Aaron Craig, who’s never been much of a singer, on the different times and places that waiata has found him — and its power to bring people together.
We’re a musical people. But no one told me that when I was born. I came out of the womb without a lick of musical talent and will probably rot in the earth the same.
When we had to sing in primary school assembly, I would move my mouth without actually making any noise. Everyone else was happy to sing the song for me.
I’m one of these awkward in-between Māori who didn’t grow up around the traditions. On Dad’s side, we come from Scottish coalminers. On Mum’s, from a big, turbulent Māori family, with whakapapa to Ngāti Kahungunu in the Wairarapa and Horowhenua. What sense of our past I have, I had to learn as an adult.
So, at college I was too shy to waiata and kapa haka. Instead of taking Māori as my language, I took Japanese.
I got the chance to rectify this at university, where I managed to fit in two classes of Māori between changing my major every semester. While my kaiako was scary looking (it was the eyes), she was sweet and thought-provoking. She had a very precise, linguistic method of teaching that not only taught you to speak the language, but also conveyed something of its history and diversity.
One of the songs we learned was “E Minaka Ana”. I would hum it to myself to and from university, which always irritated my mate Riwai.
I knew Riwai from college. He was a grumpy old man in an 18-year-old’s body who refused to call soccer “football”, because “football” meant rugby.
One day he caught me singing my song.
“What is that?”
“’E Minaka Ana’. We’ve been learning it in class.”
I showed him the lyrics. His face puckered up. “It sounds like a fuckin’ kōhanga reo song.”
To him, it didn’t count unless you learned it at church or on the marae. Still, I kept humming it to myself every day until I had memorised the words.
At the end of semester, our class stayed at Te Herenga Waka, the Victoria Uni marae, for the weekend. We kicked off with a short lesson and some conversation exercises. In the evening we pulled out the mattresses and got ready for bed.
I tried to put my mattress next to the girl in my class that I liked. Instead, I wound up in a corner at the front of the wharenui next to the intense guy I didn’t like. He sat by himself in class, always brooding and wincing at other peoples’ bad pronunciation.
It was not yet dawn when the front door of the wharenui swung open. A man stood in the doorway. I’d seen him around the marae but had no idea who he was or what his involvement was with the wānanga. Still groggy with sleep, we sat up and listened to him recite the karakia.
From the mattress beside me, the intense guy rose to stand beside the kaikarakia. He was a second shadow in the dark, echoing the words with “Tāiki e.” The rest of us lay there in a dull, wordless stupor.
The wānanga continued until lunch. We learned about the history of Māori phonology and dictionaries and finished off with some skits.
I think you might be able to classify Māori as one of two kinds: whakamā and katakata. The test for which kind you are is whether or not you do skits.
If you’re one of these whakamā Māori who doesn’t know anyone on the marae, and you’re too awkward to force yourself into their conversations, the kitchen is always a good place to hang out. There are always dishes to wash and stories to hear.
That was how I found myself in the group singing “E Minaka”. The man who’d said the karakia had come down for the weekend and was just about to head back up north. Our kaiako gathered a few of us who were hanging around the wharekai — me, the intense guy, the girl I liked, and a few others.
What we sang must have been the saddest waiata ever heard on these islands. There was too much shy energy in the room. I started us off, but I was out of key, so everyone else was out of key too. And no one — not even the intense guy — had the courage to chip in the backing vocals, leaving an awkward silence between each verse.
The man gritted his teeth. He nodded at us, said something to our kaiako, and disappeared out the back door, like a VIP being rushed away from a natural disaster. I felt ashamed. I slipped back into the wharenui to be among those who hadn’t heard me singing.
A few years later, I was having lunch with some cousins. Petra, who was visiting from Australia, was the only one among them who was my actual, literal cousin. Some of the others were whanaunga from obscure branches of the family tree. Some were family friends. Some just happened to be hanging around. It’s hard to capture all of this in a word. “Cousin” is the best we’ve got.
After lunch, we lazed around, feeling a bit bloated. Then someone put the idea of ice-cream into our heads, and everyone perked up again. Petra went to get it out of the freezer, but before the kids were allowed any, they had to give a performance.
Three little girls took up position in the lounge. One of them, a 10-year-old girl called Ani, led them through a haka called “Nō Wairarapa”. Though small, her voice was strong and beautiful, and the way she carried herself — the confidence with which she moved, how her eyes bulged, and her hands rattled — made it seem like she filled up the room.
I didn’t say anything. My throat was clogged up with emotion. I had never been moved by a song like that, could never imagine three children sounding so beautiful.
Then, a few weeks later, Riwai was found dead in his flat. No one had heard from him in days. One of his university mates broke down the door and found him there.
Everyone was devastated. People flew in from around the country and across the Tasman. People I hadn’t thought about in years called me up to make sure I knew. Even if we didn’t know what to say, we understood the reason for the call, and listened to each other’s whimpers and breaths.
They set up Riwai’s coffin in the lounge for several days. His girlfriend and mum were by his side the whole time. They held pictures of him and squeezed his hand as visitors came to pay their respects. They gave their memories freely: friends, classmates, churchmates, family, neighbours, teachers, godparents, a Taekwondo instructor, confessors and professors. I was one of hundreds.
On the last day, we packed into the lounge for a service. A few words were said, some in Māori, which I didn’t understand, and some in English, which I also didn’t understand.
The deacon quoted from the Book of John. He talked about the life-giving properties of water and where the mauri of all people comes from. Just as water nourishes the thirsty and gives them life, so too are the hopeless nourished by their belief in the Holy Spirit.
I nudged Riwai’s mum. “The stuff about the water — is that a Māori thing or a Catholic thing?”
“Both,” she whispered.
We concluded with several Hail Marys, but it was not enough to dispel the gloom that lingered over us.
Then, without saying anything, someone picked up a guitar and tuned it on the spot. He sounded out a few notes and chords and began to play. Everyone immediately recognised the song. “On a dark desert highway . . .”
After singing the intro and the chorus, we all stumbled over ourselves trying to remember the next verse and broke out in giggles. There was joy again. We had ventured to the realm of the dead, to ensure Riwai’s safe passage from this world, and now we were back among the living.
Not long after the funeral, my cousin Petra decided to move “back home” — this time for good. She was nervous to come back. Most of her whānau were in Australia, and she didn’t know many of the people back here. It wasn’t clear where any of this might lead.
I was there on Petra’s first time back on the marae. We both sat on the manuhiri side, even though we were tangata whenua. Someone I didn’t know angrily pointed this out to us.
Petra got a job for the district council and worked on a few projects, including one for a local papakāinga. We were all proud of the work she was doing.
Two years after moving back, it was decided she would receive her moko kauae. Her dad — my uncle — came over from Australia for it.
When I arrived, the pōwhiri had already begun. Everyone shuffled through the gates, and I hurried into the marae after them, taking my seat beneath the photo of my tipuna. I didn’t know anyone around me, and it was only as we formed hongi lines that I realised my cousin was now sitting across from me, on the side of the hosts, where she had always belonged. It was a beginning, but also an ending. It felt like a funeral, like we on the manuhiri side were saying goodbye.
She lay on the table and the tohunga began her work. Our job was to fill the room with songs. Ani led us, her small lungs making huge melodies. I joined in for the ones I knew — “Hoki mai”, “Tūtira mai”, “Tiaho mai rā”, “Ka pioioi” — and had by now figured out that you mumble through the ones you don’t.
Before he left, I took my uncle to see a kapa haka performance. When we arrived, the gym was packed with friends and family. There were children spilling off benches and onto the floor, and people lingering in every doorway.
The chatter died down. The performers came out and stood before us. They had blue painted moko and feathered skirts, each with one feather dyed blue. The men were skinny or muscly or fat. Some had guitars or taiaha. The women had poi.
Though we in the audience outnumbered them, when they shuffled toward us in their lines, playing and poi-ing, it felt like we were standing in front of an army. Their tongues burst from their mouths and their eyes bulged from their sockets. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
The MC gave a mihi and finished us off with a song, “He Honore”. Riwai had taught me that one. Wasn’t in church or on the marae, but it still counted.
I recognised the song from the first chord on the guitar. I jumped to my feet and put my hand across my chest and sang at the top of my lungs. It happened automatically. Like a just-hatched bird knows to chirp when the sun is out. Our voices flaxed together.
By the end, my throat was hoarse. Everyone hung around to chat, but I had to drive my uncle back to Wellington.
“What time’s your flight?”
“Three. . . . What’s wrong with your voice? Has it gone?”
“No,” I croaked. He must have been singing, too, because he was knackered. Within 20 minutes, he’d fallen asleep.
We drove back over the Remutaka Range. It was packed with traffic. I tapped the wheel and sang “E Minaka Ana” to myself. It was misty on the mountains outside. None of the cars seemed to be moving. That was fine with me. We end up where we go in good time.
Aaron Craig (Ngāti Kahungunu, Muaūpoko) is a Wellington writer who works in software development. He studied computer science and mathematics at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington. He’s 27 and lives in Tawa where he grew up.
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