Descended from Kāi Tahu, Ariana Tikao firmly embraces her Māori ancestry through her music, weaving the instrumentation and stories of the past with the present. Her latest single Kōtuku is a Te Reo Māori version of the previously released Fly You Home. Kat Parsons chatted with her about both versions, the importance of cultural mentoring, and how the colour orange is a lie. Made with the support of the Waiata Takitahi initiative, NZ On Air Music and Te Māngai Pāho.
It has been almost three decades since Ariana Tikao stepped into Aotearoa’s music scene with her duo Pounamu. Over that time she has established herself as a compelling and diverse artist; a musician and composer skilled in the art of ngā taonga pūoro.
“It’s something that comes naturally to me and I’ve developed my sense of identity through my music,” smiles the Wellington-based artist as she explains her love of music. “It’s just a big part of who I am. It’s always developing and so that’s why I keep doing what I do. I’m in my early 50s now and my children have grown up, so I feel like I’m in a new phase of life and sort of looking forward to the next generation. I don’t have grandchildren yet, but that’s kind of what I have in my mind now – how to prepare for the next generation and to support those who are to come!”
Tikao has had a truly remarkable career. Since announcing herself with Pounamu, back in 1993, she has released three solo albums; ‘Whaea’ (2002), ‘Tuia’ (2007), ‘From Dust to Light’ (2012); collaborated with Alistair Fraser on his 2012 album ‘Nau Mai e Kā Hua’ and co-composed Ko Te Tātai Whetū for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in 2015, the CSO’s first concerto comprised of taonga pūoro. In 2020 she was named as an Arts Laureate by the Arts Foundation of NZ. Alongside those and numerous other accolades, one of her fondest memories is humble by comparison.
“I was first starting out with my group Pounamu, back in the ’90s. My friend who I performed with, Jacquie [Hanham] and I used to do a lot of house concerts. One that stood out was over on the west coast of the South Island, around Fox River, just near Punakaiki. Basically, the whole community came out to this house and we had a nice dinner afterwards. We just performed acoustically in the lounge and probably only 20 to 30 people were there, but it was quite magical.
“Afterwards, we were sharing kai and some local Māori women had been to the Arahura River that day or that weekend, they gave us a little pounamu stone that kind of fit into the palm of our hand, and that was their koha to us. That still really sticks in my memory as a really rewarding thing to do. I’ve performed, you know, on big stages and festivals and events and things, but that really intimate experience still stands out to me.”
Recording and performing in both Te Reo Māori and English has allowed Tikao to reach different audiences and platforms, whilst helping to educate and mentor younger generations in their cultural heritage.
Fly You Home and Kōtuku encompass the themes of connection across the oceans. Exquisitely threaded together, the lyrical content softly touches on the troubles of the world, while reminding us to seek out those we love, and stand in solidarity with them no matter how far away they are. She received translation and Te Reo support from Ross Calman.
“The song started being written in the first lockdown in 2020,” Tikao explains. “Brooke Singer produced it with Ben Lemi [both French For Rabbits]. She’s a friend of mine and I signed up for a songwriting course that she was doing for a local arts centre in Wellington, which ended up being an online course over about a month of Sundays. I decided that it would be quite a nice challenge to go and broaden my perspective on things, even though music and songwriting are something I do often. Brooke did this amazing course that allowed us to analyse various songs and then start working on our own stuff.
“Around that time, I had this dream,” she continues. “There was a radio playing the song in my dream and when I woke up I recorded on my phone what I could remember from it. It was the time when Trump was still in power, so part of the initial lyrics were related to him,” Tikao chuckles. “They didn’t end up in the final song. There’s a lot of craziness going on internationally, so it made sense to make it more general.”
Around that time a friend in the States posted on Facebook that she had a back problem and was lying prone, a message that held Tikao’s attention.
“She became the major theme of the songs. The songs are a bridge across the waters to reach Dovie, and she kind of represents indigenous communities in other places as well.
“I met Dovie years ago at an indigenous conference in Canada, and she’s a well-known storyteller. She’s come and stayed with me here. I didn’t know if the song was going to ever be recorded properly so I sent her a draft of it at one point because I wanted her to know that I’d written this thing for her.”
The lyrical line, ‘There’s no orange, only red with gold, We become the tales we’re told,’ came courtesy of a friend who posted online that his grandchild thought adults were trying to con him, saying something like, ‘There is no orange, there’s only red and gold together’.
“That sort of relates to Dovie being a storyteller, but also how we’re given stories, and sometimes if we believe those stories we kind of become that. In Māori, I changed it slightly. There is this special colour, which is like a word for burnt orange, pākākā. It was quite interesting for me to find another word for that specific type of orange. Kind of like the underneath of a kāka wing, just that dark orange colour.”
She attributes the idea of doing a full reo version of Fly You Home to her partner who is a translator.
“It seemed relatively easy to do in terms of resources and stuff. One reason was for the Māori stations who sometimes just play Māori music – just to give them something that they can play on those shows.”
Both singles were co-produced by French For Rabbits’ artists Singer and Lemi, Tikao’s warm, expressive vocals and traditional instrumentation supported by their addition of keys, drums, bass, and guitars. Singer also lent her voice with backing vocals.
“I started initially working with Brooke on it,” says the artist. “Brooke works a lot with me, and she suggested bringing Ben in as well. It was great that we ended up getting funding because it just allowed me to be able to pay them properly for the work that they did. I discovered the music of Big Thief, an American band, and they were initially a reference point for the sound world that we were going with. That sound is quite different from what I usually do these days.”
Tikao expresses the importance of cultural representation through taonga pūoro. The rare and unique ability to play these instruments of her ancestors pays homage to the past, plus it’s something she wants to help instil in the coming generations. Traditionally, she says, they were used in a spiritual sense, to connect with the environment and different environmental entities or atua.
“I’m excited to support the growth of knowledge and that area, particularly within Māori communities, to bring them back into kind of family and personal situations.
“It’s connecting with elements I suppose and I think people respond to their sounds in quite a deep way. I played various flute sounds. I think I’ve got a pūtōrino on there, which is a little wooden flute, and I’ve got whalebone percussion instruments as well. I think working with taonga pūoro, the main instruments I play, it’s important for me to be able to have that kind of input into the waiatas.
“There are now more people in the younger generation coming through who have been showing an interest in taonga pūoro, and I’m keen to support that. Mentor and encourage people to play them not only in the musical context but also the well-being, the ritual and sort of cultural ceremonies. It’s quite a big focus on what I’m doing now, this year, and what I would like to do more in the future.”
The music video that accompanies both versions of the song was directed and animated by Jacob Perkins of Rdysty, and illustrated by Emma Riha Kitson. Like a beautiful and colourful picture book, we follow the journey of a kōtuku, or white heron, as she flies across land and sea. The abstract animation captivates, bringing elements of childlike wonder to the listening experience.
“Within Te Ao Māori manu, or birds, are really significant metaphors or symbols. Culturally they can bring us messages and also, because they fly they can bridge different realms within the culture. The kōtuku is kind of symbolic of an important visitor that you don’t see very often. I think in Jacob’s family, one of his parents was an ornithologist, or studied birds. So I think it was cool for him to be able to work with the theme. I think he was super into the kaupapa of it,” she laughs.
Her ‘lying prone’ US friend Dovie ended up being a part of the song’s video-making process as well. Perkins reached out and she sent him some landscape images which were included into the collaborative process.
“Initially, I didn’t know that it was gonna be fully animated but it just worked out that way, and I was really happy with the result,” Tikao gushes. “I suppose it’s quite otherworldly, not having real people in it, and the birds take over in terms of the theme. I loved all the colours and Emma’s artwork as well.”
Tikao is consistent in expressing gratitude to those who have helped her throughout her vibrant career.
“The music community and all of the people around me that I work with and support what I do. That’s the major thing for me because I don’t really work alone that much. I need that community for support, to work with, and get inspiration from as well.”