There’s much more to Ariana Tikao than the singer and songwriter she became as she moved on from the whiteness of her Christchurch beginnings (in 1971) and her schooldays there. As a uni student at Canterbury and Otago, she became comfortable in her Kāi Tahu and Pākehā identity — and, as a senior figure at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, inevitably, her understanding of Aotearoa and our history has soared. That has prompted her to embark on new goals in music and in life as a Māori woman. Here she and Dale chat about the paths she’s been taking.
Kia ora, Ariana. Here at E-Tangata we’ve been keen to catch up with you for several reasons. There’s your music of course. But there’s also your book Mokorua where you’re telling the story, and showing the images, of you receiving your moko kauae. But we’ll save Mokorua for another day, apart from just this one question: What have been the reactions to your moko kauae?
Mostly very positive. It’s been interesting for me because I’m kiritea. I’m pale-skinned. And for people who, prior to my moko kauae mightn’t have known whether I was Māori, now there’s no doubt. Often, people will say “Kia ora” to me now — and it’s particularly lovely for me when kaumātua acknowledge me and people start talking to me in Māori.
Okay. So that’s the new you. Congratulations. But let’s go back to the early days.
Āe, ko Ariana Rahera Tikao tōku ingoa, although my given name at birth was Leanne Tikao. In fact, you may have known me way back then when I was still going by my original name, but I changed it to Ariana officially in the late ‘90s. And that was a political decision, with me wanting to go more into my own Māori identity with Ariana as my first name.
Rahera is a whānau name. My great-great-grandmother was Rahera Te Hua, who married Tāmati Tikao. I decided, since I was changing my name to Ariana, I may as well give myself a Māori middle name as well. So, that’s how that came about.
What was the whānau reaction? What did your folks think of you wanting to change your name legally?
Initially, my parents were a bit resistant. Understandably, they were attached to the name that they’d given me — and all my siblings had Pākehā names. So they continued to call me Leanne for a while, but that didn’t last. I think that, once they got used to the name Ariana, they accepted that.
You must be the Māui of your clan, eh? The pōtiki who’s willing to break conventions. Do you think there’s some Māui in you?
Yeah, I think so.
Now let’s hear about your mum and dad.
Mum was Pākehā and grew up in central Christchurch. I don’t know a huge amount about her whānau history, but from what I know, they were merchants and hoteliers who owned businesses back in the early 20th century. She also had Italian whakapapa.
Her name was Lois Alison Pearce, but the Italian whānau were the Paci family from Venice. Dad grew up in Rāpaki in the Lyttelton Harbour just around from Governor’s Bay. His name was Waitai Tikao although he later became known as George Tikao.
Were you a musical whānau?
There wasn’t that much music in my upbringing, but in my father’s home there’d been a lot. He was born in 1933 so he was still a boy during World War Two. He was involved in kapa haka when he was growing up, and they did plenty of entertaining in formal settings including at dances in Christchurch and around the Lyttelton area.
So that was a part of his growing up — and I’ve seen a lot of photographs of my grandparents with instruments, including the banjo and ukulele.
When I was growing up, the only other person in my immediate whānau who was into playing music was my brother David. He was in a pub band when I was at high school — and he wrote songs for them too. He was an inspiration for me.
Any Māori influences in the course of your schooling?
I went to Spreydon School in the south of Christchurch, then Manning Intermediate, and then we moved out to the country, so I went to Lincoln High. There was hardly any reo Māori available at those schools, but I think I craved to know more.
At uni, I started learning Māori. I’d done French right through high school and two years of Japanese, but I had a yearning by that stage to understand te reo, and to explore my identity more through that. So, I did Māori studies at Canterbury and Otago university. This was in the early ‘90s. I did kapa haka there, too. And I suppose I became politicised, as well.
I was blown away by the history I learned — we hadn’t had much in my school years. And I started writing poetry and waiata at that time, as a way to express my emotions about what I was learning.
We also studied Māori writers when I was at Otago, as part of my degree. I found that inspiring, as I did when I learned about the amazing composers Tuini Ngawai and Ngoi Pewhairangi. Learning about them and other Māori women was all part of my development.
Not long after, I started writing more songs. I think that mahi became a vehicle for me to explore my identity. Some of the waiata were quite political as well — they were a way to explore and promote te reo Māori.
I started a band called Pounamu, and in the mid-‘90s we were chosen by Tahu FM to represent Te Waipounamu at the ‘Gig on the Roof’ — it was a television special — in Tāmaki Makaurau. That was quite a big deal back then, to meet all these other kaupapa Māori bands from all around the motu. That was an important part of my music-making.
It was fresh, you were young, and it was the precursor to much that has followed. Pounamu certainly signalled your intentions as a writer and as a performer, Ariana. We should perhaps acknowledge your partner in crime with that Pounamu effort. Who was that beside you?
Jacquie. She was Jacquie Hanham back then. Now she’s Jacquie Walters, and she’s living in Nelson and still doing music. We’re both serial songwriters who have hung in there over the years.
Ka pai. Taonga puoro is another one of your loves. I know that you’ve worked with Richard Nunns and with Brian Flintoff, both whom are held in high regard. What did you like most about working with these men?
I’m still doing mahi with Brian, and he’s still going strong. He’s been very influential in the revival of taonga puoro, along with Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns and many others. Initially, I brought Richard in to play taonga puoro on some of my recordings when I launched my solo music career with the Whaea album.
I was fortunate to get funding to bring in people like Richard, and other musicians to record with me. I’d never heard of taonga puoro when I was growing up. I didn’t even know that we had such a thing as our own instruments.
And I was blown away when I first heard them and started researching them through a museum studies qualification I did back in 1996. A few years later, I met Richard, and then he came and played taonga puoro for me. We did some live shows as well.
It was Brian, though, who got me started as a player, and then Richard mentored me, passing on some of his mātauranga, and teaching me techniques. I feel it’s important, once you have the basic techniques, that you continue to build a relationship with each taonga. That’s the best way to learn.
Brian often talks about the time he was researching taonga puoro in museums over in Europe and the UK. And when he got back, with all this exciting information and these stories about the taonga he’d met, Hirini Melbourne asked him: “What did you learn?” Brian said: “They’re all different.” And Hirini said: “What did I tell you? They’re people.”
So, I always keep that in mind — that taonga puoro are all individuals and I need to create these individual relationships with them.
I imagine that you may very well have built up a stash of your own taonga puoro by now.
Yeah, it’s ever-growing, much to my husband’s dismay. But I’ve also started teaching other people and passing on some instruments to others. I’m also trying to pass on the mātauranga, and working with some midwives to help our hapū māmā, to introduce them to the idea of bringing taonga puoro into the pregnancy and birthing space.
That’s starting to happen a lot now, and we’re encouraging wāhine within the movement, and also Māori whānau to bring taonga puoro voices into our own spaces, and into our own ceremonies, too.
I know that motherhood influenced the music that you were writing as a younger woman, Ariana. I’m also intrigued with your third album From Dust to Light. Obviously, we’re all mindful of what occurred on that fateful earthquake day in Ōtautahi, but I just wonder how that situation affected you personally, as a mum — and how it may have also influenced the songs that you wrote for that album, and others that followed?
Āe, I have two tamariki. Matahana is 23 and Tama-te-ra is 21. My husband, Ross Calman, is Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa. He’s also a writer and translator, and he translated my text for Mokorua.
We were living down in Ōtautahi at the time of the earthquakes — and there’s still the trauma within our bodies, just from going through that experience.
Not long after, probably six months or so, we decided to move up to Te Whanganui-a-Tara, and we’ve been based here ever since.
I’m sure you’ve had opportunities to focus more on performing overseas.
There have been times when I’ve been interested in seeing where my music would sit internationally and in exploring options for performing more overseas. But we made the decision, because of the kids, not to be away that much.
If I was to launch myself into more of an international career, and into touring all the time, that’d be a massive commitment, and I just didn’t feel like I wanted to do that. I preferred to be at home more, so that’s why I turned to my library career.
That’s meant that the music has just been kind of alongside other things. Also, my wairua feels grounded being around our marae and our communities.
There’s important mahi to be done here — and with taonga puoro especially — in helping to heal our own people and our own community through those taonga.
Yeah, I could’ve chosen to be away all the time, but I feel like it’s more important to strengthen ourselves and our own communities first.
Tēnā koe. You spent significant years as a research librarian at the Alexander Turnbull in Wellington — and that has me wondering what impact that experience has had on you as you’ve delved back into the past and seen so many records in print and through photographs of our history.
It was a privilege doing that mahi. I was a Māori specialist within the Alexander Turnbull Library, and worked closely with the collections, the photographs, oral histories, music, and manuscripts.
And then it was amazing to be able to go to some of the communities, especially in the North Island, after seeing some of the historical records.
That helped me see the connections between us all — and realise how small New Zealand is. And it made me appreciate, too, just how important personal letters have been in recording our past.
Let’s touch again on taonga puoro and your experience in entwining those instruments with western orchestral frameworks, because they have notation and regimented and well-understood structures, but taonga puoro is more about improvisation, isn’t it? Weaving taonga puoro into these orchestral frameworks must be an interesting challenge.
Working with orchestras was something that Richard used to do a lot, and I didn’t really aspire to do that kind of performance. But, as Richard’s health declined, he was helping to create opportunities for others — and he offered me two opportunities to work in that space.
The first time was with Kenneth Young and APO, the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra. It was quite a small role, doing some kōauau and a sung karakia at the start of a big commission that he was working on.
But the bigger kaupapa for me, was the following year, in 2015, working with Phil Brownlee on a concerto for taonga puoro and orchestra, with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.
That was a real collaboration, and we worked out a way of working together in a different way from how Richard had operated in the past. Richard would usually come in and fill the spaces that other composers had left for him to play. But, with the work that I did with Phil, the music was built together. Phil recorded the sounds of my different puoro, and I wrote a rangi (tune) for an old mōteatea that I reworked, and then Phil wrote the orchestral parts around all of that.
There are improvisational aspects to the playing, but also, once the other music is set, and the pitches of the orchestral sounds are set, we just need to choose the right taonga puoro. But I appreciated developing that new way of working together, so that it was built together right from the ground up, rather than just the puoro coming in on top of what’s already been written.
Let’s look at the creative sector for our people, Ariana. It’s a tool for empowerment, a tool for growth, a tool to celebrate. How important do you see the creative sector for Māori development?
I think, for us, it’s an integral part of expressing ourselves and being human. It’s not something that’s separate from us in the way that “high” European culture is — I’m talking about that classical tradition which is very technical and upright but feels quite separate from people’s everyday lives.
Our way of expressing ourselves through what we do artistically feels more grounded and gritty. I love that. I love to be able to try and bring as much of my own emotion into a performance.
It’s not always pretty. I’m in my early 50s now, and I’m quite interested in presenting not just the nice stuff, but really getting into the whole self and what that is.
And I think that’s really important for us as a people, too. You know, in the mainstream, people like to pigeonhole Māori and place limits, but it isn’t healthy for us to always be stuck in a box. We need to be able to really explore all the sides of ourselves, and there’s lots of potential to do that through the arts.
Tēnā koe. It’s been a pleasure having a yarn with you, Ariana, and I’m looking forward to reading your new pukapuka.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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