The past will inform us, but love will lead us home. ARTbop columnist Loretta Crawford spoke to Ria Hall about her appearances at the Tauranga Arts festival this Wednesday and on Saturday 28th.
Ria Hall has an important story to tell. It’s a story inspired by a 150 year old letter, written in a time of war, and it will come to the stage in a spectacular fusion of music, art and history at this years’ Tauranga Arts Festival.
The Rules of Engagement is both the name of Ria Hall’s Tauranga Arts Festival performance and also her debut album. The songs on the album (scheduled for released on 27 October), can be listened to and enjoyed as they are – a mix of reggae, soul, funk and electronica tracks produced by the likes of Electric Wire Hustle and Tiki Taane – delivered by a singer and songwriter of immense talent.
But as a whole, The Rules of Engagement is so much more.
To understand this work, you must also understand the letter that inspired it – a letter written by Henare Taratoa to Sir George Grey, outlining how the British and Māori forces should conduct themselves during the battle of Gate Pā (Pukehinahina).
Rule 1: If wounded or (captured) whole, and butt of the musket or hilt of the sword be turned to me (he) will be saved.
Rule 2: If any Pākehā being a solider by name, shall be travelling unarmed and meet me, he will be captured, and handed over the direction of the law.
Rule 3: The soldier who flees, being carried away by his fears, and goes to the house of the priest with his gun (even though carrying arms) will be saved; I will not go there.
Rule 4: The unarmed Pākehās, women and children will be spared.
The end. These are binding laws for Tauranga.
Ria, who descends from all three tribes of Tauranga Moana as well as from European lineage, says she was inspired by the compassion shown in the letter.
“Given the scope of the time in 1864, with the consequences being death or your land being taken, I thought that was really poignant for Henare to write that. It showed compassion from his own people and for the enemy. I enjoyed the inspiration from thinking so selflessly.”
And with that selflessness as her starting point, Ria has created an album generous in content – it features spoken word poetry by NZ Poetry Slam champion Te Kahu Rolleston, and collaborations with Che Fu, Kings, Laughton Kora and Electric Wire Hustle. It also has archival recordings of Ria’s great-uncle Turirangi Te Kani, speaking in Te Reo about the battle of Gate Pā, which have been translated into English by Ria.
“I’ve translated his words so people can see how his korero has content within the album. I want everything to be all inclusive.”
But it’s still an album that, as Ria puts it, “smacks you in the face.”
“Make no mistakes about it. The tone is representing strength and resilience and I am unapologetic about that.”
The power of the past
Those who know their New Zealand history will be aware that at the battle of Gate Pā, the Māori had some 300 troops, while the British force numbered 1,700. The British expected an easy victory, but they did not get one. Instead they met a fearless defence and a brilliant use of trench warfare by the Māori.
In her song They Come Marching, a mighty track set to military drums, Ria sings of this victory:
If it’s war you wanna press on me /
I’ll be ready / I’ll be ready
See I will rise above / Amidst the fear /
I will stand my ground / You won’t bring me down
Forever (featuring Laughton Kora) is a more transcendent, but equally captivating work. It builds on the power of Ria and Laughton’s voices, entangling the listener into the emotion of the story. Tell Me (featuring Che Fu) is full of meaning, with a rebellious reggae heart:
I’ll never bow down to a Babylon system /
No more should my people suffer /
For the chase of the big dollar /
The eventual defeat of the Māori at Te Ranga brought an end to the land wars in Tauranga. Here, the tone of the album changes to one of mourning with Te Ahi Kai Pō as Ria sings in memory of those who fell in battle, as well as making a promise to never forget.
“If I’m going to take something from a historical context and bring it forward then I’m going to have to go back in order to achieve that,” says Ria. “As Māori we tend to try and do that anyway. The struggle with New Zealand race relations is that people think that Māori sit too long in the past whereas what we’re trying to do is bring the past into the future for the understanding and betterment of everyone so we can move forward properly.”
“I think there’s been incremental changes over the years to that attitude but wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was just this conscious shift as a nation to accept everything that’s happened in the past, good and bad, British and Māori – take it all together. Imagine if there was that shift and we all felt it together and moved forward. I dream of that day.”
Hope for the future
In the album’s introduction, Ria talks about the challenges confronting the world today.
“Through these trying times,” she writes, “we actively seek to find the means to achieve resolution.”
The Rules of Engagement is Ria’s substantial contribution to this idea – she has created an album that is both a tribute to the past and a reminder of how to move forward.
One of the final songs, Love Will Lead Us Home – an enticing stand-alone track which deserves to have generous coverage on mainstream radio – is a supremely hopeful way to end the album.
“Maybe I’m dreaming, but if we were able to get there, that would be such a powerful thing for the world to observe, how we in New Zealand, this little country at the bottom of the world, are able to overcome our differences. I think there have been amazing things that have been achieved throughout the centuries but I think there’s so much further that we need to go.”
Waihine Toa from Tauranga Moana
As well as performing The Rules of Engagement, Ria will be opening the Tauranga Arts Festival on 18 October with Tākiri Ko Te Ata: A Chorus Dawn. Led by Ria and performed by local choirs, schools and members of the public, the waiata is an ode to the Fairies of Hautere and their return to Mauao, a legend unique to Tauranga Moana. The lyrics to the waiata were written by Ria’s cousin Teraania Ormsby-Teki, while Ria herself composed the music.
“I’ve taught it to so many varying pockets of Tauranga society which has been so cool. That’s what I mean about trying to create that true sense of unity and community through the arts and through te Reo Māori. It’s very simple but it means so much.”
Ria’s evening performance will be on 28 October, supported by The Nudge from Wellington and with stage design by artist Tracey Tawhio.
“Tracey is a very clever lady. We’ve been in discussion for a long time about the set-up. She’s from Tauranga as well, she’s Ngāi Te Rangi, so it was a wonderful marriage of her work and mine, two women being from the same place and exhibiting our work. I think it’s a really strong stance for women. People can expect to come into a transformed Baycourt on the night.”
Musically, The Rules of Engagement defies genre. Ria says she is influenced by many styles of music and prefers not to be pigeon-holed.
“I don’t want to fit, I just want to do the work and sing and provoke thought. I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve and tried to be as honest as possible. I just want people to breathe it in and digest it. I hope that people listen to it from top to bottom and understand and get a feel for what we as a team have created and what I’m trying to achieve musically with it.”
With this album, Ria Hall has created a work that is rebellious and reconciliatory, challenging and compassionate, hopeful for the future but always with one unwavering eye on the past. It is both a history lesson, and a present-day musical journey from an important voice for Aotearoa, and for change.
The Rules of Engagement will be released on 27 October. You can catch the live performance on 28 October at Baycourt in Tauranga. Details at www.taurangafestival.co.nz and tickets at www.ticketek.co.nz
Loretta Crawford Loretta is a writer, reviewer and arts enthusiast. Her first book The Horse & the Hurricane King is a story for primary school aged children on how to manage anger through breathing and meditation. You can follow Loretta on her Twitter page @clumsydolly or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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