Increasingly topical Matariki festival kicks off with gigs from modern quartet with classic showband touches

Only the staunchest will actually see it. They'll have to brave the pre-dawn chill at a time when sensible people are in bed. But seeing isn't everything.

Well, that's what I'll be saying to myself when I don't set the alarm for 5.30 on Saturday morning. But it's good to be aware that it's an important New Zealand moment Matariki, or the Maori New Year.

It happens with the rising, for the first time after the midwinter new moon, of the Pleiades star cluster in the constellation of Taurus - a moment recognised as significant by cultures from the Celts to the Aboriginal Australians and pretty much everyone in between. Maori named the stars for the eyes (mata) of the gods (ariki) and Saturday is the beginning of a month-long series of events that will mark the turning of the year.

For pre-colonial Maori, the timing of a new year had to do with the cycle of the earth's fertile and fallow periods and was based on the rhythms of the food-gathering year. It was a time for song and dance, and for feasting: autumn's bounty packed the storehouses and the fishing was good.


I grew up blithely ignorant of it, but there's been a groundswell of interest this century and the time cannot be far away when we see it as a more logical winter public holiday than the nominal (not actual) birthday of an elderly woman of German descent in a palace on the other side of the world.

It seems fitting, too, that the first day of the festival should be marked by a bunch of singers who rejoice in the name of the Modern Maori Quartet. That's because, as the boys explain to me, the adjective "modern" applies to "Maori", not to "quartet". There's something pleasingly old-fashioned about the style of their music, but their outlook is as modern as can be.

I catch up with them in a bare room above a warehouse on industrial Great North Rd, where they are rehearsing the first episode of a new television variety show to be taped before a live audience at the old Mercury Theatre in early July.

The show, called Happy Hour, harks back to the days before reality TV and cooking shows when Maori entertainers such as Billy T James, Sir Howard Morrison and Prince Tui Teka rated well in prime time, and the quartet will be the house band. But the four boys kick off Matariki with five concerts in venues from Wellsford to Manurewa.

To listen to them sing is to be transported back to the days when we didn't have to be told that New Zealand's got talent, because talents got their own shows. Their effortless four-part harmonies mix barbershop, skiffle and the kind of Maori garage party music that gets played while the hangi's cooking. They call their guitarist Maaka Pohatu (Ngai Tamanuhiri, Ngati Apa, Ngati Tuwharetoa) "the human jukebox" and it's easy to see why. Sitting in the room I can't help singing along.

During a brief break in rehearsal the four boys sit down with me to explain that their music explores what a modern Maori is.

"We are a warrior people," says James Tito (Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngapuhi), "and it is natural for us to fight for what's important to us culturally - language, land and so on ..."

The theme is picked up by Matariki Whatarau (Ngati Kahungunu, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Whanaunga), who joked when I met him that "when I was born, they decided to have a festival for me".


"The game has changed," he says. "As a nation we have got very complacent. People get their voice heard on their phone or computer, but they are not very active. We are missing that.

"So we are taking a leaf out of the cabaret of early times, where they used music to get an audience into the clubs but then hit them with some messages. It's not a mission; we're not going to sting you with a message. But if we can get an audience, we have the power to say some stuff and we have to think about what we are going to say."

Francis Kora (Tuhoe) adds - rather superfluously to anyone who has seen them sing - that it's not too heavy.

"Anything we are saying we are saying with humour. Maori humour is the most welcoming kind. It's classy - like fried bread with golden syrup."

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