My happy place: James Tito - Modern Maori Quartet founder

James Tito (left) enjoys rehearsing with the boys in the Modern Maori Quartet.
James Tito (left) enjoys rehearsing with the boys in the Modern Maori Quartet.

My happy place is rehearsing with the boys. It's so chilled and fun, and we get on with each other really well. We'll rehearse on the balcony at my house on Upper Queen St. We get my neighbours to come in and watch us, and people on the street will stop and listen.

We all work individually on different professional productions, whether that be theatre or music, but because the Modern Maori Quartet is our baby, we get to decide how we work with each other.

And what works so far is just having fun with each other. We get to set the mood ourselves, which might mean having a bottle of red wine there.

I started thinking about forming the quartet while I was working as an intern with Maaka [Pohatu] on a show he was doing with Taki Rua theatre company. We were at a party and he was playing music -- just after I'd seen him destroying the stage with his acting skills.

I was really taken aback by the scope of his talent. I'd also known of Matariki [Whatarau], who was one year above me at drama school, and I knew how gifted he was, too. I got excited by the idea of what we could make in a room together.

The premise was a Maori Rat Pack. New Zealand has a rich history of Maori showbands from the 60s and 70s -- and we all like to dress up nice. So we brought that into the present with a contemporary twist, bringing our acting ability and musical abilities together to tell stories. We add a cultural element to a very Western art form -- we work in kapa haka movements with the slickness of Frank Sinatra.

Those kind of classic New Zealand songs were always playing in the background when I was growing up, whether it was the Howard Morrison Quartet or the Hi-Marks.

My parents were diehard fans and would leave us with a babysitter at home while they went to concerts. I wish I'd been able to go, but now I get to relive them on YouTube.

We did our first show early last year, and we're getting a strong sense that it's the right time for a group like us. Maybe it's because it's refreshing in the modern music age -- we can connect to people in a stronger way than if we were just singing at them. It's more of a shared, welcoming experience.

I feel very privileged to be doing this. Come money, come no money, it's nice to be invested in something you strongly believe in. I never feel like I'm working -- as cliched as it sounds, it's really true.

The Modern Maori Quartet performs in several venues around Auckland as part of the Matariki Festival of Maori arts and culture, from June 28 to July 28. See www.matarikifestival. org.nz

-- as told to Bronwyn Sell

- Herald on Sunday

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