There’s often a moment just before a pōhiri when the question goes out: “Who will do the karanga?”
Silence can hang dead in the air for what feels like hours, save for the sound of shuffling feet as wāhine edge backwards, trying to disappear.
Karanga expert Te Raina Ferris knows that fear well, and how to overcome it. In this conversation with Siena Yates, she explains the mahi of karanga and why she’s made it her life’s work.
Tēnā rā koe e te māreikura. Karanga is something of a lost art, isn’t it? And it’s one that scares a lot of us wāhine. So how did it become your mahi and focus?
Well, I grew up in Pōrangahau, 30 miles from Waipukurau in Hawke’s Bay. There are nine of us — I’ve got five older sisters and three older brothers. I’m the baby.
We were a singing family. We sang everywhere. And so we ended up playing a role on the marae, singing for the ātea rituals during the pōhiri.
When I was 17, I was told, out of nowhere: “Come over here and karanga this ope on.” I thought: “Why me? There’s a marae full of kuia there. Why not them?” But back then you didn’t ask. You just did it.
I loved to sing and perform, so I guess they picked me because I had a confidence that maybe others didn’t have. That was my initial introduction to being a kaikaranga for the marae, and I’ve been on that journey ever since.
You say that as if it was easy. Wasn’t it hard? Weren’t you scared?
Oh, it was scary as heck! I was like: “No, get one of the kuia. Why even bother calling me?”
But my brother Billy told me what to say because I couldn’t speak Māori. I could sing our reo beautifully and I could understand it because I’d sung a lot of Māori songs, but I didn’t have the vocab. So, I just did what he told me to, and I got through it. And I praise the Lord that it happened that way.
But it is daunting. The poor women who come here to my wānanga are nervous as heck.
What do you think it is that wāhine are so scared of?
Not knowing what to say. Getting it wrong. Breaking down halfway through. They just don’t know.
Whereas having grown up on the marae, I had experienced the vibrations of karanga through the kuikui, so I was familiar with those sounds, and they resonated with me. I do think I was destined to do what I do now.
How did that destiny play out? How do you go from 17 years old doing your first karanga to now, running your own karanga workshops?
It really started properly when I was in my 40s. I went to Te Wānanga o Raukawa to do a degree in mātauranga Māori, and one of the papers was on karanga. By then, I’d already been a kaikaranga for 20-something years. But I was curious about the deeper aspects of it, the wider concepts and especially the foundational kōrero that underpins te tū o te wahine.
Then I found, during those classes, that . . . well, nobody really knew the answers!
So, I enrolled in the master’s programme and focused my degree on finding the answers for myself. I designed a programme for my thesis and took it to Whatarangi Winiata, who was the tumuaki of the wānanga at that time.
And he said: “Oh, this is very good. Why don’t you turn it into a programme for us? I don’t believe there’s anything like it out there.” So that’s what I did, and I’ve been teaching it since the year 2000.
A lot of it is basic stuff because karanga is still a dying art. But the interest and the need came from all over the nation.
If none of your kaiako had the answers and none of the information was readily available, how did you learn?
From experience. I had some pretty phenomenal experiences with the effects of karanga. I wasn’t afraid to analyse those and come up with — I say “new” theories, but they’re not new. They’re just lost theories. It was about looking at the mana of women. What is that about? Where does it come from? Why is it a woman’s role? Why not a man’s role? Questions like that. So off I went.
There was a lot of research and talking to other people and really just putting one and one together, learning about our creation stories.
Many of our Māori whānau, me included, didn’t grow up knowing that we had our own Māori view of creation, which is steeped in the matriarchal and the feminine. There, straight away, were the origins of te mana o te wahine mai i te kōpū o Papatūānuku, Hineahuone and Hinetītama.
So many cultures have been colonised and the matriarchal lineage narrative has been either burned at the stake or kicked to the curb. But have you seen the movie Wonder Woman? That’s it right there! Those women, the Amazons were so sacred and powerful they had to stay hidden.
I looked at our pūrākau, and even at more modern stories like Patricia Grace’s Wahine Toa, to draw out the lessons. All the information is out there, you’ve just gotta do the work.
Stories, movies even, carry messages that profoundly honour the mana of wāhine if you just take off your colonised eyes, stick on your Māori eyes and have a look at it through a different lens.
If I were to come to your course at the Kurawaka Retreat Centre, is it mostly that historical, foundational kōrero I’d be learning, as opposed to just how to do a karanga?
That’s some of it. It’s really about teaching the art form. To become a kaikaranga takes years of learning — to build your confidence and also, nowadays, your reo competence. Many of our wāhine aren’t speakers of te reo, they may not have grown up on the marae, or have had kaumātua to learn from.
We also teach some techniques on how to find the voice that resides not in our throat but in our womb.
It’s a feminine voice and it’s a powerful voice because your womb is connected to your mother’s womb which is connected to her mother’s womb and right back to Papatūānuku. So, we spend time acknowledging all that matriarchal kōrero that was never taught, or which was put to sleep until the time was right. Well, the time is now.
I saw a brochure while I was researching the course which had in bullet points what the course covers, like history, pūrākau, and technique. But then at the bottom, it just says: “inner spiritual awakening of self”. He kaupapa nui tēnā — that’s deep. What does it involve?
Ha. Yeah, that. Well, that’s actually the first thing that happens. You’re taught how to access that feminine voice, and when you do that, you activate yourself.
It’s about the awesomeness of sound. We know that all kinds of sounds activate different things in the human body. AC/DC activates that headbanging side, Hawaiian music activates calm and serenity, and, for me, Pavarotti activates my Italian stallion side!
But the Māori karanga sound is designed to activate the sorrow that you hold inside yourself. It opens the cavern inside yourself and lets it come out in tears. That’s the function — that’s the purpose.
That’s what’s missing in the world today. We’re all so wound up in our clocks and the pressures we feel. “We’ve got to do this.” And “the kids need to have that”. We forget to slow down, to allow ourselves to have a cry. Through having a good tangi about things, wellness will prevail.
Allowing your true self to just let go — that’s the ultimate goal of karanga.
Go on a marae next time and have a bloody good cry and see how good it makes you feel. Because you do feel better after you’ve had a good cry.
Kōtahi noa iho te huarahi e ea ai te aituā, ko te roimata e heke ki runga i a Papatūānuku, ko te hupe e whiua ki runga i a Papatūānuku, ka ea ngā aituā.
There’s only one way that grief is satisfied — by the tears and the mucus that falls on to mother earth.
I did my first karanga last year and cried pretty much every step of the way — even while we were just learning about it — and I don’t even really know why.
It’s hard to describe, eh? But it comes from within. You’ve got to go inside yourself to experience the vibration . . . that particular frequency which is sent from the womb.
As kaikaranga, we deal with wairua, the effects of spiritual energies. It’s like having goosebumps. Or your hair standing up on the back of your neck. Or when you just burst into tears and you haven’t got a clue why.
The karanga is sent at a particular frequency and it’s shot like an arrow at your puna roimata, your inner spring of tears, and opens up the caverns in your brain when you’ve locked away your sorrow and ka tangi koe. You sob, you cry. It helps you access that file in your brain that keeps all the pōuri.
But if you believe that, from the soles of your feet, the roots can go down and connect with Papatūānuku, so that you draw her mauri up into you and you become her voice, and you feel the love and the korowai of love around you from your ancestors . . . if you start thinking that way, you’ll be okay.
So long as your intention is service — because karanga is a service that we provide for people — you’ll be fine.
Is that why it’s usually a role for older wāhine?
It used to be only for ruahine, or women who’ve been through menopause, because by then, you’re happy with yourself, you’ve experienced life, you’ve experienced ups and downs and spiritual things, and come through intact. So you’re pretty capable of being in control.
You do need maturity because you’re invoking te ao wairua, so you need a knowledge bank to know what to do with that energy when it comes through. But, of course, things have changed hugely through the effects of colonisation — the loss of our reo, the loss of our mātauranga, the separation of many of our people from their whenua.
Our rangatahi come through kura and are equipped with the reo but not the experience. Our mature women have years of experience but they have yet to learn the reo. How do we help them?
We must make sure that the young ones who get put up to call have at least one kuia or older woman capable of ensuring that the safety nets are there in case anything happens.
It’s time for us to wake up and step up, to do what we can to help build capacity again. It will take a while, you know, because we’re dealing with 180 years of being colonised. But it’s up to us to hand the knowledge down from one generation to the next.
So, you do have to have the reo to be a kaikaranga?
Look, what you say in a karanga matters. You can’t just get up there and say “blah blah blah”. We’re dealing with a very sacred ritual aspect of our culture, so, yes, you need the reo to become a kaikaranga.
But that said, there are places you can start in the meantime. You probably know more reo than you give yourself credit for, because you’ve probably sung it over and over again, or read bits of literature or learned prayers in te reo — but you might not have sat back and really translated it to understand the language.
Think about the words in the waiata: “Haere mai, haere mai, e ngā iwi e . . . ki runga o te marae, hui mai tatou katoa.”
Take all those words and put them in a karanga and you’ve done it.
What? Haere mai. Who? Ngā iwi. Where? Ki runga o te marae. Why? Hui mai tatou katoa. You see? You don’t realise how much you already know. You’ve just gotta sit and reflect.
That’s what I love to teach when women come in. You were born already loaded with all this information. In those nine months of gestation, we’ve already downloaded all the mātauranga we need to know.
It’s like getting a computer with a file that already has the programmes in it, but unless you tap the right key on the keyboard, you won’t access anything.
If we’re talking about “pre-requisites” in a way, the big questions around karanga are: Who is it for? Who can do it?
Firstly, and emphatically, it is a role for women. Full stop. That’s to do with our creation stories and the mana of wāhine — and we need to build up our womenfolk because the statistics of wāhine throughout all phases of our lives in New Zealand aren’t great. The teaching foundations of karanga enhance the mana of wāhine, which enhances the mana of our families, hapū and iwi. To me, that’s the main thing.
Then, looking at it through our cultural worldview, it’s for Māori. It’s a Māori ritual. It’s not for everybody. Access to that primordial voice is in every woman — and that’s very important to know. But this is how we as Māori women connect to it. Others have to find a way to activate their own voice with their own reo.
I really feel that all women should know this power, that this source of wisdom and activation is inside them. But it’s not in their brains or minds. It’s in their hearts and their wombs.
Look at other Indigenous nations where their womenfolk do an oro sound with their voice. That call, whatever they call it, is an alert call, a warning call, letting the people know someone’s coming. And it’s not a talking sound. It’s a similar thing to karanga. It’s done in a particular way that makes you want to sit up and listen. It just takes you into another phase of spirit.
When I was preparing for my karanga, my hoa took a group of us to the beach and we practised by sending karanga out to the moana. He tika tēnā? Is it the kind of thing you can just do like that, given it is so sacred?
It depends on what you say. You know, we grew up learning that “you don’t karanga at night”. But you can. It just depends on what you’re saying. They didn’t karanga at night in the old days because they didn’t have lights — so they didn’t know who the manuhiri were. They might inadvertently call in the enemy as well as the boogeyman.
So the tikanga that underpins that is about logic. There’s a logical reason, as well as a spiritual reason, why you do what you do, and why you don’t do what you don’t do.
Outside of that formal, ōkawa process though, karanga can be an awakening, happy, energising thing.
Even in the old days, they called all sorts. Instead of you setting your alarm clock, the women did the karanga and called the sun up to wake everyone.
You can awaken yourself and your tamariki, pay homage to someone who’s done something good for you.
You can stand up and say: “Wow, well done ya little beauty — inā te mahi he rangatira!” for someone who’s just received a tohu or deserves a compliment.
I took a group of women to Rome once and we were at the Colosseum and we went underneath and I could smell this strange smell, and one of the others felt sick suddenly. As we were looking down, one of the women felt like she wanted us all to do a karanga.
I thought: “Why would you wanna do that?” And then this thing just hit me. I knew that karanga was to open the veil so that the wairua of those who hadn’t departed could depart. It was as if they were saying: “We need your voice to set us free.”
So I stepped up on to the rim of the ring and this beautiful call came out and I said it with the love of being Italian as well as Māori and, while I was doing it, this wave of love just came gushing back over me and ka tangi au — I’ve got the goosebumps now!
So . . . if it feels right, and your intentions are tika and pono, it’s probably okay?
I do believe it’s a voice to use when you feel it’ll serve a purpose. You don’t just do it for the hell of it. You need to know the difference between invoking or summoning and telling things to go away. And you need to make statements that are positive.
One place I like to get people to start is with the call: “Aiō ki te ao rangi e.” It means “peace to the universe”. You stand on the side of a mountain, or in front of the moana, and call that out — and it’s a beautiful, positive statement that will add richness to the universe. You can’t go wrong with that.
Te Raina Ferris (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu, Italy) runs karanga, wairua and mātauranga workshops with her husband Doc and their daughters Piri, Miriama and Helena, from their purpose-built Kurawaka Retreat Centre in her hometown of Pōrangahau in central Hawkes Bay.
She has four children, 17 moko and eight mokomoko. As well as passing on her knowledge to them, she’s shared her mahi with women all over Aotearoa and the world. She is a driving force in the movement to reclaim mātauranga around karanga, moko kauae and atua wāhine.
As told to Siena Yates, and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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