Geneva Alexander-Marsters/pop waiata (PHOTO: AUCKLAND COUNCIL)

POP Waiata: Taking Māori music on a train ride

From a wee toddler singing on the bus to entertaining unsuspecting commuters on Auckland’s trains, Geneva Alexander-Marsters reflects on her life on public transport and the POP Waiata project she initiated in 2017.

I used to sing on the bus as a kid. My mother would take me with her on the morning commute to Auckland City. She used to run her own clothing brand, ‘A-Ray’, and had a shop just off Queen Street. The bus was probably my first public audience.

Growing up here, I noticed very quickly that Auckland drivers are quite possibly the worst. I know this is an unprovable opinion – and there are a lot of good drivers out there. But you know what? I’ve seen some pretty hectic driving. Joining my fellow JAFA compatriots on these spaghetti streets is far too unnerving. Being a pedestrian has always felt like the safer option. One day I might sit a driver’s licence test, but I do get around just fine with public transport and the ol’ waewae express.

I have used public transport for my entire life. It’s a slower commute, and there are definitely triumphs and disasters. Sometimes I work on the cardio sprinting toward a bus leaving me behind, other times I slowly lurch toward my destination. Being a commuter on public transport takes a lot of patience, and it can be a bit dull sometimes. There is a lot of room to dream about winning Lotto and buying a Tesla or some kind of helicopter laser dolphin jellyfish… daydreams don’t have to make sense.

It was during one of these dreamy commutes that I came up with a perfectly sensible idea: What if the bus driver could play music? Every now and then the driver has the radio going; sometimes they sing along. It’s fun. Since public transport keeps this city moving, a bus driver deserves to enjoy music. They’re legends!

So sometime last year I responded to an open call for submissions to Auckland Council’s POP project, an initiative to brighten the city through public activation. I initially submitted an idea called ‘Karaoke Bus Driver’. The driver would pick a playlist they liked and the passengers would be invited to sing along to a karaoke screen on the bus. I thought it could be good for New Zealand Music Month – a great way to highlight some hardcore Kiwi bangers. This became the foundation concept for POP WAIATA.

E Papa, Pop Waiata 2017 (PHOTO: AUCKLAND COUNCIL)

I’m Māori and bilingual, but I noticed after my school years that it became significantly more difficult to engage with te ao Māori and I could feel my reo slipping away. Any opportunity to weave te reo into my day to day took tactical thought. It’s a guilty feeling.

I sing in a band called SoccerPractise. Te reo is my strength and the bilingual lyrics I perform are an opportunity to invite audiences to engage with this taonga in an alternative music context. What is great about the POP WAIATA project is the audience are unsuspecting. It was Anahera Higgins from Auckland Council who understood that the ‘Karaoke Bus Driver’ idea had a wealth of potential to build upon and she helped me realise the true purpose of the original concept.

POP WAIATA is an activation that was initiated in June 2017 on Auckland trains. The very talented Tawaroa Kawana and I boarded an unsuspecting train one day of each week for a bit over a month. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a catalogue of familiar Māori waiata we introduced ourselves, shared a little history about the song and invited the train to sing along to the words provided.

We decided to sing on trains rather than buses because they are quieter and their scheduled stops are easier to track. The first time around, I was a ball of nerves, worried that we were encroaching on the passengers’ personal space. I thought there could be a little tension and was pleased to find out that my anxiety was unnecessary. People loved it. We had children singing with their parents, the elderly having a ball and tourists rapt with attention doing their utmost to sound out every syllable.

Tawaroa Kawana, Pop Waiata 2017 (PHOTO: AUCKLAND COUNCIL)

Not only was the project a success, it reminded the general public that te reo Māori is relevant in daily life. Something as simple as singing a waiata allowed a group of strangers to practice te reo and have fun along the way. Māori is an oral culture. Tikanga, stories, and wisdom are bestowed across generations through various art forms. Establishing a connection in person is part of being human, it is the best way to exchange information and enlighten our community.

If POP WAIATA happened again, I would do it in a heartbeat. It’s pretty amazing what can be achieved when there is a little time to daydream.


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