Performing karanga has given Anahera Higgins a lot of joy over the years — but also many anxious moments, as she writes here.
Karanga is the call that connects me to my mother who’s been lying peacefully in Wahakino since she left us back in 1986. It’s the call that brought me home to her tangi from the other side of the world.
As a child of the urban drift movement, that call became synonymous with packing the car and travelling east in convoy in the dead of night, and often with our tūpāpaku, to ensure their safe and final journey home to Whāngārā.
These trips were long and arduous and definitely filled with sadness, but also with absolute joy at the thought of going home.
The pā would always be ready and waiting for us. A beep of the horn on the way down the hill to alert them that we’d arrived, and the next thing, the karanga would resonate across the ātea.
In those days, we would head straight into Whitireia, our wharenui. We’d made it home safe. Us kids would immediately search for our cousins, and, over the next few days, we’d see our parents only at meal times — until it was time to leave paradise for my mother’s adopted home in Porirua.
The first time I remember performing a karanga was as a 12-year-old girl in kapa haka at Waitangirua Intermediate. I loved to sing and perform in the group, and to be able to perform the karanga was wonderful. It felt natural.
Of course, I had no real idea what I was doing. Karanga was something my nans did back at the pā, at tangi and at hui, and I was just pretending. It wasn’t the real deal. No actual tapu or ritual attached. Porirua was a world away from Whāngārā, so to me, they were not even the same act. This karanga was just for show. So I practised and practised and then did my best performance.
But my life as a kapa haka performer was short-lived. Once I arrived at Porirua College, I was promptly told by the kapa haka teacher that perhaps kapa haka was not the gig for me. This was my first real taste of rejection as a performing artist. It was brutal and the impact was immediate. I left the group. As a result, I was no longer exposed to all those wonderful things that come with being a part of a kapa haka team.
It wasn’t until I went to university that I joined another kapa haka group. My wiri was woeful and my poi was pitiful, but I could sing. So, whenever I found myself in situations where support was needed by way of a karanga, I would to help out, because for some reason, I felt I should.
In those days, my karanga strategy was to get the kupu right and deliver it as confidently and succinctly as possible — to respect the manuhiri and bring no shame on my tīpuna or my iwi.
Over the years, I’ve heard many comments about kaikaranga who just boom it out over the ātea without listening. Or they just perform karanga ā kākā or by rote. That was me. I was totally that girl. I was stuck in my fraud-syndrome mentality, so I’d screech it out as quickly as I could just to get through it, so people woudn’t see my fear.
I’d completed a BA in Māori and English at Auckland Univeristy and popped out with what could only be described as basic-level reo. So “faking it until I made it” was a fair assessment of my karanga abilities.
Critique is my constant companion with karanga and my anxiety took off beyond Hikurangi maunga when my first job — as a researcher at TVNZ on the youth show Mai Time — placed me in situations where karanga was required.
Travelling to many marae all over the country with a small television crew — and often where I was the only woman — meant I had to step up to hold on to our tikanga while on shoots. (My male colleagues had their own challenges with whaikōrero.)
These were humbling times and now cherished moments of learning, and there were plenty of stumbles along the way. I’ve used the wrong kupu, I’ve called too soon, and I’ve shown up inappropriately dressed — thinking someone else would take care of the karanga, and then having to quickly find a wrap to cover my trousers because there was no one else!
These days, I have a few tricks in my kete for dealing with such emergencies.
My mum and her siblings were all native speakers who spoke beautiful English and Māori — and like every other Māori child of their generation, they spoke English at school while Māori was their language at home, where they really expressed themselves with candour and humour.
Mum consciously chose to speak English to her children — because we lived in the city in a predominantly Pākehā-speaking world and because English was the language of education. So we’d hear Mum speaking te reo to her sisters all the time. But not to us kids.
I don’t blame my parents’ generation for the choices they made. I get it. I’m a product of the urban movement, of the decision not to hand the language down, and like many of our generation, I’m still living the language journey, every, single, day.
Some days I’m confident and some days I feel anxious around my own ability in te reo and tikanga Māori and especially in karanga. I honestly don’t think this feeling will ever leave me.
A few years ago, I made the conscious decision to embrace karanga to support my son at kura and as a way of connecting back to my mum, and to my aunties, who really supported my language learning, which I took up long after Mum had passed.
I’d ring my aunties constantly for guidance. Aunty Nan travelled all the way from Whāngārā to my graduation and Aunty Wiki was never short of a comment on my latest new phrase. She’d say: “Ngāti Porou reo is where it’s at, babe,” and tell me that the flash reo I was learning at uni wouldn’t get me anywhere at home. And then we’d both crack up laughing.
My fondest memory is of her telling me, not long before she died, how proud she was of my learning te reo and that she knew how hard it had been. She’d also tell me to go to the pā and practise my karanga down there. “Call out to the sea,” she’d say.
Before a karanga, I always communicate with my mum and aunties through karakia, and they often pop into my thoughts when random things happen. Like the time last year when someone who wasn’t mana whenua (or Māori, for that matter) delivered an utterly inappropriate karanga at a protest against the tree removal programme on Ōwairaka in Tāmaki Makaurau. Auē!
My blood levels were rising, but I could feel Mum beside me telling me to stay calm, that it was not my place to speak as I’m not from Tāmaki, and that I should leave it for the mana whenua to deal with. So I watched, as a young mana whenua wāhine stepped up and did just that.
And it was good that I’d sat there and kept my mouth shut.
But the incident raised some questions for me, about how we’re teaching and protecting this precious taonga. The person who’d taken it upon herself to “karanga” on Ōwairaka was a student of te reo. She seemed to feel that knowing a bit of reo entitled her to karanga.
A growing number of New Zealanders are learning te reo Māori — and that’s fantastic. But if tikanga is not also taught and observed within those reo lessons, then we should practise the most important tikanga of all. That’s whakarongo: listen, listen, listen. Don’t practise what you don’t know or don’t understand.
It’s a matter of respect. If you don’t know when it’s the right time to karanga, or whether you should karanga, or what to karanga, then don’t karanga. It’s that simple.
It’s ironic that the increasing interest in Māoritanga — in learning te reo and observing tikanga and Māori protocol — is creating new tensions and putting more pressure on Māori to carry the cultural burden, whether or not they’re comfortable in this tikanga.
In marae pōwhiri, the rules are set by the haukāinga, the people of that marae, and they’re usually clear. Haukāinga will also take care of the manuhiri if there are no speakers or kaikaranga among them. I feel safer performing karanga in those settings.
However, it’s a different story in the corporate arena and it can be a beast to navigate. Welcoming a new team member, or the opening of a new space, all seem to require protocol these days and it’s often left to the lone Māori employee to make it happen. And while the intention is to acknowledge Māori protocol — a good thing — the available support to do that can be non-existent.
A senior manager, who may not know enough to understand what’s required, may dictate the protocol. Or, as I experienced in my early career, the only Māori woman is expected to deliver a karanga but no one actually knows if the karanga is appropriate. In either case, staff can be thrown in at the deep end simply because they’re Māori and their knowledge of protocol is therefore assumed.
Hearing karanga, performing karanga, and having karanga in my life brings me so much joy, and while I’m happy to say I’m less reluctant to step forward if asked, I will ask questions around karanga, particularly in corporate situations.
These questions are usually along the lines of: What is the kaupapa? Is there haukāinga or mana whenua present? Is it appropriate to karanga in this setting?
I’m dedicated to practising karanga to the best of my knowledge, and grateful to be surrounded by kaikaranga who support and practise these values, so the anxiety levels have been reduced.
Karanga opens the pathway for me to travel between realms to communicate with my mother, my aunties, my nannies, and the ope walking towards me. It’s my free toll-call back home: the karanga bandwidth is more powerful than any 5G data network, in this lifetime or the next.
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