Gisborne based musician Rob Ruha has been named as one of five Laureate Award recipients in this year’s Arts Foundation Awards.
He says when he got the call, he thought it was a joke: "Honestly, I thought it was a prank call. Especially when they said there was money attached to [it]. I was going, 'What?' and then I just said, 'Who is this?!"
Ruha's uncle Derek Lardelli – regarded as one of Aotearoa New Zealand's finest tā moko artists, was awarded an Arts Laureate in 2004. Ruha says he's humbled to be given the same award.
"He's such a powerful figure here on the East Coast ... He is definitely one of those iconic people that stand out in my mind as being the pinnacle of what you can achieve as an artist."
"Being named as a Laureate, which is the same award Uncle Derek got, it was like, 'Are you for real? Do you really want to give me this award?!' But it's super humbling and overwhelming I guess."
Ruha comes from a strong whanau tradition of performance and composition: "I remember going to the marae and [people] saying, 'Oh this is your nanny's song,' or "This is your koro's song, and man they were fantastic composers."
His great-grandparents lived around the time of famous composer Tuini Ngawai and Apirana Ngata, and composed with them and for them.
He said knowing this highlighted the 'huge responsibility' to continue that tradition. "It's a family tradition to write Māori poetry, to entertain, and to release works into the world."
Each Arts Laureate recipient receives $50,000 to be used in any way they choose. Past winners include Taika Waititi, Chris Knox, Moana Maniapoto, Eleanor Catton and Jane Campion.
And there’s more mahi to come - he’s also releasing his second album Survivance on November 30th, with the first single ‘Kalega’ out today.
The multi award-winning singer/songwriter describes his own music as ‘Haka Soul’. His gutsy and agile voice is often heard over evocative soundscapes.
Coming from a ‘kapa haka mad’ and very musical whānau, he’s been performing since he was four years old. He’s a seasoned kapa haka competitor, mentor and songwriter with Te Whānau-a-Apanui, and is a judge for Te Matatini (the national Māori Performing arts festival).
It wasn’t until around 2014, encouraged by his whanaunga - Ria Hall and Maisey Rika, that Ruha made the move to solo performance.
"They dragged me – actually ... onto that solo performance stage, basically saying ... there's enough aroha for everyone's waiata, meaning ... you can write, you can sing, you can perform whatever you want, as long as it comes from your heart, and it's going to the hearts of others."
He says that statement was what sealed the deal for him.
Later in 2014 he picked up the prestigious Maioha award at the Silver Scrolls for his song ‘Tiki Tapu’, and cleaned up at the Waiata Māori music awards.
He also credits his wife Cilla Ruha: "She got behind me completely, as my manager ... she lined up all the ducks to make sure it happened. So because of their collective efforts [Cilla's, Maisey's and Ria's] ... I now have this amazing Laureate Award coming to be part of my family."
As a storyteller songwriter, he has related tales of Aotearoa’s brutal history, tackled issues like the homogenisation of te reo Māori, and expressed political messages with a uniquely Māori worldview.
Ruha was vocal when the Government announced plans for oil exploration off the East Coast.
"When Gerry Brownlee announced that the National Government would be punching holes into our seabeds off Te Whānau-ā-Apanui ... it was my responsibility as a composer, as an artist to voice the opinions and the position of my people."
"[We wanted to] have collaborative talks, to talk about how we wean ourselves off oil-dependence, for the sake of future generations – not just Māori generations, but New Zealand generations, so that we can create a beautiful country for them to inherit.
"Not [the] broken wrecked one that they were proposing through their reckless blinkin' policy."
This kaupapa is what Ruha's song 'Ponga ra' is about:
Other 2017 Arts Laureate Award recipients include filmmaker Nikki Caro, actor, writer, comedian and musician Jemaine Clement, Choreographer Ross McCormack and Printmaker Robin White.