Moana has a pretty high profile, for someone who’s about to release her first album (mid-July 1993). She says it’s on account of her numerous singles (she’s lost count how many there’ve been since her first in 1982). There was also her stint on TV3’s ill-fated Yahoo!, and her much-publicised association with the Neville Brothers. She has, in fact, joined the ranks of the vaguely famous, as NZM’s Alice Refiti-Shopland reports.
“Not because I’m really vain and think I’m like Madonna, or Cher – it’s because no-one can ever be bothered spelling or pronouncing my entire name properly.”
A compromise, then – apparently one of the few made by this articulate and forthright (but diplomatic) woman with strong political views. The album, ‘Tahi’, began in 1989, when Moana and the Moahunters first got together and saw that people liked what the band did. Four songs were recorded at Mandrill, and two of them were released under WEA as a cassingle.
At the time the track Black Pearl (done as a Maori women’s anthem for 1990), was being put together they moved from WEA to Southside/Festival. Black Pearl was released as a single, went gold and peaked at number two on the charts – notably without commercial airplay in Auckland or Wellington.
“We weren’t quite happy with the situation with WEA,” she says tactfully.
It’s obvious there’s a lot more that could be said on this subject, and it seems she must have learned some hard lessons in the last few years about how much to say to ‘the press’.
Moana met her Moahunters in 1989 when she and about 75 others toured four North Island marae. Moana’s husband and manager, Willie Jackson, coordinated the tour. “There were bands like Herbs, Upper Hutt Posse, Aotearoa (which I was in), Billy TK, and soloists like Josie Rika and Bunny Walters. At each marae venue, we would have a 12-hour concert and they’d get bands from that area to play support.”
Moana was performing solo, but she got some other musicians around her, including Mina Ripia, who was a dancer with Billy TK’s band. (Teremoana Rapley, who was rapping with Upper Hutt Posse on that tour, joined Moana and Mina later. She was voted most promising female vocalist at the NZ Music Awards in 1991.)
“For some strange reason, people really liked us, although it was very ad hoc. We were the liveliest group there – the crowd really hooked into us, and we thought, ‘this might be a good formula!'”
The album’s title track, Tahi, was a six-month endeavour and appears both as a dance track and a roots track.
“I worked on that with Angus McNaughton, who’s the young gun at Incubator Studios. I wanted to experiment with pre-European instrumentation. A friend of mine – who used to lecture me at Waikato University, and is probably the leading exponent of pre-European instrumentation in this country – sent us tracks of kowauwau, poiapiopio, purerehua. I don’t think they have English names, and I don’t even know what they look like, because I’ve only heard them!
“Angus and I are sitting in the studio, and we can hear these circling, hypnotic things. We’re sitting there hanging out for a visual to attach it to. These sounds are real primal, earthy and evocative – they were used for karakia and chanting, to psych yourself up for something really special. They’re spooky in a good way, in a way that really opens up your senses.”
The ‘roots’ version has only one Western instrument in it – a keyboard – “…to hold it together”, because such Maori instruments are percussive rather than melodic. Poi, ‘played’ by school children and sampled by McNaughton, were used instead of drums.
“The sound patterns they make are really interesting to work with. Some of the poi sounded as big as boulders; others were just a soft flutter.”
And instead of Maori language used in a Western style, Tahi has a chant, with a melodic chorus.
“I wanted to use tauparapara, which is a spiritual chant you hear at the start of a whaikorero, when a speaker comes on the marae and they do this to set the scene thing. I got Ruia Aperahama from Southside of Bombay to do that – instead of a little rap interlude – and it worked out really well.”
Halfway through that, the team decided to try mixing the same sounds into a dance track. They added a bit of English, by translating the spirit of the chant. And they’re so pleased with the result of the experiment, that it’ll probably be the single off the album.
“It was a lot of fun, but a huge amount of work! We had to choose from 140 samples. We had poi and stamps and claps coming out our ears. Sometimes I’d think, ‘We’re never going to wade through’ – but Angus is great, very talented.”
The most relaxed recording session was the dance/rock number I’ll Be The One, with Andrew Fagan – which Moana found a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
“I’d seen Andrew on TV a long time ago and just thought he looked strange. When I met him I noticed he talked like a human being! He’s really bright and intelligent and a very good singer. He saw one of our performances and asked if I’d like to do a song with him.
“I don’t enjoy recording, I get uptight about it and I can’t sleep. Then I worry that I’ve got to sleep or my voice’ll be shot! I also get very shy working with new people. But Andrew was just such a nutcase in the studio that it was fun. It was also more of a challenge because I hadn’t recorded a rock song before.”
Back Where We Belong was another recording highlight.
“Russell Muhammad, who’s a minister for the Nation of Islam (a minister of the Detroit mosque) came to New Zealand in 1990, and said, ‘We’ve got to do a song together’. He thought of the chorus line, about indigenous people getting together, and told me to get a recording studio.
“He was so enthusiastic, he’s a very charismatic person and a great singer. For some weird reason I didn’t know you could get studios for less than the cost of the A studio at Mandrill – so I booked that studio and we went in there with only a chorus and a verse ready, and started writing this song as we were going along – which was absolutely mad!
“I started singing in Māori in a soul fashion and he came in and said, ‘No, they can do that in the States – try and find something from your culture that’s distinctive.’ So I started experimenting with karanga and he said, ‘0ooh, it’s spooky, yes, yes, makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck!’
“That was a really exciting experiment, just the vocals and the grand piano, and the engineer got all caught up in the fervour too, and he waived all his charges. But the end result, after about eight hours, was this song went for 71/2 minutes – we had to chop out the middle!”
Talking about making the album, Moana constantly points out how great the producers were to work with.
“I say this because I’ve had a couple of horrible experiences which could have put me off for life – producers who’ve called me a raging feminist (I only said I didn’t like a certain sound), and another guy who was really unenthusiastic about Maori things. He said, ‘You don’t have to have all that Maori stuff’.
“After them, it was a joy to get these other guys who were saying, ‘I’d really like to have a go at that!’.”
Angus McNaughton and Mark Tierney were the only problems Moana had while recording the album.
“Only because they were working with about a million other people. Mark was working on the JPSE album and it was a major nightmare trying to tie him down.” Sensual was written with, and produced by Mark Tierney.
“We were both listening to Miles Davis’ be-bop tape, and Ronnie Jordan, and we thought [her voice switching from authoritative to wide-eyed naïve] we wouldn’t mind doing something like that! So we did a jazzy kind of dance track, with JD playing a cool guitar, and Greg Johnson doing a bit of muted Miles Davis trumpet solo.”
Moana co-wrote eight of the 14 tracks on ‘Tahi’, but admits she doesn’t feel confident about her writing.
“For Peace, Love And Family, Mark came up with that particular line, and the dance beat. There were these huge gaps, and he told me to write a song around that line as a theme and to think of the vocal melody. I was stressing out! I’d come back and sing it and he’d like some parts and tell me to try again on other parts.”
After the album, of course, comes the first single from the album. Choosing the songs for this is a difficult enough task for any band, but when you’re using a lot of Māori language, and you’d really like mainstream airplay… Moana describes the single scenario as an unusual pairing.
“Because of the unusual state of radio at the moment – you know, all this ‘not too heavy, not too soft’. I’d like to release Tahi first, but I just know it’ll only be iwi and student stations that’ll pick up on that. Our track record shows that doesn’t produce as many sales as mainstream radio. It just sucks, but it is a consideration – we all want people to buy the blimmin’ records – that’s the point of it!”
Severely limited commercial airplay is nothing new to Moana. In 1982 she felt the Maori music industry had been dominated by men for too long, so she and a girlfriend put out a traditional Maori song with modern instrumentation.
“It only got played on iwi stations (and there weren’t many of them then!), and a couple of spins on the Tonight Show, for its novelty value. I used to get really hacked off about it – but there’s no use trying to pander to radio, because there’s no predicting it. It sucks that most New Zealand radio programmers don’t have that pioneering spirit.
“A lot of Maori musicians look at us and say, ‘You guys are successful. You’ve got flash videos; recordings coming out your ears; you’ve been to the States…’ They don’t know we had a million meat raffles so we could get over there, and we’re scratching to get airplay for our videos. To succeed in the industry you’ve got to have that little circle behind you – a recording contract, radio support, keep the retail people happy, the live thing happening – all at the same time. The whole plot is to get your music to the people and there are all these things in between. You’ve gotta be working like a little cog.”
After their first intensive national tour – coming up in September, Moana says she wants to explore connections overseas which she and Willie have built up over four years.
“I don’t have any illusions about Jimmy Jam or whatever ringing up immediately, but we met an important contact last year who has contacts with lots of record labels. He was standing at the side of the stage, he said to us, ‘You can sing! Where’d you learn to do all that?’.
“I never thought the States would’ve been a good place for us to go, being funk and soul orientated, because there’s so many of them over there. But, funnily enough, with the added style of Maori music, they really like us – the ‘world music’ kind of buzz. There’s definitely a Pacific feel to what we do here, that was very reaffirming when we went to the States.
“And there isn’t as big a gulf in the standard of musicianship as I imagined. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if we’d be up to scratch, then I thought, ‘Who are you comparing yourself to? You’re playing support to the Neville Brothers! So we went a bit flat there, what am I worried about!’ It confirmed what Willie and I knew — our South Auckland musicians are top players.”
Catch Moana and the Moahunters at the Wellington Women’s Festival on August 8, with Jay Clarkson, Annie Crummer and Charlotte Sometimes.