Wellington-based singer Ariana Tikao has a new album, ‘From Dust To Light’, accompanied by a stunning video for the single, Te Heke. Ariana is a descendant of the South Island iwi of Kai Tahu and themes from her tribal culture and traditions proudly feature in her work. Along with an extraordinary voice and creative dedication, ancestral tradition has been her passport to establishing an international profile.
Besides solo material Ariana has recorded and toured with her bands Pounamu and Emeralds and Greenstone. In 2008 she was awarded the Hineraukatauri Achievement Award. She was also the Te Waka Toi-sponsored, Musician in Residence at the Centre for NZ Studies, at the University of London, 2008.
Ariana Tikao is an artist who should be considered as ‘vital’ to a history and genre that benefits from contemporary rejuvenation. As it notes on the Toi Maori Aotearoa website: ‘Ariana has consistently produced beautiful and moving music that contributes to the growing corpus of contemporary Maori music.’
It’s May 1996. We had just finished recording the ‘Mihi’ album the night before and we were dog-tired. (I think it shows in my far-off gaze!) It was the day after we finished recording the album, an all-nighter I think. We were at the old Bodega. It was in the middle of the day and were sipping on Drambuie as a celebratory drink. Also the sugar content was probably keeping us awake!
The photo was taken by Korene Ford who was James’ girlfriend at the time. We had all travelled from Christchurch to Wellington to record with Robbie Duncan at Braeburn Studios, but our friends holding the sheet were living in Wellington at the time.
Pictured: Duncan Nimmo and Ruth Duncan are holding the sheet behind James Wilkinson, Ariana Tikao and Jacquie Walters from Pounamu.
Jacquie Walters (nee Hanham) and I were the official members of Pounamu and James Wilkinson was an honorary member who produced the album for us in 1996. Jacquie and I met at university in 1992, and we did a one-off gig at a women’s festival. A year later I met Jacquie again at a party and asked her to be a part of a new group, which ended up being Pounamu.
We had an awful first gig, not long after this Jacquie scored us a support slot at the Christchurch Folk Club, supporting… James Wilkinson! This one must have gone better as they asked us back to perform as the main act, and this time James offered to be our support. From there we became good friends, and we loved the work that James did on our ’Mihi’ album. Jacquie moved overseas the day after launching the album, and we havent sung formally together since (apart from our respective weddings). I also worked again with James more recently with the Christchurch-based folk group, Emeralds and Greenstone.
I grew up in a large family (seven kids) and so I was influenced by the music that my older siblings played in the house, and also the disco and pop music that was popular at the time. I have a distinct memory of the Bay City Rollers featuring on the Wombles’ album that used to get a thrashing when I was about four!
I used to take myself off to Sunday School (we weren’t a religious family) but I remember loving the stories and singing. I remember singing songs from Sunday School while standing on a stool with a microphone, and getting teased by my older brothers!
The first album I bought independently was ‘Prayers Be Answered’, by the Dance Exponents. I first started in the music industry with the group Pounamu, but I had really enjoyed being a part of kapa haka groups before then, and while they are not so much a part of the music industry this played a big part in what has influenced me as a songwriter and performer.
We travelled throughout NZ mostly doing independent tours, and mostly the folk circuit and a few house concerts which I loved! The overseas touring was as a part of a Pacific ‘anti-nuclear’ delegation, funded by The Body Shop.
We played mainly at press conferences, the European Parliament in Strasbourg and La Fête d’Humanité just out of Paris. It was a crazy whirlwind of a trip. Jacquie and I were the NZ component and all the other delegates were from other countries in the pacific. The women from the Cook Islands and Tahiti danced while we sang at La Fête d’Humanité which was a unifying experience.
I suppose with my first solo album, ‘Whaea’. This was the first time I was able to put something out into the world that was an expression of myself that was solely in te reo Maori. That was a part of the funding criteria at the time for Te Mangai Paho, so that was how it came to be completely in Maori, as previously I had always worked bilingually.
I was a young mum at the time, and there was a real lack of resources out there about Maori birthing and Maori motherhood, so the album was a response to that need we felt as a whanau. I wrote songs about breastfeeding and the power and mana of it. I wrote a waiata to go with the ceremony to bury our children’s placentae. We had lost our traditional waiata to accompany this ceremony so I wrote one to fulfil the cultural need. My next album ‘Tuia’ was a continuation of this, and I am very proud of what Leyton and I achieved together with that album.
It varies, but because I don’t have musical training I generally write with my voice, and often it starts with the kaupapa or theme. The lyrics are generally quite important. Sometimes I am just out and about and will start singing something and then I keep singing it or I quickly record it onto my phone to capture it, then I keep working on it, adding to it until it is finished. I have also worked songs up in the studio, layer, upon layer. I did this with the ‘Tuia’ album a lot. Also with two more songs I recorded with Leyton for a film soundtrack, I played the taoka puoro and Leyton created some sound beds with the sounds, then I created melodies and lyrics from there.
I especially love telling stories that relate to my own whanau and iwi. I love to revive old korero and breathe life back into them by writing them into new songs, or for lyrics that already existed, to write new tunes for them. That is what gives the music such meaning and people can identify with this. The sources can be talking to people, family manuscripts, books from libraries or archival collections. I also use Maori dictionaries and even wordlists for inspiration.
My great-grandfather was a well-known authority on our culture and old stories (he trained for 10 years as a tohuka) so he is a constant inspiration to me, and I feel quite close to him, even though I once read that he shared the stories with a Pakeha scholar, because his descendants ‘cared not a jot’. I felt quite sad to read that, but also grateful that he found a way to record some of the history for us who do care now.
In terms of the languages, they are definitely two very different mind sets. One is more familiar (after all English is my first language) and in some ways more mundane. But for me, Maori is a language that is less literal, more open (think of the rounded vowels etc.), but also softer and hugely expressive. It is very emotional and spiritual. I love both for different reasons.
My father grew up in a Maori village near Lyttelton, but his parents who could both speak Maori decided not to speak Maori with the children. So I had to go to university to learn to speak. I was lucky that I was able to do that. There is so much culture that is expressed through language. Monolingual people probably don’t realise it.
We are at a really fascinating time in our history as a nation with the settlements of the Treaty claims. Iwi are creating opportunities for cultural revival. We have seen amazing growth in this area in my own iwi. But none of us can afford to be lazy about it.
Well, we spent a lot of time initially just talking about music we loved and artists we loved. Then when we actually got to work on the album proper, the first thing we did was to go into the Hocken Library, register as ‘users’, and then read the notebooks that Herries Beattie wrote during the interviews with my poua, Teone Taare Tikao, for the book Tikao Talks.
Out of this, we wrote down anything that could potentially be interesting kaupapa for waiata. We got at least two new waiata out of that. We built up a trust and Leyton was able to push me as a singer to keep trying new things vocally, when we were adding new parts that would get layered into the track. It was really intense, but really great too! Leyton also challenged me to slow everything down, which was actually really difficult. Of course Richard Nunns playing as well really adds to the mix in terms of the evocative soundscape aspect, and voices of the land.
It is pretty crucial to be honest, because I don’t really play the usual instruments like guitar or keys, so I really do need to collaborate to come up with something listenable! You can only go so far with dulcimer and taoka puoro, But, I do have a future project of doing a show with just taoka puoro and voice, so you never know… but that will involve collaboration too. I have also thought about getting a loop pedal so I can layer in vocals, and taoka puoro sounds live, so watch this space!
In terms of being a solo artist I have just worked it out as I go along. No one else knows what is best for my music, so I have to be quite intuitive. I don’t know anything about theory or Western music rules, so it is very much running by instinct. I find it pretty rewarding to have creative control, but also to have the chance to work and collaborate with some wonderful people. It can be exhausting too though, when there is no one else to ‘push the barrel’, so to speak.
A lot of things (in life) happen through building up good solid relationships with people over time. I think that is a good piece of advice to any young musicians to be honest and act with integrity and you will earn respect from people and good things will come back to you.
My relation, Irihapeti Ramsden, told me to do what I wanted to do, to not pander to expectations to be a certain way. In particular she was talking about Maori allowing ourselves to be ourselves based on our own experience. There is a tendency to romanticise or to try and be more ‘authentic’, but for me, I am of mixed pakeha/Kai Tahu heritage, who grew up in Christchurch. This is my reality and I try to express that authentic voice in my music. Not someone else’s idea of what is tuturu Maori.
One thing is learning to say ‘no’ sometimes. It is difficult when everyone wants you support their kaupapa. I think it is fine to do fundraisers sometimes, but you can’t always say ‘yes‘ to everything. Even if they are paying good money or creating a good opportunity, there is still the need to be selective, otherwise you will burn out! Sometimes I have to think of myself, my health and/or my family and prioritise us above the music.