December/January 2015

by Tama Waipara

Rob Ruha: That’s Us

by Tama Waipara

Rob Ruha: That’s Us

Most people around the country will know that Lorde left the 2014 NZ Music Awards with an armful of trophies. With 22 different awards plus performances on the night, plus all those network ‘stars’ to prop, inevitably some awards are missed in the television coverage so… in contrast, most will be unaware that the winner of the Best Māori Album of the Year was a striking, elegant man with moko kanohi, named Rob Ruha. The same Rob Ruha who picked up three wins at the Waiata Māori Music Awards (Best Album, Best Song and Best Male Solo Artist) in September and, even more impressively, was honoured with the APRA Maioha Award, (for excellence in songwriting featuring te reo Māori) at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards held at the end of October. Three major awards nights, and all bases loaded. It’s hard to imagine anyone else has achieved such across the board recognition in the one year – and remained so under-recognised. NZM asked fellow musician Tama Waipara, who incidentally himself won the Tui for Best Roots Album at the VNZMAs this year, to help us understand what it is about Rob Ruha and his music that makes him and his debut EP/album release, ‘Tiki Tapu’, so special.

After a botched attempt at a long distance interview involving three devices, four apps and at least five interrupted transmissions, I decided to travel to Rotorua to catch up with my whanaunga Rob Ruha to talk about his music, his life and his philosophies. What follows is the result of said skype fail and a delicious second breakfast at Rotorua’s popular gem of a cafe, Be Rude Not To.

Me:  “Kia ora my whanaunga… Congratulations!””

Rob: (without losing a beat) “… to us.””

That sentiment of unity and ‘us-ness’ is at the core of Rob Ruha. A young man of Te Tai Rāwhiti, proudly Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-a-Apanui, with a knowledge of whakapapa that can relocate him just about anywhere he chooses, Rob Ruha is a man of and for the people.

Like his ancestors before him, Rob has as many skills as Tāne and Māui have titles. Accomplished academic, lecturer, weaver, waiata / haka / mōteatea composer, kapa haka expert, legendary orator, activist, husband and father, Rob Ruha the singer/songwriter, has made a considerable impact in a very short time on the landscape of recorded music in Aotearoa.

Given that he only released his first single Pongā Rā on Waitangi Day (February 6 if you’re not sure) – it is nothing short of remarkable that Rob Ruha has won five music awards in the last few months – three Waiata Māori Music Awards (Best Solo Male, Best Song, Best Māori Songwriter), APRA’s Maioha Award and most recently the Best Māori Album at the 2014 NZ Music Awards. This all following the low key release of his debut EP/album ‘Tiki Tapu’ in March this year.

You could be forgiven for being unaware of these accomplishments, partly as the humble father of four is the last person who will boast about his successes, but also because MediaWorks’ TV Four failed to screen Rob’s award announcement or acceptance speech (and 15th anniversary acknowledgement of wife and manager Cilla Ruha) during the NZ On Air-funded television coverage.

Raised on the East Cape in the tiny settlement of Wharekahika (Hick’s Bay), Rob Ruha is a reminder of all that is good about aspiring to work for the benefit of the people.

“When you live in a small place it’s all about mahi tahi, you only have each other… Ko au, Ko Apanui””.

His community led brand of activism is what saw Te Whānau-a-Apanui fight off oil drilling giants Petrobras from their shores. In his own words, it is the sense of inclusion and care for each other that is the greatest fuel for the people, less about fighting off and more about fighting for the future of the generations to come. Wise words for a country and industry moving increasingly towards the deification of the individual and ‘selfie’ society.

A childhood spent attending hui, tournaments and wānanga up and down the country, and with both sets of grandparents playing pivotal and crucial roles in his upbringing, Rob is quick to acknowledge the great storytellers of the East Cape.

“Uncle Skip Paenga, Uncle Joss Stewart from Manutuke, Uncle Bill Kerekere… Aunty Emma Rogers, Aunty Kuini Moehau Reedy, Rikirangi Gage, Tuini Ngawai – she is a haka god to me.””

Musically, Rob’s background is as rich as the tapestry of his upbringing. Renowned in the world of kapa haka for some time already, a regular judge of kapa haka competitions and featured on Māori Television’s hugely popular reality show The Kapa, Rob talks candidly about the fears he had for stepping into the new role of recording artist. That barrier very nearly prevented him from taking to the stage to sing his own compositions.

“I thought I had to let go of me being me to come into this world.””

It will surprise many to learn that despite coming from a culture rich in performance and confident cultural statements, that the mainstream music industry is as daunting and mysterious a prospect as it is foreign to many Māori, young and old. This is further reinforced by a narrow homogenous commercial facade that promotes assimilation and categorisation over diversity.

Rob credits friend and mentor Maisey Rika, along with Ria Hall, for giving him the encouragement to push past the fears of entering into a new musical environment. In 2011 he was first approached to record one of his compositions, Hotuhotu (featuring Ria Hall), for which he was a finalist at the 2012 Māori Music Awards for the Most Played Waiata in the te reo Māori category.

“The tipping point was when Maisey said to me there is enough aroha in the world for everyone’s music. That had me hook, line and sinker.””

One can equally say there is a sizeable dose of aroha within Rob’s music. His digitally-released six-track breakthrough was recorded and produced with Michael Barker (Swamp Thing, Jon Butler Trio) at his studio in the idyllic Hamurana overlooking Lake Rotorua.

Featuring musicians like The BadsBrett Adams and a strong contingent of whānau and performers from Te Whānau-a-Apanui (including Rob’s wife, Cilla), ‘Tiki Tapu’ is a mixture of stoic reverence, gutsy provocation and fluid thought.

“Naturally, te reo Māori features greatly in this work to reflect my mother tongue, evoking the innate rise and fall of the tones most familiar to me. I have also begun to venture into bi-lingual compositions. It’s a considered fusion, capturing a natural synergy between the two languages – a practice modeled to me by the late Tuini Ngawai: the epitome of composition prowess within my Iwi territory.””

Rob’s voice has an impressive range that moves easily and with authenticity to tell his stories. The legendary Eddie Rayner plays on Whisper and Hiku, while musical maverick, Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper lends his violin to the textural bed of ‘Tiki Tapu’. Rob also points out and acknowledges each of these contributors with regular and authentic enthusiasm, including youngsters Liam Rolfe and Forrest Thorp from last year’s Smokefree Pasifika Beats winners, Strangely Arousing.

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Rob’s songwriting is an extension of the practices of composition that he has grown up immersed in. The thread of his music and understanding of lyric is expressed thoroughly. The emotional context is woven into the performance with sincerity and weight.

“A lifetime of Māori musical experiences from a very young age, and early exposure to the fundamental teachings of iconic Māori composers from my people, has taught me how to capture the natural synergy between lyric, music and delivery – the unique and indigenous signature that defines Waiata Māori in my opinion.””

The songs themselves are a rich offering, connected at every step of the way to a greater sense and understanding of the whole. Tiki Tapu (the sacred tā-moko implement) marks a period of time from when the last recorded male ancestors of his family wore facial moko (in the 1800s) to the present. This sets the time-line for which the concepts of the six compositions, including the liberation of cultural expressions of identity, aroha, kotahitanga, spiritual belief systems and leadership solidarity, are rooted. Moko; a symbol of permanence and a commitment to making a particular way of life enduring – ‘Tiki Tapu’ EP asks us to hold fast to our Māoritanga in the face of immense societal changes.

In short, there is purpose in the sound, the word and ideologies that frame the music. Hiku is a pointed declaration to resist homogenisation of language and expression and an assertion of Apanui and Porourangi and the mana of maunga Hikurangi.
‘Tērā te haeata takiri ana mai ki runga o Hikurangi
E kore e nekeneke, e kore e nekeneke
He maunga tū tonu mai ōnamata’
‘There strikes the rays of the sun upon Hikurangi
The mountain immovable,
Steadfast for all eternity’

Pōnga Rā was composed during the 2012 protests against offshore drilling in the coastal waters of Apanui and a call to unite, while Witch Doctor, with its bayou swamp grooves, pokes a tongue at the two facedness of politics the world over. It would be all too easy to say that Rob Ruha is a political writer but he shrugs that label off, as easily as he does the many other ascribed post-colonial lenses that are applied to Māori artists.

Rather, he is a storyteller expressing the core of his beliefs and observations in the languages and culture he lives and breathes. A language and culture that has not stopped, paused or ended, but is a continuum stretching back to and walking with, our tupuna. That it flies in the face of so many of the rampant policies of asset sales and environmental ambivalence is in many ways a sign of the times we live in. These stories, ideologies and perspectives are a welcome respite from the bombardment of the age of ‘I’.

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Plans are under way for a follow up album to be titled ‘Pūmau’ and he talks of it with joy. In January he will travel to Glasgow for Celtic Connections, alongside musicians Seth Haapu, Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper and JJ Rika as part of a contingent led by the multi-award winning Maisey Rika. Having already had samples of this unique and formidable supergroup, it is easy to assume that Glaswegians will remember this taste of Aotearoa.

Ahead of completing work on ‘Tiki Tapu’ he described his intention being that the project result in the production of music that “…appeals to the intellect as well as the soul. Music that moves people, that charges discussion points raised in the lyric and creates spaces where uniquely Māori world views can be shared and considered.”

“Naturally, te reo Māori features greatly in this work to reflect my mother tongue, evoking the innate rise and fall of the tones most familiar to me. I have also begun to venture into bi-lingual compositions. It’s a considered fusion, capturing a natural synergy between the two languages – a practice modeled to me by the late Tuini Ngawai: the epitome of composition prowess within my Iwi territory.””

In completing this I should point out that I was nominated in several of the same categories as my whanaunga who won most deservedly. I was Robbed. Rob Ruha’d that is, and I have to say that even a short conversation with this remarkable man will lead you to the same conclusion, a win for Rob is a win for us all.