9 Mar 2017

Revolutionaries of song

From RNZ Music
L-R Jon Toogood,Rob Ruha, Warren Maxwell, Moana Maniapoto

L-R Jon Toogood,Rob Ruha, Warren Maxwell, Moana Maniapoto Photo: Photo - Alex Behan

Does music have the potential to start a revolution? The powerhouse quartet of Moana Maniapoto, Rob Ruha, Warren Maxwell and Shihad’s Jon Toogood think it can at least contribute. They’ll be taking the stage together for the Auckland Arts festival show Revolutions playing their most politically loaded songs alongside some carefully chosen covers.

The kaupapa came from Auckland Arts festival’s creative and musical director’s Carla Von Zon and Tama Waipara, and they’ve selected the group of musicians carefully. 

Moana Maniapoto made her name with songs that had powerful political and social messages, such as A E I O U, written as a challenge to incorrect pronunciation of te reo Māori. “I have been inspired by other movements,” says Maniapoto. “Songs like ‘Treaty’ - they were inspired because we hear people, and the revolutions that are going on in our backyards. How can you not be a part of that? Might as well be useful.”

“Politics is plentiful, in terms of creative fodder,” says Maxwell, of Trinity Roots, and Little Bushman fame. “Politics, and love.”

For Toogood, political lyrics come from a need to make sense of the world around him and the injustices he sees, rather than to start a revolution or make other people think. “It helps me feel less confused.”

He’s going to perform an acoustic version of the Shihad song The Great Divide from FVEY. “It’s about that feeling of walking out of my hotel on Hobson Street and seeing this huge queue of people, and realising it was the Auckland City Mission. Same walk, Parnell, people outside cafes, lattes and lamborghinis - two worlds in one city.

"After living in Melbourne for the past decade, it came as a shock. Inequality wasn’t something he saw growing up in Wellington.

“It showed me a lack of imagination in the political leaders, and the limitation of that economic policy that we decided is ‘the one way’ to live our lives. Having these guys accompany me, with that message, when they sing, it’s spine tingling.”     

L-R Rob Ruha, Jon Toogood, Warren Maxwell, Moana Maniapoto.

L-R Rob Ruha, Jon Toogood, Warren Maxwell, Moana Maniapoto. Photo: Photo - Alex Behan

“Some of the messages that we’re presenting have inter- generational significance,” says Ruha.

He’s brought a song to the show called Ma Wai E Tautoko written by Ngati Porou composer Tuini Ngawai in 1950 after the death of Sir Āpirana Ngata.

Ruha says the song is as relevant now as it was then. “It challenges leaders to step up. He [Ngata] was a big man, with big shoes to fill, but we can’t sit around and mope, we’ve got things to do.

“The things that we’re experiencing now, we’re hoping that our mokopuna don’t have to in the future - that’s why we’re writing and presenting these songs.”

Toogood has also chosen a cover for the show, Bob Dylan’s 1963 song Masters Of War.

“When you’re reading the words, you’re just going - that’s totally now.” While Toogood isn’t seeing a proliferation of protest music from the rock world he works in, he’s positive there is change is blowing in the wind.

“We just saw 500,000 people march on Washington. That hasn’t been seen since the Vietnam war. I think it bodes well. I remember when I heard Trump was elected, and my wife said to me ‘this is a good thing.’ And I said ‘what?’ and she said ‘this is a good thing because it’s going to make people get off their arse and do something.’ And I think we’re seeing the beginnings of that now.”

“There’s so much noise,” says Maxwell. “We’re being saturated. With all the fake news, alternative truths, it gets to the point where you just don’t know who to listen to. You become numb to it.” Manipoto joins in: “You give up, and watch the Kardashians. No wonder people watch that stuff. It’s escapism.”

For Maxwell, the last few days of rehearsal have been a remedy for all that noise. “We’ve felt so much community and wairua.” 

“It’s pretty intense” says Maniapoto, “but that’s because we’re stripping the songs right back, learning the meaning behind them.”

Ruha echoes the importance of kōrero to the group. “It’s been awesome learning everyone’s music, but also perspectives on issues that we’re facing, and how their songs are contributing to building a consciousness that hopefully can help steer our people through these issues.

“The role of the poet is to return you to a neutral state where you can rebuild hope, and faith in humanity, and things that are good.” 

Revolutions plays at the Spiegeltent, Festival Garden, Aotea Square 9-10 March, 2017, and RNZ will be recording the show for later enjoyment.