Maaka McGregor and
Mina Ripia at their house near Wellington, New Zealand.
Maaka says their music, sung exclusively in Maori, is
not meant to be threatening to English speakers. "When
you say stand up for your rights," he told the
BBC, "you're not telling other people to sit down."
(Photo by Richard Jensen.)
I've been interested in Maori culture since I saw my first Tiki
jade pendant and wondered about the story behind the symbolic carving.
The movie "Whale Rider" further sharpened my desire to
visit New Zealand and learn more about the Maoris.
In 2003, I spent a month in beautiful Aotearoa (the Maori name
for New Zealand means "land of the long white cloud").
I toured Maori towns and went to traditional performances and concerts.
What stood out was the palpable sense of pride felt by both performers
and audiences. It seemed a new pride, fresh and hopeful. And in
fact I learned that it was new, having emerged largely
after the Maori language became "official" in 1987.
I was especially impressed by how the revival of the language and
the resurgence of interest in Maori traditions had not just boosted
the morale of the Maoris, but of white New Zealanders as well. Everywhere
in New Zealand, Maori is present alongside English in street signs,
in advertising and on television. Every New Zealander I met used
the Maori phrase kia ora—an all-purpose greeting, goodbye
It is against that backdrop that I discovered WAI. The name means
"water" in Maori. Many contemporary New Zealand groups
sing in Maori, but WAI does it expressly with the mission of passing
on the language on to the young. I heard their CD and knew I had
to contact them.
In concert, WAI performs
both electronic and acoustic music. "We're hoping
that our elders actually hear a connection," Mina
Mina Ripia and Maaka McGregor welcomed me into their home on Titahi
Bay near Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. They told me that
they'd only learned to speak Maori in college. They had been part
of the English-language music scene before they decided to sing
strictly in the language of their ancestors. When I asked Mina to
identify herself she launched into a long recitation of the names
of those ancestors, ending with her own name as the latest descendent.
Maaka took a 200-year-old conch shell that had been soaking in the
bathtub and played it like a trumpet. As I was to learn when I saw
WAI perform in Seattle, they use the shell to begin their shows.
Then comes the electronica, which seems to grow organically from
beats of the poi—balls on strings that they swing so they
hit each other in rhythmic patterns.
Whenever I heard traditional Maori singing in New Zealand, the music
reached deep inside me—the plaintive calls to ancestors, the retelling
of old stories that seemed somehow to insist on their continued
relevance, even their urgency. WAI's music has that sense of urgency
to me. It seems to say, "Here I am. Remember me. I'm alive."