Ka Hao is a 24-member youth choir drawn from all around the Te Tairāwhiti, Gisborne area. The group have been enjoying an unexpected ride to local and international acclaim recently with their catchy debut single, 35, a dedication to the region they’re all from. Along with the TikTok-embraced anthem, Ka Hao have this year released a debut album titled ‘Ka Hao: One Tira, One Voice’. Members Ruawhaitiri Ngatai-Mahue and Kaea Hills, part of the roopu Ranga-Tira (a smaller group that guides the wider choir), discussed the Ka Hao journey with Ella Karalus-Glannaz.
It all started with an idea of Te Pihopa o Aotearoa, Archbishop Donald Tamihere,” explains Rua Ngatai-Mahue.
“He had this idea about how do we get more people, more rangatahi into the church, and one thing they sort of deduced was, ‘Oh, they love to sing, they love kapa haka, they love entertaining, they love performing. So why don’t we create a rangatahi youth choir?’ So with that in mind they approached Rob and Cilla [Ruha]. So it sort of started from there and then it flourished into this big thing we have now.
“One of the first kaupapa was getting our creative team together and then doing a tour for the 2019 Tairāwhiti Arts Festival, and that was our first sort of breakout role into the whole scene.”
The name Ka Hao comes from a proverb that talks about youth growing up and entering adulthood and the responsibilities of that transition.
“Most of us in this choir grew up doing kapa haka, we grew up around that, the performance side of stuff. When the creative team was chosen it was taken into account who has this particular set of skills to be able to contribute to the kaupapa.
“Off the back of the tour, the idea came that we should put an album together and so we’ve been in retreats doing songwriting wānanga. That’s how we sort of formulated the album, what we wanted to sing, how we were gonna sing about those things and what difference we were gonna make on the music scene.”
“One of our songs is just blowing up everywhere, and that’s something we didn’t expect. We thought it was just gonna be, you know, a 24-rangatahi choir doing a tour around the East Coast, stop at that!”
He’s talking about 35, a song featuring the smooth lead vocals of Rob Ruha that’s an ode to the winding highway that runs along Te Ika-a-Māui’s east coast. Released September 3, it became an international TikTok sensation within weeks and has taken the choir to the top of our local singles charts. Rua admits some were quietly hopeful but had no idea Ka Hao would become what it has.
“We knew that there’s potential there, but we didn’t know that it was gonna go as big as it has been. We were aiming for the moon but we knew if we missed the moon we’d land somewhere in the stars. I think we hit the moon, rebounded off the moon and hit a few more stars!” says Rua with a deserved grin.
East-coast-based Rob Ruha who has become a familiar face as an acclaimed Māori music artist has served as a mentor to Ka Hao, along with his wife Cilla.
“He’s all of our uncles, like, for reals,” Kaea Hills explains. “And so when we started with uncle Rob, he was first our kapa haka teacher at school, and then when we left school he asked us to be in this choir. We all have a close relationship with uncle, he’s like us aye!”
“We have our own sort of personal connection with him but he’s like our whacky cousin, we forget he’s even our uncle because that’s how crack-up he is. He’s like another mate that you drag along, you know?”
Ka Hao wrote their debut album through collaboration, working strongly as a team.
“We all had a little bit of experience writing by ourselves, but I guess we had heaps of help, every wānanga we brought some key people in that we wanted to be there that could maybe spark up our ideas and make our writing go further.
“But that was for some songs, some songs we just fully wrote on our own,” says Kaea, continuing on to describe some of the source of their inspiration. “I reckon Māori people come from a long line of storytellers. It was kind of a natural way, like listening to our nannys’ songs, Ngoi Pewhairangi and what their songs are like, you know? Simplest Māori but just in a beautiful way, so we all just wanted to be up on their level really.”
Their introductory album ‘Ka Hao: One Tira, One Voice’ includes seven waiata, each featuring its own intricate and soulful harmonic vocal layers. Closer To You, with its impressive and uplifting build of vocals in the chorus is a likely crowd favourite, while Tonight provides an example of the skills the choir have harnessed, layering their voices together seamlessly.
Leadership within the group happens naturally, with older members slowly taking on more responsibility.
“Well, when we started Ka Hao we were always a bit on the tuakana side, the leading side, so it was an easy transition,” says Kaea.
Rua expresses his own admiration for Kaea’s enthusiasm to teach others.
“It’s amazing to watch because he knows what he wants to do and how to do it. I’m also a kapa haka tutor and, you know, a kapa haka enthusiast, so it was just about preparing yourself for that transition, for that jump into doing everything else and just being a bit confident with what we were doing.”
“When you go up you gotta really put yourself in a leader’s mindset,” Kaea emphasises. “You can’t be half-pie, you gotta know what you’re teaching otherwise you’ll go over the song again and you’re like, “Oh, I forgot to teach that bit!”.
“It was a cool transition for the choir to see too, because they could be the leaders next.”
It was a similar process in the recording, Rua explains.
“Instead of Rob being pulled into the recording booth to check stuff it was like Kaea, myself, a lot of us older ones being pulled to consult the sound engineers and all that. So we just thought, ‘We have to be confident with this, we have to not show that we don’t know what we’re doing.’”
“Sometimes we were just chucked straight in the front!” laughs Kaea.
Released at the beginning of September, their very first single, 35, soon nestled among the top five of the NZ Top 40 Singles Chart, before soaring in popularity to claim the #1 spot in November, having blown up on TikTok.
Asked about the origins of their hit, Kaea references Kalega, one of Rob Ruha’s biggest tracks.
“We wanted it to be an anthem for all of us on the coast, another one like Kalega but for State Highway 35.”
“You wouldn’t exactly think it’s a choir song, aye? It’s like the magic of everything and how we pulled it all together sort of made it,” Rua points out, before delving into the impact the song has had on TikTok.
“It’s amazing when you see those tiktoks and you see those Americans pronouncing our places, our Māori words, our hometown! It was magic and it still boggles my mind, every time I go on TikTok it’s the first thing I hear.
“We haven’t seen any sort of Māori rangatahi choir like this before, so doing what we’re doing made a lot of people proud, it made us proud, and we were happy to finally release everything. It’s still quite surreal now, seeing our songs out there, listening to our songs playing on the radio, it’s still magic!”
The entertaining video to 35, creatively made by Ka Hao in collaboration with music video producer Abe Mora, shows the choir watching their own adventures along the coast, and has itself already amassed well over 1.6 million views on Youtube.
“All the ideas sort of came from us, but Abe is the one that sews it all together and makes it a bit more like, ‘Oh that’s exactly what I was seeing in my head!’ sort of thing,” Rua explains.
“We really just told him, ‘Yeah nah, we want it like this,’ and he brought our ideas to life with his ideas to contribute. It was a mean experience,” adds Kaea happily.
Some may already be familiar with the TV show which follows their journey as Ka Hao and can be found on the Te Amokura Productions website, as well as Ka Hao’s Youtube channel. The relaxed vlog-style series brings the viewer into their environment. As described it’s ‘a series about rangatahi, for rangatahi, by rangatahi’.
Kaea delves into the creation of the series.
“I think it was a collective idea. I definitely was keen to make a show out of what we were doing. The thing with our show is that it’s all whanau recording us, so it’s so natural to us.”
“It was good to document the beginnings, the toil, the blood sweat and tears everyone went through. Because we all have our own personal journeys, and just to see it brought to life a bit more so people can get to know us, who we are, get to know what Highway 35 is. We thought it would be appropriate because not often do we see a 24-rangatahi choir doing what we’re doing, so the best way to make an impact on the world is to sort of document what we’re doing,” explains Rua.
Closing our interview, the pair want to be sure to express thanks to everyone for the backing Ka Hao have received so far. Kaea begins.
“The support we had over that whole time, we couldn’t have done it without our tamariki or our rangatahi’s parents and uncle Rob and aunty Cilla, their connections are so…”
“Valuable,” says Rua, taking over Kaea’s sentence. “Valuable for us because it sorta sets us up for the future, and because we’re only young we’ve got our whole lives ahead of us. So, if this is what we can do when we’re young, I can’t imagine what we’re able to do as our lives go on! So yeah, I think we have bright futures ahead of us, especially trying to crack the music industry.