NZ Arts Festival 2008, Pacific Blue Festival Club
Feb 28-29 | Reviewed by Diane Spodarek

Tama Tu Tama Ora performed popular Maori songs from the 70s, 80s and 90s to an enthusiastic audience, many who were familiar with the songs. In between songs, an MC read from a clipboard facts and dates about Maori history, repeating that the songs are an expression of Maori anger, pride, protest, grief, optimism and hope. I don’t know about the anger part; the musicians looked like they were having far too much fun.

The evening was a successful event in passing on a message about Maori culture through music. Musical styles varied from Bossa Nova to hip hop, a little disco, a little nightclub, pop ditties, and reggae. Disco and lounge-type songs are not my cup of tea but covering three decades, you can’t please everyone. This group of musicians really enjoyed themselves; at times you would catch a look in their faces looking at each other and you could see the love. Tama Tu Tama Ora showed a lot of love to the audience as well.

There wasn’t a programme to refer to, which would have been more than appropriate since this event was part of an international arts festival. As a recent resident to New Zealand, I’m still learning about Maori culture but not knowing did not hinder my enjoyment. The evening began with a brief opening ceremony by the MC. His deep voice was only accompanied by a low sound from the electronic keyboards. Following this, three women came on the stage and performed the traditional karanga, calling out to the ancestors. (A programme would have provided me with the names of the performers, including the name of the MC!)

The Pacific Blue Festival Club was on the harbour in Frank Kitts Park but once inside there were no views. It was a warm, round space closed off from the outside world. Lush red material hung from the ceiling and comfy booths lined the walls. You could sit at a table or take a seat from the rows of chairs in front of the stage. There was no pressure to order drinks. (In fact, I wasn’t able to get a cup of tea because I was told the person who did that wasn’t there.) The wooden floor was laid out in sections, following the design of the round space, which gave the illusion that the entire venue could fold up inside itself at a moment’s notice.

I was not familiar with Tama Tu Tama Ora before this performance and even though I do not understand many Maori words, I enjoyed the spirit of the show with most of the songs in Maori. Reading from his clipboard the MC provided an immense list of dates and history. The information was very powerful but his reading at times seemed forced and a bit cold. I enjoyed the MC more when he spoke directly to the audience. Particularly moving was the story about his father who grew up without Maori culture because it was stolen from him. And, he himself was forbidden to speak his own language in school. Therefore, it gave him great pleasure to introduce the eight school children from Te Kura Maori O Porirua School, which was celebrating thirteen years of operating as an exclusively Maori school. The pride in the performers and in the audience was a celebration of Maori culture and a testament to honouring its future through the children.

The lead singers were simply fabulous without exception. Their voices were distinct. Each singer sang lead while the others backed her or him up. It’s rare to see a group work so well together in honouring each other’s unique voices. It was inspiring to see their collaborative spirit. Although the male singers were fabulous and beautiful in their own way, I especially enjoyed the women whose stage presence constantly held an ephemeral feel, their arms and hands gesturing like undulating waves in the sea. Mina Ripia also sang hip hop songs in a long red coat, giving an extra interpretation as her hands caressed her belly since she was obviously quite pregnant. Some songs were in English and Maori. “Let the white man fight the white man’s war,” was really powerful, fun and provocative.

There were nine members on the stage; all appeared Maori, except for the drummer. As the musicians stayed with their instruments, the singers left and re-entered the stage, often changing their clothes, giving a visual cue to accompany the sound. For one song Ranea Aperahama appeared wearing layers of aqua blues and greens flowing around her with and a crown of feathers on her head shaped like a sea shell, her long hair, mermaid length, giving the illusion she had emerged from the sea outside the venue door.

Most of the songs were sung in Maori. The language barrier was no problem, the emotion and love behind the foreign sounds was evident. One song I knew: “Get Up Stand Up” by Bob Marley, sung in Maori of course. At one point the MC said that the Waitangi Treaty is not about Maori rights, or Pakeha rights, or Asian rights; it is about human rights and he said, “I implore you, my father’s language was taken away from him, please do not take away my place in the sun.” He chanted:

       How much longer must we keep walking?
       How much longer must we keep talking?

A profound moment and one that didn’t need a clipboard.

Tama Tu Tama Ora finished the set with a song about New Zealand and an introduction to all the members of the band, including the musical director on guitar who also wore a long red coat, which resembled a tux. The two back up singers were introduced as the dolphins swimming along the boat, moving along on this musical journey. Even without this appropriate Maori metaphor, these singers were amazing and had their own choreography going, in perfect sync, to accompany each song. There was nothing to lack in the visuals in this performance.

I was quite moved by Tama Tu Tama Ora’s pride and strength, in the telling of the history of a beautiful culture through song – but they can do without the clipboard, they don’t need it.