It’s been a busy 2017 for Upper Hutt native Maaka Fiso. Named the best male solo artist at the 2016 Waiata Maori Music Awards he released two EPs, ‘Written In The Stars’ and ‘Moeke’, in June and July this year – through Waatea Music. A natural performer with a smooth, soulful voice, his brand of slick pop and soul landed him a top spot in the line up of Christmas in the Park, ending the year on a high. Silke Hartung talked with him.
Imposingly tall but friendly, warm and giggly, Maaka Fiso is bi-lingual with te reo Maori as his first language – as reflected in ‘Moeke’, the second of his two 2017 EP releases.
“I come from a long line of Māori teachers, and I remember that my mum was always saying that the best way to teach Māori is to teach it through song, which is probably true of most languages.”
Still, having two languages at his disposal didn’t mean writing for the twin EPs was without challenge.
“A friend of mine who is sort of my advisor for the te reo stuff, he was trying to push me to write more in the way of whakatauki, proverbs, and there’s a real art to that, for the reason that it’s quite poetic. You give me a sentence in English and I can translate it nicely, but it’s a bit different if you want to be quite specific on how you write,” he explains.
“Writing in te reo is more personal to me than English. That maybe has something to do with the language itself – three Māori words in a sentence is 10 words in English! English isn’t limited, but it made me appreciate how specific te reo Māori is, and also that it is an entirely different ballpark to write in.”
The release of two EPs rather than one album was deliberate, mostly to target different markets he explains.
“I’ve got my English stuff which is sort of aiming at a more commercial market, and I’ve got this Māori stuff on the other side which is more targeted at iwi radio, or a more wider audience. And if you like both, there’s no problem with that!”
Exposed to music, including a lot of kapa haka, while growing up, he says that he tried to imitate singers he liked. He turned towards music as profession right after finishing high school, studying music at Whitireia.
Maaka was 26 back in 2013 when he successfully auditioned for the first season of the NZ version of X-Factor, getting as far as the last seven.
“I count my blessings on that show! I had someone whose only job it was to tie my shoelaces, my own driver, my own this, my own that! It was a surreal experience. I lapped it up, anyone would. I lived at a hotel for three months with the rest of the contestants. Bit of mischief… ” he adds with a giggle. “I’m so thankful for the experience!”
He jokes that the Kiwi tall poppy syndrome is something that he only encounters with his family, but there’s the occasional troll online as well, and the generally happy smiley Maaka turns serious over the subject.
“You’ve never met me, all you’ve ever seen is a bit of footage on TV!”
Through fellow musician Stan Walker he met Brittany Cairns from The Voice Australia, who gave him some sage advice on the subject.
“She said, ‘The worst thing you can do after a TV show when you chill at home is to go online to look at blogs.’ Especially of those haters, you just have to brush it off. I can really understand how people can take it right to heart and it destroys them. It’s sad. It’s unkind and it’s mean.”
Overall Maaka recalls his X-Factor experience as a very positive one, resulting in a record deal with Sony Music NZ and tours with the likes of Aaradhna, Stan Walker and Sammy J. He didn’t get to release any music under the Sony banner, but expresses no ill will.
“I take my hat off to Sony. You hear stories – this was done wrong, that was done wrong – in my own experience I think everything they do is just done like a well-oiled machine. It just chugs along, and they all have a job to do that they do well.”
Now on the Waatea Music roster, Maaka is one of the relatively few artists who can who can compare being signed to a major label to being signed by an indie one. So what’s the difference for a working musician? “Funding!” he laughs.