Thoughts on RNZ Concert and the classical music community from a Māori musician.
Today is the day of the concert. I’m wearing my best white shirt that I borrowed from Mum. She usually comes to watch me and to do my hair beforehand. But she couldn’t make it today. I’m sitting on a chair and one of the other mothers is brushing my hair. When the brush pulls, she says: “I don’t know how your mother copes. Your hair is so thick!”
I’m used to this response. “It’s because Dad’s Māori,” I say. And then it happens — a stage whisper from another parent: “That’s probably why we’ve never seen him.”
I learn two things in this moment. The first thing I learn is that if you distract yourself, you can stop yourself from crying. I count the number of lines in the carpet before the pattern repeats. Sixteen.
The other thing I learn is that my life is going to be full of spaces where I’m not understood or welcome, despite all the land I walk on being connected to my ancestors in some way, shape, or form. I learn that in some rooms, that doesn’t matter at all.
I’m nine years old.
I’ve always loved classical music. Loved the sound of the orchestra tuning up and that moment where everyone breathes in together at the end of a piece. And the way that musicians get to add who they are to the composer’s music and make it their own.
I started playing cello when I was eight, then did the usual routine of orchestras, chamber groups, exams, concerts, and, eventually, university. During all that time, the easiest part was the practice and dedication.
The hardest part was the constant pushbacks, assumptions and racial profiling I experienced within the community. It was being referred to as talented rather than hardworking. It was being told good results were a fluke. It was being told I wasn’t a real Māori because I spoke “properly” and got good results. At concerts, competitions, and in honours orchestras, it was being asked what race I was — and seeing people’s disappointment, every single time, that I wasn’t something more “exotic”.
When I was in high school, I told my music teacher, an English immigrant and classical musician, that I wanted to go to university and study classical performance and composition. This was a reasonable desire as I’d done really well in theory exams, performance exams, NCEA music, and I was already composing for groups in my school.
He said to me: “Your dad’s a labourer, isn’t he? And your family’s from Tūrangi? You don’t need to go to university if you’re just going to end up playing in pubs.”
This teacher, and others in the community, called me arrogant every time I said I wanted to study music at university, despite Pākehā students being told that they were capable and strong, and even though I was always the one with my head down working hard.
But, really, I often wish I’d taken his advice, even though it’s for completely different reasons.
I still love classical music, but the longer I’m in this world, the harder it gets to ignore the attitudes and privilege within it.
I was recently reminded of just how privileged when Radio New Zealand announced it was planning to can Concert FM and put resources into a youth station.
Like many people, I think public access to the arts is crucial for wellbeing, community connection and expression, and that these are things that bring people together, not set them apart. So, of course, I was eager to defend it.
However, the fight turned septic quite quickly when it was revealed that the station was initially to be replaced with programming that would focus on youth, Māori, and Pasifika.
Many members of the community were eager to voice their opinions on the concept of a new station and how they were being victimised as lovers of culture. A lot of these comments focused on trying to whakaiti or belittle Māori and Pasifika communities, instead of working to whakamana or raise up the classical community.
Māori commenters were, very soon, having their own culture explained to them and having the “numerous handouts” they receive highlighted by a group that doesn’t walk with us or attempt to see life from our perspective, or why those services may be there to create a more equal playing field and better society for all.
I found myself in the centre of a Venn diagram where one circle had significantly more resources and power than the other and seemed to be able to say whatever they deemed appropriate within that circle.
In the Save RNZ Concert group on Facebook, everyone has been quick to make claims about how diverse Concert is as a station and how supportive the community is of Māori and Pasifika. They’ve done this with the use of our kupu, like asking people to show “aroha” for the station and labelling it as a “taonga”, as well as describing and posting photos and videos of young classical musicians who they’re proud to point out aren’t “white”, or “old”, or “elite”.
I know that if this had happened 15 years ago, I would’ve been used as a political pawn in the same way. At first, this made me feel angry, but now I just feel concerned for those young musicians who are already in difficult positions just being in this community.
Within the comments in the Facebook group and in other media, there was also casual and often blatant racism. A man praised fellow Pākehā for attempting to pronounce Māori words and said they should be let off the hook for improper pronunciation because their mouths are not shaped that way. Another informed me that Māori weren’t eligible to have opinions on this issue because we’re incapable of filling out the census properly.
When the issue of privilege and resources came up within the comments in some media outlets, several people said the Māori community and activists such as SOUL from Ihumātao had a lot they could learn from Pākehā about how this campaign had been run.
This is not stolen land. This is not a death in the family. This is a radio station.
But since we’re making comparisons, last Monday supporters held a protest-slash-“birthday bash” for Concert on the grounds of Parliament. I was invited to go and perform taonga pūoro but I turned it down because of some advice I’d received recently on a visit back home to Waihao: “If you wouldn’t send your children, don’t send your ancestors.”
My tūpuna deserve better than a man with a sign asking us to Save Another Western Value from Destruction.
I asked some friends who were supporting the protest if the police had put up barricades like they did for our peaceful protests and family days for Ihumātao. I was unsurprised to find out that they had used barricades on a small section, and only to designate a backstage area. Apart from that, the largely Pākehā crowd could roam the grounds as they pleased, despite any strong political signs they were carrying.
There have been those from the classical music community who’ve fronted to say that they’re trying to form better relationships with tangata whenua by including elements of te ao Māori in their practice as musicians.
But culture is a deep and complicated thing. Cross-cultural researcher Edward Hall described culture as being like an iceberg where, from the outside, people can see the top. What’s on the surface are things like clothing, food, music and language.
But under the water lie things like child-rearing practices, thought processes and notions of self. I’ve had a lot of experiences in recent times where Pākehā musicians have engaged with the top layer, with no interest of delving further.
When they skim the ice off the top like this, they both claim things they don’t fully understand, and exercise an imagined privilege where they feel they’re allowed to appropriate our culture because it fits under “Kiwi” culture. And yet, as Māori, I have to fight to do the same things and it’s always perceived as a political act, when really, it’s just us and our culture trying to survive.
More musicians than I can count have, at times, messaged me at the last minute asking for a Māori name for their project, or for me to quickly teach them about a complex concept so they can put it in an application or in programme notes.
I’ve been invited to speak to university classes and been given a coffee voucher as koha when Pākehā guests receive payment. I’ve been messaged asking to teach people about the Treaty of Waitangi because it’s going to come up in a job interview.
The engagement is there but at the moment it’s costing us more than we’re receiving. Being Māori in classical music is exhausting.
When I’ve talked to Pākehā about racism in the industry, they’re always quick to defend the behaviour. Their next action is to question me on how long ago the behaviour occurred, as they feel the industry has changed exponentially over the last decade.
Last year, in one week of shows within the classical community, where I now work as a taonga puoro player, I had somebody ask me if I wished that my ancestors had found a few more notes for me to play with, three people referred to my pukaea as a didgeridoo, and one high-profile Pākehā musician with a New Zealand Order of Merit questioned my blood quantum and my right to play these instruments — even though he’d had no problem playing with Pākehā taonga puoro practitioners in the past and, as far as I know, had never questioned their right to do so.
In this moment, I learned two things. First, classical music is colonising our culture without empathy or understanding of the people it represents, and second, I’m no longer going to be anybody’s palatable token, no matter how hard that journey is for me.
I want RNZ Concert to be saved. But, as my friend and colleague Umar Zakaria said earlier this week, I don’t want it to be preserved in its current state. If this station is truly going to commit to biculturalism and to being a Treaty partner, we need to work on including more music by Māori and Pasifika composers and performers.
But aside from that, we need to have a good look at our community and think about how this must be for Māori stepping in to the centre of this world. I say without apology that I think that RNZ Concert’s biggest problem right now is its listeners and their lack of interest in the depths of te ao Māori and supporting our people in a way that benefits us.
Someone in that group told me that classical music isn’t racist, and highlighted Yo-yo Ma’s work with The Bach Project and asked me if I’d heard of him. I didn’t have the energy to inform them that I was part of it, and that Yo-yo Ma is one of the few culturally competent musicians from our classical community that I’ve ever met or played with.
It’s my dream that one day I’ll be able to send both my children and my ancestors safely into these spaces — and that some of these listeners and musicians can take a leaf from Yo-yo Ma’s book and engage by asking us, not telling us, who we are.
The man who asked me my blood quantum and what right I had to be playing taonga puoro until I cried in a rehearsal room last year, later apologised to me. He said that he was sorry that I was offended — it was just that his heritage is so much richer and deeper.
I think this sums up the current state of affairs very well. I’m sick and tired of counting the lines in the carpet.
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