across the world. Early Rastafarianism used this as the basis for a “back to Africa” movement, which proposed the descendents of former slaves should return to their homeland. As time has gone on, Rastafarianism has broadened to present a counter-reading of the Bible which undercuts the European version represented by Christianity by presenting Western culture as “Babylon” and oppressed people as those who struggle to reach “Zion” despite its influence. Coming from within this vision of the world, ‘Thou We Are’ speaks to those who are feeling spiritually lost and encourages them to seek comfort in their faith.
Come to the River
The Parachute Band (2008)
Like Hoi Polloi, this band was massive within CCM circles, but also became widely known outside that milieu. They were certainly helped by having the same name as the long-running music festival, Parachute, which drew not only a Christian audience but provided a first festival experience for kids in their early teens who were too young to attend other events. Parachute Band played the event’s main stage for many years running, which gave them a huge platform since the festival drew around 25,000 people at its height (the festival folded in 2014). Yet it’s worth giving credit to the fact that this was a hard-working band that released albums and toured internationally. The group also provided an early opportunity for Ruby Frost to gain exposure for her songwriting. Her brother (Sam de Jong) played drums and produced for the Parachute Band, so they ended up recording a couple of her early compositions (their father, Mark de Jong founded the Parachute Festival). ‘Come to the River’ is clearly an ode to baptism and perfectly captures the appeal of the band: big anthem-like songs that wear their heart on their sleeve. The fact that the video was filmed at Parachute Festival just makes it all the more a perfect encapsulation of the band at its zenith.
Tiki Taane (2007)
Māori religious beliefs are usually expressed through traditional musical forms rather than being interpreted through pop music, though they have occasionally been used symbolically. Examples include Dam Native’s ‘Behold My Cool Style’, which mentions “Ruamoko, king of volcanos” as a metaphor for his rapping skill, and the song ‘Papatūānuku’ (by Awa and Che Fu), which is directed toward the Māori earth mother as a way of personalising the damage of climate change. In contrast, Tiki Taane injects a real sense of spirituality into his track, ‘Tangaroa’, which lays a haka chant over an atmospheric electronica track. Tangaroa is the god of the sea and Taane calls for him to reveal himself, along with Papatūānuku (earth mother) and Ranginui (sky father) in order to strike awe into those who observe them. In essence, a plea for Māori spiritual values to re-emerge into the modern world.
I Will Be Made New
Great North (2012)
This song provides a wonderful description of the Rapture: rich in poetry, though clearly worded and tightly based on scripture. Oddly enough, the album it is from, Halves (2012), came at a time when lead singer Hayden Donnell was beginning to question his belief. He explains: “‘I Will Be Made New’ is kind of a weird mix of doubt and faith, like I have a lot of problems with the song but there’s also this resolution to believe in the beautiful myth. However it (and this whole album, Halves) are very much channelling my poppa, who had just lost his wife – my nana – at the time. He’s this incredibly faithful man and I was partly trying to channel him in the lyrics and partly trying to harness his faith and use it to buttress my own.” Donnell pursued questions of faith further on The Great North’s next release, Up In Smoke (2014), and both albums won Best Folk Album at the Tui Awards (in 2013 and 2015).
As a recessional to this spiritual 10, a heartfelt singalong number. ‘Paradise’ is a plea for the listener to show some faith and rise above their challenges. The laidback acoustic guitar underpinning the song provides a subtle backing for an impressive run of singers to try out their gospel-style chops. The guest list includes: Che Fu, Vince Harder, Te Awanui Reeder (Nesian Mystic), Pieter T, Jason Kerrison (Op Shop) and Don McGlashan.