Some parts of Stan Walker’s story are harrowing, shocking — but, as he writes in this extract from his new book Impossible — My Story, they don’t cancel out the good bits. “Bad moments live right up against good moments.”
“Boys,” I remember my mum saying to me and my cousin Kaha when we were about 10 and had been fighting, “don’t you ever forget, blood will always be thicker than water.” Blood is thicker than water.
My whānau is at my very core. There’s no danger of me forgetting that. It gives me everything that’s important to me in my identity. It’s where I look for love, for belonging, for meaning.
Yet it was the biggest part of the chaos and pain in my early years. Most of the shocking stuff that happened to me when I was a little kid happened within my whānau.
Some parts of my story seem confusing, I know. Things that are totally contradictory live right up alongside each other. Bad moments live right up against good moments. Poverty lives right up against riches. Violence lives right up against love. Sexual abuse lives right up against incredible togetherness.
I can’t make sense of it all. I just accept that that’s how it is. Maybe that’s why I’ve managed to survive in the music industry for so long, because it too is full of contradictions: the highest of highs, the lowest of lows.
But the bad stuff doesn’t cancel out the good stuff, and the good stuff doesn’t mean the bad stuff never happened.
When I won Idol, my whole family won. It’s just incredible to see how far we’ve come.
The sounds of my childhood. Endless music. Always singing. Whether it was the voices of my aunties, or the sound of all our voices together; whether it was the hymns of the Rātana Church, the traditional karanga, kapa haka, Whakaaria Mai or a song by Renée Geyer, there was always music, and always someone with a guitar.
It’s part of Māori culture. Any occasion, whether it’s formal or informal, there’s a song. If there’s a speech, there’s a song. If there’s food, there’s singing. If there’s a funeral, there’s singing. Birthdays, weddings — any kind of party, there’s singing.
I was always fascinated by the sound of our language. Maybe because things were so difficult in my home, from my very earliest times I used to always hang with the nannies up on the marae and that’s where the sound of our language was thick in the air.
My great-grandmother Ngawaiwera was the kaikaranga for our marae, the woman who called visitors on to the marae at the start of the pōwhiri, the formal welcome. I loved the sound of her voice singing the karanga, and I have a memory from when I must have been nearly three, of standing next to her, right next to her legs, at the top of the steps leading to the wharenui, the meeting house.
She was dressed all in black, with her black scarf on her head, and I copied her with a tea towel or a colourful shirt to cover my hair, singing in my little child’s voice, trying to follow her lead. I wasn’t meant to do that, and probably some people thought it was wrong, but most people would have just thought it was funny.
The female elders, or kuia, would wail in their beautiful, eerie way, and then as soon as they finished, they did their harirū, all going around to greet each other, and next thing they’re laughing and eating their mints; then all of a sudden they’re popping their gums and they’ve got no teeth!
Next we go and have a kaputī, and these little old kuia, all in black, some of them not so little, would be dipping their bread in the tea and eating.
From my very earliest existence, I have heard our language and it made me feel special. I watched the kaumātua as they spoke Māori together. They never spoke English. They would always be laughing. I still love it.
The reo, the language, and the music are the two things that were like the air that I breathed in since forever.
Man, those parties. There was a club next to the marae that would open up on Thursdays and Fridays, and the grown-ups would sit in there, having their ciggies, big brown bottles of beer on the tables, guitars playing and their voices singing together.
Us kids could hear it from outside. We’d be hanging around, trying to scab money off them, or get them to buy us chocolate bars — Caramel Chews or Peanut Slabs. Those drunk koros were good for getting stuff off.
“Can I have two dollars, Koko?”
“Here you go, boy.”
And then you’d ask the next one, “Oh, Uncle Tahi, can I have two dollars?”
Or there’d be parties at someone’s house — our house, often, a rage we used to call them, back in the day, with all the aunties and uncles and cousins. Same thing — the crates of big brown bottles, and I’d just be running around being a little mischief, little kid, playing with my cousins, doing whatever we did.
They’d be singing party songs. Renée Geyer. I thought she was black, but then I found out she was this white Australian woman. She just resonated: those songs, her voice, her tone. It sounded like us. It only happens when I look at you … Every single Māori person, I guarantee you, will know that song. It was an anthem for us.
Do you know that scene in Once Were Warriors when Jake and Beth are partying and singing that same song? That’s just like it was for us, guitar out, everyone good-drunk and happy.
In the movie, their daughter Grace goes, “I love it when they’re like this.” Because that was beautiful. It was really beautiful. You just saw people happy and you would hope that it would stay like that.
It never stayed like that. People would end up getting wasted. It would always end bad for my mum. My dad would end up in a fight, and by the end of the night she’d be getting a hiding, getting crashed and smashed around the house, us kids right in the middle of it, quite likely getting smashed too.
If we didn’t get smashed then, say I’d gone to stay at my koko’s like I often did, I would probably get a hiding the next day for doing something stupid that was really nothing.
This is the way it was for us. The two sides of our lives. The beauty and the violence; the richness and the poverty; the love and the hate. Everything, but nothing.
After the parties, there would be photos of all the laughs, all the good times. But there wouldn’t be any photos of the hidings. Everyone knew about it but those things have a way of being secret. People pull their curtains and pretend it’s not happening.
An extract from Impossible — My Story by Stan Walker with Margie Thompson, published by HarperCollins Publishers.
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