Soul daughter of Tuhoe

By Scott Kara

She hails from Tuhoe country - where the water is fresh, there's plenty of kai in the forest and they like their music slow, solid and soulful.

That heritage, especially the musical part, filters through to Whirimako Black's music. "Tuhoe love the slow beats. They love the back beat, way back there," she says, referring to her iwi's style of haka.

"They don't like showing off like the tirairaka [fantail]. You know, the bird that does all that fancy carry on. They don't like that. They like to be solid and firm."

With this she starts into a smouldering haka. But it fizzles out and she laughs as she loses count. "Oh, okay, I can't do it. I just get out of time."

But she's right, the haka is slow, which is why much of Black's music - sung mostly in te reo - is gently paced, yet spirited and vital. "I'm proud to say it's my Tuhoe thing," she smiles.

Her Auckland home in Northcote is not quite as idyllic as the Tuhoe area, which takes in Whakatane, the Urewera Forest and the Ruatoki Valley where Black grew up, but the bird life still creates a good din on this sunny day.

She doesn't get back to Ruatoki as much as she'd like but when she does certain things like "the attitude of get in behind and grab a tea towel" remind her where she's from.

"It also reminds you of where your place is in your whanau and your hapu and you can't go doing the la-de-das down there like we can get away with in Auckland," she laughs.

Although the 45-year-old has made music all her life, she became one of the most prominent Maori voices on the local scene when her debut album, Hinepukohurangi: Shrouded In the Mist, won best Maori language album at the 2001 New Zealand Music Awards.

She has released three more te reo albums since and gained critical acclaim but has never crossed into the mainstream.

Her new album, Soul Sessions, which features Black's versions of 11 popular jazz and blues standards, could change that.

It's the first time songs like Stormy Weather, Black Coffee and Summertime have been translated into Maori. It's also the first time she has recorded songs in English - four of them are on Soul Sessions. "My agenda," she says, with a sly smile, "is that Pakeha will catch on to this language of ours and start using it. So ... anyone who's non-Maori will enjoy the music and think, 'Oh, that's a lovely, soft sounding language'."

Born in Whakatane hospital, with her family home just up the road in Ruatoki, Black loved performing and singing from an early age.

"Maori love singing, aye? But I never thought too much about music, I just knew it was part of my life. It comes out of the culture so it was there for me right from the beginning."

By her late teens she was singing in a band and making a bit of money. At 19 she moved to Australia for nine years, where she performed in bands, did the odd talent quest, worked in a shop run by her partner, and had two children.

"I came back because I was lost. I had split up with my partner and I saw my life flash before my eyes. I missed my language and I thought, 'I don't want to live like this. I've got to go home and do something with my music'."

She started the all-woman band Tuahine Whakairo in 1991 (a part-time member was reclusive singer/songwriter Emma Paki) and lived on a benefit with two children until she got a job teaching te reo Maori.

Eventually she realised what she wanted to do - sing in Maori. "I found that I could get into the music on a deeper level," she says.

When she started recording Shrouded In the Mist in 1996, she was worried about the reaction her iwi and whanau would have to her singing traditional Maori songs. She was so nervous, she says, that she took up smoking. She also shelved the album for four years.

"It was a stress. I was going out in public, performing traditional songs, and doing it the way I do which was a no-no because those songs were for our marae.

"There were negative vibes because I had commercialised these songs, and, 'Who had I asked permission from?' 'What about the culture?' And fair enough too, because the culture is intellectual property."

But she stuck with it, the album was finally released, and she kicked the smoking habit. "I wanted to express myself and I wanted to use my traditional songs. I'm a descendent, and who said I can't sing it? But it was radical to be picking up a guitar and strumming along to a song that is 150 years old that is only sung at [a tangi].

"I hated myself for it too, but it made me feel so good."

Learning about traditional Maori songs and music, which, among other things, involved tracing the whakapapa of a song, also helped her understand the standards she sings on Soul Sessions.

"I've always been a great believer in ownership and when you sing a song you've got to own it. That's the only way to give it the mana it deserves.

"I look for the best I can give it to make the bugger live. If a singer can lift someone to a higher plane then that's a magical performance. Music certainly reveals my soul."

LOWDOWN

* Who: Whirimako Black
* What: Maori singer and songwriter
* New album: Soul Sessions, out now, featuring musicians Joel and Kevin Haines
* Past albums: Hinepukohurangi: Shrouded In the Mist (2001); Hohou Te Rongo: Cultivate Peace (2003); Tangihaku (2004); Kura Huna (2005)

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