Ria Hall zips into the café and, despite running late (and courteously letting me know) after an appointment runs over time, immediately sweeps me into a hug.

And although her calendar is stuffed full - new album, new show, new patron of the Tauranga Arts Festival, choir master for the festival opening - she pays full attention to our conversation and leaves her phone in her bag.

"I moved back to Tauranga from Wellington in 2015 after almost 10 years away and had to re-establish myself," she says. "You have to be, shall we say, resourceful to make a living as a professional singer."

So she regularly guest records with others, including Stan Grant and Tiki Taane, works as an MC, performs with Wellington collaborative group Fly My Pretties, has presented the popular Marae DIY on Maori TV for four years and will once again headline this summer's One Love festival.

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Her involvement with the Tauranga Arts Festival - celebrating its 10th birthday - began in 2015 when Hall and her cousin Teraania Ormsby-Teki were commissioned to compose a waiata.

The result, Takiri ko te Ata (A Chorus Dawn), was inspired by a walk the women took around Mauao and is an ode to the fairies of Hautere (the bush area behind Pyes Pa near Tauranga) who return to their old friend Mauao (Mt Maunganui) every night and depart at dawn - according to legend, Mauao had begged the fairies to drag him to the ocean but they had to abandon him at sunrise.

Hall, who is "stoked" to be named the inaugural festival patron, again trained people of all ages to perform the waiata for the official opening of the festival last Wednesday morning.

She is thrilled that so many non-Maori were willing to learn a song in te reo and hopes that openness will translate into people coming to her Rules of Engagement show.

"It's the only language that can speak to this land," Hall says of te reo. "It speaks to the people of the land and its history, good and bad. We have to be accepting of the good and the bad to move forward genuinely. There's a lot of trepidation about te reo but we can build bridges with it."

Hall released an EP in 2011 but Rules of Engagement is her first album. Why has it taken so long?

"I had the concept for a love and war theme back in 2012," she sighs, "but it stagnated with my previous record label. After I signed with Loop [an independent Kiwi label] it all happened in 18 months."

If a 153-year-old letter provided the inspiration - written by Ngai Te Rangi chief Henare Taratoa to Governor Sir George Grey, outlining how the Battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pa) should take place and how both parties should conduct themselves - then a voice from the past has given the album its heart.

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Turirangi Te Kani, the older brother of Hall's grandfather, was interviewed in 1968 about the 1864 Battles of Pukehinahina and Te Ranga and she has incorporated her great-uncle's voice into tracks on Rules of Engagement.

Musician Ria Hall. Photo/John Borren
Musician Ria Hall. Photo/John Borren

"When I heard the archival recording at Moana Radio I was happy to have found it as a family member but thrilled as an artist - this was someone who understands the complexities of what the aftermath of war meant.

"There have been many implications for Tauranga as the result of confiscation of large parts of our land - a lot of our people have held on to a lot of hurt. Now, all these years later, we need to try and find peace within ourselves to unite the communities of Tauranga Moana. I've tried to make this story accessible to everyone."

Preparing the album, Hall visited the battle sites, Otamataha Pa (Mission Cemetery) and attended the Battle of Gate Pa commemorations in 2015 but is sorry that Tauranga's history isn't more obvious.

"Yeah, you've got to actively seek it out," she says, "but when you do find it the power of the past is extraordinary - it resonates so deeply. The blood of the people is still in the land so it's important to continue to conserve this history.

"People say Maori are stuck in the past but collectively we look to history to ascertain what our future should be."

With family ties both to Tauranga Moana iwi and early Pakeha settler John Lees Faulkner, Hall says, "I'm not coming to these stories as a stranger, I'm a descendant of this history."

She promises "all the bells and whistles" for the Tauranga performance of Rules of Engagement, which features a stage set by Auckland-based Tracey Tawhiao, another Tauranga Moana artist.

"The show has a narrator so it's tied together and keeps the audience engaged. I'm interested in the dialogue between various art forms and love what we're doing for the Tauranga show."

Ria Hall. Photo/Loop
Ria Hall. Photo/Loop

the details

Rules of Engagement is released on October 27. Pre-order and receive four tracks free. See

Ria Hall performs her show Rules of Engagement at Tauranga Arts Festival on Saturday, October 28 at 7pm at Baycourt. Tickets $55/$45 from Baycourt or Ticketek.