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Songwriter's Choice: Karen Hunter


E nga waiata, e nga kaiwaiata, e nga kaitito waiata kei konei, tena koutou.

I acknowledge the songs, the musicians and the songwriters presented here.

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Te Timatanga – Hirini Melbourne, Aroha Yates Smith, Richard Nunns

Let’s start at ‘Te Timatanga’ (the beginning), the opening track of the 2003 Rattle Records release Te Hekenga-a-rangi by the late Hirini Melbourne, his long-time collaborator Richard Nunns and the brilliant academic/vocalist Aroha Yates Smith. Until his death in 2003, Melbourne – musician, educator and songwriter – was at the forefront of the resurgence of taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments) in Aotearoa. The mysterious breathy textures that emanate from his and Nunn’s handmade instruments evoke an earthy atmosphere of bush, beach, rock and sand. These exquisite taonga are predominantly wind instruments, their breath creating an intimacy and timeless human quality. After Hirini’s introductory chant, we hear Aroha’s ethereal mihi of welcome as she calls through the ages. Through this portal of sound we are transported to the ancient world, Te Ao Kohatu.

  

Waerore – Whirimako Black

‘Waerore’ is the first track on Tangihaku, the third album by Whirimako Black. The lyrics for the album were written as poems describing a journey into Te Urewera by Whirimako’s sister Rangitunoa Black and their mother Anituatua Black. Tangihaku received both Tui and APRA Silver Scroll nominations in 2004.

Starting with an a capella pao that is reminiscent of a traditional melody, ‘Waerore’ soon settles into a contemporary waiata with the entrance of Joel Haines’s accompaniment on acoustic guitar. Every nuance of Whirimako’s stunning voice is supported by Joel’s signature extended harmony, masterfully underplayed. A haunting taonga pūoro slips its way in, courtesy of Justin Kereama. As a listener I am drawn by the simplicity of the form and the richness of the tone, but most of all I fall into the space.

  

Poi Porotiti – Pacific Curls & Sarah Beattie 

Pacific Curls and Sarah Beattie are a trio of rhythmically masterful musicians who blend Māori and Polynesian lyrics and grooves with Celtic inspired melodies. ‘Poi Porotiti’ is a classic Pacific Curls track with the main percussion groove played on poi, expertly spun by vocalist/percussionist Ora Barlow. At the very beginning of the song the poi rhythm assumes simple time, however when the waltz feel of Kim Halliday’s guitar accompaniment and Sarah Beattie’s deep lush violin melody enter, a delicious cross-rhythm emerges to unsettle the stability of that first presumption. The lyrics are simple and repetitive like the poi rhythm itself, and the waiata acknowledges the motion of the spinning poi, as it dances between the wind and the earth.

Poi porotiti Papatūānuku
Poi porotiti Tāwhirimātea
E huri tō kanohi ki te hau

  

Rua Kenana – Dread Beat & Blood, composed by David Grace

Dread Beat & Blood were a Wellington based “conscious reggae” band in the 1980s. Composed by band member David Grace, the iconic ‘Rua Kenana’ is a fantastic example of the effectiveness of song to transmit history.

I was in London when I first heard this song on a cassette tape sent from home. This was the first time I had heard the story of Rua Kenana, who was a Tūhoe prophet and a pacifist. He lived beside Maungapōhatu in the misty Urewera ranges. He didn’t believe Māori should participate in the First World War in 1914. He and his followers were subsequently harassed and Kenana was arrested. Coincidently he was posthumously pardoned in 2017 for the charge of “moral resistance”.

Structurally the song itself has two chords and is a classic skank groove. Every line lyric is repeated, making it an easy singalong, as if you miss the first pass you’ll get the second. This song has survived so well that it is a now “classic” and most people know the words to its simple powerful narrative.

The song has helped Rua Kenana leave his mark on this world.

 

Tangaroa – Maisey Rika, composed by Maisey Rika, Erueti Korewha and JJ Rika

Exuding femininity and grace in acknowledgement of our great ocean, of the Atua Tangaroa and of tahorā, the great whale ocean guardians as they navigate to the west. Everything about this waiata and accompanying video is deliciously smooth, polished and well crafted. Mahuia Bridgeman Cooper’s stunning musical arrangement features delicately placed strings behind a bed of acoustic percussion and fretless bass. Which sounds delicious, eh? It is.

Maisey Rika’s backing vocal harmonies – panned to the far left and right – put the listener right in the middle of an explosion of sensuous texture.

A performance of confident understatement by highly skilled artists, it’s deceptively simple, with two eight-bar chord sequences; the melody outlines the chord changes perfectly giving Maisey Rika a wide palette to soar.

I can’t listen to this song without exploding with emotion. Good luck with that!

  

I te pō – Rob Ruha and the Rū Cru

The video that you will find if you search for ‘I te Pō’ on YouTube is of six rangatahi from Rotorua’s  Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata sitting around a table, casual in appearance but don’t be fooled! These youths have rivers of harmony inside their veins and their sound is slick and professional.

The two verses are very short, just five bars long and they set up the opening into the chorus which is about twice as long. The harmony opens out into major and minor 7ths in the chorus, creating space, texture and plenty of choice for the vocal lines.

I love these rich harmonies. The singers seem so relaxed and free as they offer support to the song and to Rob Ruha himself; he is out of frame in the video and his guitar is the only instrument we hear on this recording. There is simplicity and an understated presentation in this unstaged “fly on the wall” video. This is a great example of how social media can bypass the ‘entertainment industry’ to bring us the music.

‘I te Pō’ was written to acknowledge the passing of a member Rob Ruha’s whānau. Beautiful, and very moving.

 

Wairua – Maimoa Music

The joy! The friendship! Human-sized people! Gender fluidity! Positive femininity and masculinity! ‘Wairua’ is a radio-friendly waiata which was well placed in the New Zealand singles and airplay chart for several weeks in 2017.

Bright, fresh and friendly in the lemon zesty key of C# Major, there is a step up to the key of D for the last chorus. AudioCulture’s invitation to me was to write about songs that I find inspiring from a songwriting, musical or emotional point of view. Well the vocalists and dancers in this group hit every healthy role-model directive in my book. How affirming to see people this happy!

In the words of Maimoa, ‘Wairua’ means spirit or natural instinct and the wonderful group wairua expressed in the video of this song has got to bring a smile to your lips.

 

Greenstone – Emma Paki

‘Greenstone’ was released in 1994 achieving New Zealand Top 10 status and a nomination for best female vocalist for singer-songwriter Emma Paki. Her voice carries the melody with characteristic precision and clarity. I’ve heard Emma refer to her vocal trills and embellishments as “little licks I’m working on”, like a guitarist might.

The lyrics of ‘Greenstone’ speak of the local custom of giving a piece of pounamu to someone to “attach myself to you, with this taonga ...”  We have all gifted or received a piece of pounamu and I appreciate Emma’s poetic attention focused on this familiar cultural signifier. Her ability to notice things we take for granted is part of her brilliance. 

In Neil Finn’s production of the song, the first 1’10” of the track features only percussion and vocals, with languid acoustic guitar coming in with the second verse. It was a strong arrangement statement in the context of the early 1990s, showcasing the fragile tenacity of Emma’s voice, and message. He pounamu tēnei.

  

When I Grow Up – Mahinārangi Tocker 

One of the finest songwriters and guitarist/vocalist performers to come out of Aotearoa/New Zealand in the last 100 years was the enigmatic Mahinārangi Tocker, who sadly passed away in 2008. I was blessed to watch her perform live many times and I was often spellbound by her ability to step outside her personal story, grab her audience by the wrist, spin us around until we were giddy and then send us arching skywards like a balloon on a thermal current with the ache of her vocal melody and the earthy grind of her right hand.

How lucky is New Zealand that we have had such a talent to celebrate!

‘When I Grow Up’ featured on national TV as a theme song for the Mental Health Commission initiative “Like Minds”. The song speaks in the voice of our children, “When I grow up I want to be a singer … an All Black … a mother … father… When I grow up I just want to be me.” Mahinārangi’s well-documented journey with depression helped us all forgive our own “failings” and be more of ourselves.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who often let this TV ad play out purely to hear Mahinārangi sing. Haere ki te paepae tapu o Matariki wahine ātaahua.

  

Tawhirimatea – Matiu te Huki

Tāwhirimātea is the atua of the wind. This song speaks of strengthening one’s resolve, which Matiu likens to that of the kauri tree, and moving on to embrace the inevitable changes that life brings. This video is live and begins with karanga, karakia and then flows into the waiata.

Matiu brings heartfelt lyrics to the party, rock solid loop-station grooves and an assortment of guest musicians of which I’m occasionally one.

The accompanying video was shot on Pikikirunga/Takaka Hill at Luminate festival, February 2017. Luminate is a celebration of the sacred feminine Celtic festival of Lughnasadh (pronounced Lunasah).

Matiu is accompanied by his son Nikau on keys and sister in law Shona Boyle who is the kaikaranga on this clip. Argentino Carlos Riegel is on djembe and Jo Jenkins is on guitar. Nikau (18) and Jo (21) are both talented musical “mutants”, you will hear those names again this next decade I am sure. I was there somewhere too …

 

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I’ve used this opportunity to curate a selection of waiata to represent my year of 2017. I hope you find it an interesting journey too.

Ngā mihi
Kāren Hunter

 
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