Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ngāti Āhia!

Ngāti Āhia! belting it out at Artspace

In mid-2010, my friends and I started New Zealand's only Asian waiata group. 

Why Asians only? Well, most of the group's members were born overseas and, for various reasons, had decided to adopt Aotearoa as a second home. One way of achieving that was to claim local culture as our own to some degree. 

With the waiata group, our aim was to have fun while learning another culture (Maori) and to contribute to the growing multicultural conversation in Aotearoa. Okay, that sounds rather lofty when in reality we were simply enjoying each other's company. Our weekly practices became excuses to crack jokes, share ghost stories and eat together. To sing communally, regularly, is a great tool for fellowship - if one didn't go to church or sing in a band, where else would one get such an opportunity?

And so our modest singing group Ngāti Āhia, tribes of Asia, was born.

Our group - all seven of us - met up weekly to learn Maori songs with the hope that it would one day culminate in a public performance. Admirably, every person in the group was committed to attending rehearsals. Most had not learned Maori before, so language was a constant struggle. 

But we were not without some reservations. Some felt we needed a member from the Maori community to make sure we were approaching things the correct way. We wanted to be funky. We wanted to be fresh. We just didn't want to outrage anybody. It was important for us to unite people, not divide.

It was at this stage that our friend Shigeyuki Kihara got us in touch with her choreographer/artist/director friend Charles Koroneho.

Sifu Charles in the audience

Having Charles as a mentor was a revelation. Not only did he teach us amateurs how to sing better in public, he encouraged our project and shared our enthusiasm, introducing new songs to our repertoire. 

When we voiced a concern about potentially causing offense with any aspect of our waiata presentation, Charles basically said to us, "Look, [as an outsider to Maori culture] your actions don't have to be policed, but you can be guided into the culture." Charles was the perfect person to provide us with such guidance. We love him!

Chillin' out post-performance

In December, we debuted at a private function at Artspace. Words cannot express how nervous we felt. I was fixated on getting my pepeha right. Vera and Eddie did a good job in their roles as kaea (song leaders). Pam, who has the best voice, help us put on a strong front. Our guitarists Sy and Fabian didn't miss a beat.

Our hard work and energy paid off. The audience - made up of arts practitioners, enthusiasts, patrons, etc - was so encouraging. One elderly couple came up to us and said we were a 'revolution'! 

It's early days yet but I'm hopeful that Ngāti Āhia will keep going strong this year. Watch this space!

Photos courtesy Tahi Moore, Sze Ning Ooi & Sy Fong.

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