When music is so embedded in your culture, what happens if you can’t sing?
My family are the only Māori in South Taranaki who can’t sing. Perhaps there’s a gene we’re missing or our tongues are too fat for our mouths. Either way, long drives have always been a problem. Here is how the public has described Carpool Karaoke with the Ngarewas:
“Couldn’t tell what was them or their worn brake pads.”
“I felt like Beyonce by comparison.”
“The audible equivalent of stepping on glass.”
Waiata is a significant part of Māori culture. Whether sharing kai in the shed or welcoming manuhiri onto the marae, music pervades te ao Māori. There is seldom a get-together where a guitar or a speaker cannot be found among the crowd, everyone ready in an instant to burst into song.
There is no easy way to reduce waiata. It serves many functions, each genre made up of many sub-genre, every sub-genre with its own distinct sound and purpose, every instance importantly different from awa to awa, maunga to maunga, kāinga to kāinga. Some remember significant events of the past, others honour the environment that nurtures us, and others still are expressions of grief or love. Never is their ihi more felt than when these songs are sung together, the emotion contained within them almost material in the air.
One of the most well-known songs in my rohe is ‘He Pikinga Poupou’, an example of the latter. Turning 40 years old this year, it tells the tale of Ruka Broughton Snr returning to the region from Wellington and weeping at what he found, a people ravaged by muru me te raupatu, the confiscations of property for alleged offences and the subjugation of Ngā iwi o Taranaki. Thereafter he pleaded to the people to hold tight to their culture forevermore.
Much of this sentiment is captured in the first verse:
“He pikinga poupou e
Ki roto o Taranaki
Ki reira au nei
Tukutuku roimata e”
I climb my pou
And shed tears
Up until the pandemic, I’d been a master at concealing my musical inability. It was simply a matter of singing 20 decibels lower than whoever happened to be standing next to me. Sure you would have seen me sing at the pōwhiri, my lips moving like everybody else’s, but you wouldn’t have heard me. I justified it to myself as an expression of generosity. I extended to hau kāinga and manuhiri alike the gift of not hearing me butcher the beautiful music the old people worked so hard to create.
A recent series of events made me rethink this approach.
Towards the end of last year, my tuahine and I were presenting kōrero tuku iho over Zoom, telling the tale of the birth of Ruahine, the eponymous ancestor of Ngāti Ruanui. When it all came to an end, we began our waiata tautoko, failing spectacularly. In person, we could hide in the singing of the crowd. Over Zoom, the whole of the rōpū on mute, there was no hiding. To make things worse, because of the lag, not only were we out of tune, we were out of sync, forced to pause often to let the other catch up.
Going in, I expected my tuahine to carry me. She is the kaiahaka of our whānau, by no means a great singer, but more gifted than the rest of our siblings. The Zoom machine, however, conspired against us and prevented such āwhina.
Not to mention the worst of it: lost in the chaos of it all, we missed the final verse of our waiata entirely, the rest of the rōpū watching on, not sure if we’d finished or were simply pausing again. Naturally, I was humiliated. Though the presentations moved quickly on, I dwelled on that moment.
The history and emotions contained within these waiata are important and deserve to be treated with respect. On this account, I felt I failed, stepping on the mana of both the waiata I performed and the kōrero tuku iho the song was sung in support of.
I carried this failure for days, the shame aggravated by my inexperience in reo Māori, my striving toward but not yet achieving the fluency of first language speakers. Peculiarly enough, it was through my reo haerenga that I came to think differently about my wreck of a waiata. The following week in class, I was going back and forth with my kaiako, trying to construct the correct answer to the question she was asking. With every try, she would reply only one thing, a kupu every learner of te reo knows very well. Tata. Close, or nearly.
I got it wrong and wrong and wrong again but never did she admonish me. Patiently, she sat with me and re-posed the question until at last, I got it correct. She didn’t celebrate this achievement, instead, she acknowledged I was correct and then moved on to the next patai, the next moment of learning.
Through this back and forth, my thinking changed regarding my earlier performance and approach to waiata more broadly. My kaiako did not scold me as I scolded myself for getting it wrong, she approached me with aroha and kōrero awhi, appreciating that getting it wrong was a part of the learning process.
Reflecting on this moment, my thinking slowly changed. I realized there was no mana in hiding in the crowd syncing my lips with their singing. The tika thing was to give it a go, to commit to the process of learning, humbling though it may be.
A sentiment beautifully reinforced by Ruka Broughton Snr’s waiata:
“Tū mai Taranaki e
Tiketike mai rā tātou
Roto i te kawa tapu
Hāpainga tō mana
Torotika ki a Rangi e”
Stand strong Taranaki
Within our sacred knowledge
Our mana is lifted
Airana Ngarewa is a Māori political affairs reporter, creating public interest journalism funded through NZ On Air.