Classical musician Tama Waipara became a singer-songwriter after a freak accident while studying in New York. The former Auckland Arts Festival programme manager launches the first Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival next month.
1 Why have you gone to Gisborne to direct the inaugural Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival?
My Dad's from the East Coast, so a big part of taking the job was the allure of home and wanting to deepen that connection to whānau, hapū, iwi. Learning who our people are day to day rather than from a distance. Being around four of my Dad's sisters has been cool.
2 Will you bring the festival to Auckland?
No, the goal of the festival is to tell the stories of the place itself. Some parts could travel but as a whole it's defined by being there. People who come should gain a sense of the flavour of the place. We've had a lot of interest already. Sometimes people just need an excuse. It's such a beautiful place. You're not just coming to Gisborne, you're coming to the whole East Coast, from Raukokore to Manutuke.
3 What will be the festival's opening event?
A free performance and food event, Māui Pūtahi. In the opening weekend we premiere a play written and directed by Nancy Brunning based on the wāhine Māori characters in Witi Ihimaera's writing. Female characters are often placed in secondary roles to males, but anyone who grew up in Te Tairāwhiti will tell you the women of our area don't play second fiddle to anybody. Many of Witi's characters are based on real people so it's also about honouring the Nanny Miros and the Maaka tiko bums we all know and love.
4 What is your connection to Nancy?
Nan has been a friend since I first saw her perform in Hone Kouka's work Waiora. That trilogy had a profound influence on me. It talked about things I hadn't seen before like the movement of Māori into the cities. That era of Māori theatre was life changing for many of us.
5 Growing up in Ōpōtiki, what made you take up the clarinet?
Both my parents are school teachers and mum's a classical flautist. I started on the recorder like everyone else and when I was 8 they suggested I try clarinet. A lot of the support for my career came from that little town. People used to stop me on the street all the time and say, "How's the flute going?" meaning the clarinet. Just the fact they gave a stuff was remarkable. People often don't see that power of community you get in small towns.
6 Could you see a career in classical music from Ōpōtiki?
I was the only one studying music in sixth form, so I travelled to Whakatāne High School which had a whole music class, orchestra, jazz band and a real culture of achievement for Māori. The music teacher Tom Bayliss was a force of nature. So many musos came through that school; the Kora brothers, Emma Paki, Wairere Iti, Merenia Gillies. Good music teachers are special people, they sustain the well-being of students who might not otherwise be seen.
7 Did you enjoy doing your honours degree in clarinet at the University of Auckland?
Institutionalised learning can be tough. I came from a more communal-based practice into this old school, Eurocentric, conservatoire-based process. It was quite racist. There were constant references to my background as a point of definition. People told me I didn't "look like" a clarinetist. Language was laced with racism in nuanced and discrete ways, but it was still very clearly that.
8 Did you also encounter racism doing your masters at New York's Manhattan School of Music?
No, it was really diverse. Nearly half the students were international so it was "guess the ethnicity". A weird anonymity came from that. In my end of year recital I did a theatrical rendering of the legend of Maui fishing up the North Island with music. The teachers were completely open to that, unlike in Auckland.
9 How did a head injury change your life?
A fuse box fell on my head in a freak accident during my second year. I had seizures and post-traumatic migraines which were exacerbated by sensitivity to light and sound, so I had to stop playing the clarinet. That's when I started singing. I auditioned for the jazz choir and got in. I loved it. After a nine-month break, I was able to go back to clarinet and finish my Master's, but that experience had unlocked something. I joined a band, started playing gigs and ended up signed to a record company.
10 How would you describe your music?
My first album was very much designed by the record company. They wanted my artist name to be just Tama, but Waipara has a significant kōrero behind it and I carry our name with pride. It remembers a specific moment in our history when a group of my ancestors gathered up and washed the bones of those who had been massacred. I realised I had aspirations to tell my own stories so that's how I became a songwriter. Fill Up The Silence, which won best roots album at the NZ Music Awards, most truthfully represents my sound. It borrows from classical music but it's also built from the back blocks of the coast. It's an eclectic mish-mash of te reo Maori, Pacific drums, RnB, soul, jazz and folk.
11 Who are your musical inspirations?
Nina Simone; not necessarily the prettiest of sounds but a compelling and powerful storyteller. Kate Bush; that's a nostalgic love. Growing up there was lots of Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. Stevie Wonder came much later for me. Rufus Wainwright was a big influence in New York. Hirini Melbourne is still a huge influence. I love the variation in music. You can have an emotional response to anything if you go into it with an open mind. You don't have to understand the vocabulary of the genre. Maybe I draw the line at thrash metal.
12 How did you become an arts festival director?
Producing your own music, you have to learn the admin side of the business. I programmed around 100 bands to play on the waterfront for the Rugby World Cup, then worked on the Māori Pacific programme for the Auckland Arts Festival where I became programme manager. I still love writing music but there's a real joy in being able to advocate for other artists.
• The Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival runs from October 2 to 20. For more, go to tetairawhitiartsfestival.nz