In the early 1990s, Kiwi music didn’t get much of a run on New Zealand radio. In those days, only about two percent of content came from Aotearoa, mostly from just a few acts.
This was an era when The Exponents, Crowded House and The Mutton Birds were in flight. Dave Dobbyn was another accepted by commercial radio. Others, like Southside of Bombay and Annie Crummer, had hits too. But our musos generally had a struggle to be heard.
The theory in radioland seemed to be that Kiwis didn’t produce top-notch music, even though Herbs and Split Enz, for example, had provided ammunition to the contrary in the 1980s.
So, 25 years ago, New Zealand On Air set about to change that. They worked with the radio industry and came up with a target of 20 percent Kiwi content. There has been major progress, and nowadays alternative and public radio exceed that ‘voluntary quota’ target. But it is rarely met by commercial radio.
Among those to think that there is more than enough good Kiwi music to fill at least a fifth of commercial playlists is Te Awanui Reeder. And his voice on the subject is one especially worth listening to.
Awa, along with his mates in the hip-hop/RnB crew Nesian Mystik, were all over the Kiwi charts in the 2000s, starting with their No. 1 album Polysaturated in 2002. They have the record for the most Top 10 singles in Kiwi music history.
But Awa isn’t overly happy with where things now sit.
“I’m disillusioned with New Zealand radio struggling to get to 20 percent,” he says. “There’s plenty of quality music produced here nowadays, but still our airwaves are full of American sounds.”
Part of the issue, as Awa sees it, is that radio here is geared to the young or the old – not so much for those in between.
“I’m charting in Japan and Hawaii, yet struggling to get a run on radio at home,” he says. “And I’m far from the only one of my mates in that boat.”
You can understand the frustration when you see what Awa is achieving internationally.
In Japan, he peaked at No. 1 on both their iTunes singles and album charts last year. He has signed a six-album deal there, and is working with a big-time producer, Robert de Boron, in one of the world’s major music markets.
Then, in Hawaii, Awa has played at the massive Mayjah Rayjah music festival and he’s been doing really well for radio play with Perfect Day – which has lyrics in Maori, Hawaiian and English. Among the Maori language experts he’s worked with are Scotty Morrison and Julian Wilcox, who he describes as a great songwriter and a romantic.
That Awa would have some thoughts on the bigger picture of Kiwi music isn’t a surprise when you know his background.
His dad, Colin Reeder, was heavily involved with the Nga Potiki claim and ran the Maori faculty at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) with Toby Curtis. So Awa can look back on, and appreciate, the privilege of growing up surrounded by “clever Maori men who were doing such cool stuff for us.”
He reckons that company rubbed off on him.
“It was a good arrangement as a kid,” he says. “I’d take their $5 and give my 5 cents worth. I’m quite geeky about policy and strategic planning now.”
Having two mums also added to his rich grounding.
His real mum, Noeline (or just Noel), taught at Western Springs College – which is where Nesian Mystik got rolling when Awa was a pupil. Noel, who passed away a couple of years ago, was a significant driver for getting healthy lunches in schools and was also involved with the Waipareira Trust.
But, when Awa was just a few months old, Colin and Noel acknowledged that they needed a hand with their baby boy. And the Barnardos organisation did them a great service by linking them up with Olive French, a Fijian/Indian woman with four kids of her own.
While Awa’s mum and dad worked, their youngster fine-tuned his chilli-eating skills with Olive. She dished up some superb lessons in card playing as well. Awa went to Olive’s every day until he was 15 and still visits her whenever he’s in Auckland. His sister Ataria followed a similar path.
At Mt Albert Primary, Awa recalls missing a camp because his whanau couldn’t afford for him to go. That stuck with him and he fitted in a business degree while his music career blossomed. He wanted to know what the rich people knew.
Then, when Nesian Mystik started bringing in the dollars, the boys – a Tongan, a Cook Islander, a Samoan and three Maori – trusted Awa to look after their interests. He bought a commercial building in East Tamaki as their nest egg. And they did well out of that.
He now looks back fondly on the time with his Nesian brothers as they were able to grow and lean on one another. (They disbanded in 2010, though they still do the occasional gig.) Despite the rollercoaster elements of the music industry, it was a safe time, too, in some ways. As Awa puts it, “no one’s really going to mess with six Polynesian boys.” He hopes Lorde isn’t lonely on her journey.
Since Nesian Mystik, Awa has happily taken a step or two back. When he was younger, he confesses that he wanted to be out front – to be the star. That’s not so much the case now though.
“Maybe it’s perspective. Maybe it’s maturity,” he says. “But I don’t need that in the same way now. I want to create and help others create.”
To be fair, he has done a bit of that all along, including writing songs for others, such as Dane Rumble’s radio hit Cruel. That came about after his partner at the time suggested it would “sound better with a whiter voice.” So Dane made the cut.
Awa is also encouraging others through the Soul Note booking agency that he’s set up with Petrina Togi Sa'ena, who is the boss of the Pacific Music Awards.
On the horizon is an album release in Japan called Aloha & Irie presents AWA, while New Zealand will see a new EP from him in May called Stay Ready.
But let’s turn back to the issue of radio play for Kiwi music. Awa has decided one way to address things is to start an online radio station called Sweet Sounz. The station celebrates New Zealand, Maori and Pacific music, while also showcasing tunes from around the world.
“It’s a project I’m really passionate about,” he says. “And there’s no urban station in Australia, so we’re hoping to become their station too.”
Te Awanui Reeder
Ngai Te Rangi, Nga Potiki, Ngati Whakaue, Ngati Kahungunu
Auckland born – June 15, 1983
Schools: Mt Albert Primary, Kowhai Intermediate, Western Springs College
Music: Most top 10 singles in NZ history with Nesian Mystik. Performing as Awa now and doing well in Japan and Hawaii.
Partner: Anoushka (Japanese/Samoan)