As we’ve seen in recent months, the arts – and those within it – can have positive impact on the cultural, social, and political issues of today. Whether we are discussing environmental issues, women’s rights, or even the issue of equal pay, many artists from around the world have been an integral part of that discussion.
Challenging the norm is often considered a big no no in the world of the arts, with failure often not discussed. As someone who’s tipped over the other side of what is considered norm, I know that all too well. To put a spotlight on those who take a risk and challenge fear and failure, Harbourfront Centre presents BRAVE, a festival curated with stories, performances and experiences that put a spotlight on those artists who are challenging the norms to have a greater discussion on important topics, and create positive change.
Among the many artists performing and speaking at this festival is Māmā Mihirangi & the Māreikura. This intriguing group of performers from New Zealand, led by songstress Māmā Mihi, bring together old and new forms of art and create a show that celebrates “traditional and contemporary Maori culture, [and] the power and talent of Maori women”. The group has been touring across Canada lately, with Harbourfront one of their many stops.
I had a candid chat with Māmā Mihi during her stopover at the BRAVE festival, in which we discuss the origins of her unique musical style, the purpose of her performances, and what she hopes audiences will take away from her shows.
1. The world was introduced to your music – your style of delivering that music – during New Zealand’s Got Talent back in 2012, but you’ve been involved with music your whole life. Where did your journey in music begin? How did it become your calling and something you wanted to take forward?
Hahaha… it’s one of those things that, as a professional, it’s kind of like “did they really mention that”… Without diminishing the experience or the exposure, NZGT was literally the last thing that introduced my music to the world. It was really only NZ that I was ‘introducing’ myself to. I had toured the World (including Canada) most years between 2001 and 2013, up until I had my first child in 2014, and I’ve done lots of touring here especially. I never did shows back in NZ because I really didn’t think people at home would “get” my show. I did NZGT when a friend messaged me and said I “should audition”… I responded to their text with “hell no I’m a professional”, but once I sent the text I realised how pretentious that was, and made myself audition as a lesson in humility thinking I wouldn’t get in as some kind of karmic outcome for being so arrogant. Nek minut…
Both my parents were professional musicians, so I grew up in the music industry and I also did traditional kapa haka which is traditional song and dance. I hated the industry as a kid because it was an environment of sex, drugs and rock n roll. But it became my calling when my Father passed away, that’s when I started writing songs and I realised what the deep meaning of it was for my parents – it was deeply healing, and I think sharing it also meant that it was a platform for these expressions to be heard, shared and understood. When you write a song that comes from the deepest and sometimes darkest parts of ourselves, and there’s people in the audience crying, singing or dancing along, it’s the greatest feeling in the world; to be so free to express ourselves and to know that everything that you’ve just said in your lyrics is exactly how someone else feels and it’s healing for them too, and in some cases songs even save lives.
2. As sad as it is, there are many of us in society who still have those typical stereotypical associations when it comes to niche or cultural art. While your music is a celebration of Māori culture, the way in which it is delivered brings in diverse musical forms and technological tools. How did you come about crafting your music with live-looping, beat-boxing and other tools?
When I lived in Melbourne I had left my culture behind, then one day I joined an all female world music vocal and percussion group in Melbourne, we wrote a-ccapella songs that were very political, the other women really loved the Māori song’s I’d teach them and we’d do our own arrangements. After that group I had a 12-piece original band that I was the band leader of, one day the guitarist came to rehearsals with a loop pedal – I asked if I could borrow it and within a week I had rewritten my entire set on the loop pedal using the skills I had learnt in the a-ccapella group… and sacked the band. As much as it was a financial decision, it was also because I had always felt a fear around performing solo and I really wanted to push my boundaries and this was the perfect way of doing it – plus it was incredibly hard trying to get a big band to go on tour. That was back in 2005… and I remember performing at the Vancouver Folk Festival in 2007, I had a big crowd at my first show and I asked the audience if anyone had seen looping before and not a single person put their hand up. Two years later when I went back and asked the same question – nearly everyone had seen looping (or maybe they had just seen my show 2 years earlier????).
3. When I wrote about New Zealand in our first issue of our magazine, I was introduced to indigenous culture in a big way. I quickly realize now that I’ve only scratched the surface of the research. The world is exposed to beautiful Māori traditions (like the Haka), but often see men as the performers of these traditions. Māori women are a pillar of the culture, and I wanted to ask how your music, your performances, and the presentation of your art (beyond the fact that you’re a talented Māori women yourself) is used to put a spotlight on the power and talent that Māori women have.
We have written a haka specifically for this tour for women and about women… It was written by one of the Māreikura, one of my dancers Rita Peihopa who is a stunning young woman who is also a Māori language teacher. When we perform it, it’s one of those things that we share to empower women. We have used it to honour and support the Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women in the communities we have been visiting and collaborating with. It’s about acknowledging the power of all our lineages, that we are the descendants of powerful ancestors and that as Indigenous women our voices have been silenced for far too long, and it’s about hearing the thunder, the rumble in our hearts to give us back our self determination, our power, our rights and about embodying the strength of the feminine power that we have in the cultures that we represent. It’s about our confidence, our beauty, our sacredness, our majesty in all it’s forms, our importance and most of all, the right to our Indigenous empowerment.
4. You introduced yourself to the world as an individual artist who blended together all these amazing musical forms. Tell us a little about your show, Māmā Mihirangi & the Māreikura, and how this group performance – blending dance, instruments, and more – came about, and what audiences can expect to experience when they attend the show.
The new show is a dream come true for me… I have 2 female traditional and contemporary Māori dancers. As a group we come together representing our tribes and sub tribes from Aotearoa – Rita Peihopa is from Ngāpuhi, Ricky Russell is from Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Raukawa and I’m from the Ngāti Maniapoto People. How this came about was I had just learnt a traditional karakia (incantation) from my Tohunga Taputapu, who is a traditional Māori Priest – of our traditional beliefs. I was doing this karakia in my back yard and soon after Rita showed up and asked if I was touring Canada this year…. I was like… no. She asked if we could create something together in hope to create pathways for the children from our full-immersion Māori school of where she and I have worked. This excited me and within 2 months we had a whole tour booked, which is unheard of, and here we are. Both Rita and Ricky are competitors in traditional dance, haka, poi, and traditional weaponry and our traditional martial arts – Mau Rākau. We present all this and more in our show. Both Rita and I also study as Tohunga under our Tōhunga Taputapu and on this tour we are honoured to be sharing our traditional medicines as well… we will be selling these at our concerts. It’s all made from indigenous plants, it’s all organic, including the alcohol preserve. So this is really deep and personal for us to be sharing this, and of course healing.
5. What message do you want your art, at the end of the day, to convey to those who experience it?
The music is all original, I create it live on stage and it’s with traditional chanting, singing and in English as well. The content in the show is intended to embody the potency of feminine power, celebrating our virtues and our sacredness in a way that inspires girls and women to be honoured, it is just as powerful for men as it is for women as we love the support from our brothers and it shows that they celebrate our power as much as we do. It’s also an exploration of contemporary Indigenous music and dance through cultural identity and is a way for us to inspire others to seek out that deep connection with who they are in their bloodlines and how those bloodlines, and where those bloodlines, are deeply rooted and how we can use the knowledge of these connections for our health and well being through traditional knowledge and wisdom and ultimately for the health and well being of Papatuanuku – the Earth Mother and the intimate re-connection that is imperative for our very survival.
Images: Courtesy of Māmā Mihirangi & the Māreikura