Musicians Mina Ripia and Maaka McGregor learned to speak Maori in college, after the New Zealand government made it an official national language. Now they’re part of a new generation of Maoris who have decided to move their culture forward rather than leave it behind.
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, and exclamation.
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.
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 descendant.
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.”
– Dmae Roberts