In 2020 Waikato artist Em-Haley Walker, aka Theia, launched her new musical venture Te Kaahu releasing the single E Taku Huia Kaimanawa. With the 2022 release of the project album ‘Te Kaahu O Rangi’ she navigates themes of love, grief, politics, faith, and ancestral belonging, all through the beautiful language of Te Reo Māori. Kat Parsons caught up with Walker to discuss the project, insight and love of her heritage. Made with the support of NZ On Air Music.
“I’ve always been introverted,” Em-Haley Walker reveals. “At school, I struggled with opening up. My parents were constantly getting told by my teachers, ‘She just doesn’t really speak’. I got bullied as well, and that just made me draw even more inwards. So music and writing songs were a perfect, natural way for me to deal with and process my emotions.
“Music is the freedom that I have to be able to express myself, to be able to experiment, and also the connection that I have with my whānau and my nannies, because of course, my great grandmother was so amazing with her compositions.”
Since the release of her debut single Roam in 2016, followed by ‘Theia’, her self-titled first EP in 2017, the inspiring alt-pop artist has been an idiosyncratic fixture in our local music scene, and reflecting a far wider appeal, took third place in the 2020 International Songwriting Competition with her single Not Your Princess.
Embracing a quite different musical ethos and artistic identity of Te Kaahu, the incredibly talented artist now brings us the delicate yet powerful album, ‘Te Kaahu O Rangi’, a musical love letter to her people, ancestors, and the world around her. Te Kaahu invites the listener to not only feel the emotional influence of each track but to grow in their understanding of Te Reo Māori and its cultural significance. The project was written by Walker and co-produced with Kiwi musician/producer legend Jol Mulholland, at The Lab in Auckland.
“Te Kaahu is the short version of ‘Te Kaahu O Rangi’ which is the full name of this project,” Walker explains. “Rangi is short for Rangirara, my grandmother. So her name means beyond the heavens or heavenly resting place. I started composing with Te Kaahu after she passed away, wanting a way to remember her and pass on all of the knowledge that I gained from her. After she passed I just saw kāhu everywhere and kāhu in my specific iwi, Waikato, are seen as kaitiaki, or spiritual guardians as well, messengers almost from the other side. This whole project really is in honour of her, and my tūpuna wāhine or female ancestors.”
“I wanted to present it as a treasure to be passed down,” she smiles. “A resource for my people, but especially from my hapū, my sub-tribe, and my iwi, my tribe. The album is kind of a collection of various tribal sayings, mātauranga, or knowledge that’s been passed down from my nannies to myself. It kind of weaves in beautiful whakataukī or proverbs, pepeha specific to my iwi, and then kupu whakarite or metaphors. Also, mita which means dialect.
“I’ve just absolutely adored and loved being able to compose this record in my mita, my dialect of Waikato,” she adds with clear excitement. “A lot of the more modern waiatas are, generalised Te Reo Māori, which of course came to the forefront as the most common as a result of language revitalisation where it’s more inter-tribal. This is amazing and really cool but what is so important, when you’ve got that foundation, is being able to ensure the continuation of your own tribal dialect. There are so many incredible sayings and words that are vastly different, entire grammatical things that vary from tribe to tribe. So, it was really special for me to be able to do that and use my dialect for this record.”
A nod to multiple genres and eras of music, ‘Te Kaahu O Rangi’ is an eloquent melding of both the old and the new. Carefully constructed, the album lifts and falls, creating a path for the listener to journey along; reminiscent of the past whilst looking forward to the future.
“The production came from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s Pākehā or non-Maori music – soul, R&B, etc.,” describes the artist. “Waikato for example was the only waiata on the whole record that I composed with Jol [Mulholland]. I sent him a bunch of references including Hurt by The Manhattans. Rangirara and He Hiimene are more like waltzes, and then there are also doo-wop influences. Effectively it’s music from the era of my nannies, but with a modern spin!”
‘Te Kaahu O Rangi’ is one example of the positive artistic good that stemmed from the isolation of the earliest Covid lockdowns, Walker said that she initially wrote the waiata at home during the national lockdown period.
“Then I would send a full, finished waiata to Jol, and he would send back a production bid, and if there was anything that needed to be tweaked I would give feedback. Once we were happy with it I would go into the studio and record my vocals. Minus the lap steel in Rangirara, I think almost every single instrument was played live and done analogue-wise by Jol, which is amazing. Credit to him and his multi-instrumentalist talent.
“The purpose of the record was to be able to have the perfect journey from beginning to end, where I was able to lay this mātauranga or knowledge out,” she continues.
“So, starting from te kore or the nothingness/the womb space, and this starts with a karanga [Te Kaahu O Rangi] which of course is in reference to how in our pōwhiri and our traditional ways of being and coming together, the first voice is always that of women. The first track was important to me to just be vocal, nothing else, So it is like it’s just coming out of nothing. Then it builds from there, and to E Hine Ē which is the first check on the album. The beginning and ending tracks on the album, which are Te Kaahu O Rangi and He Maimai Aroha, which farewell the kāhu almost, both of them are just a capella. The idea that it begins just like we did out of the te kore (nothingness), and that’s exactly where we go at the end as well.
“People may not notice but the idea is that it builds very beautifully and kind of holds you. Its structure is just how our pōwhiri are if you will.”
E Taku Huia Kaimanawa (2020), E Hine Ē and Rangirara (2021), and 2022’s Waikato were four earlier released tracks. One of the album’s five other tracks is He Hiimene, a soft, swaying hymn-like song, with rich and heavenly vocal harmonies supported by delicate guitar and a gentle driving rhythm.
“This was heavily influenced by growing up as a Maori kid,” describes Walker. “We are constantly, even on the marae, walking between some very traditional, ancient beliefs and also Christianity. With the fusion of Christianity and traditional beliefs, you get Pai Mārire and other kinds of faiths. Nearly all the hymns that we sing are translations of Pākehā or non-Maori hymns I wanted to make my own.
“To write something that embodies the feelings that you get of oneness and of whoever it is that you believe looks after you. I wrote the hymn because I wanted a beautiful way that was accessible to everyone, to be used to support and farewell loved ones. Something that is originally written in Te Reo that we can take for ourselves. It’s just a beautiful, universal way of being able to express your love for whoever you believe in and also feel cared for in the dark.”
On the topic of faith, another track Pai Maarire is paired with a stunning music video directed by Karin Yamasaki and produced by Keria Paterson. Walker is illuminated in front of the backdrop of a blue and white skyline, different shots threaded together to create a peaceful yet compelling piece of art.
“Pai Maarire means goodness and peace, and it’s the faith or religion that my whānau has followed for years and years,” Walker enlightens. “This came out of the land wars that were happening at a time and kind of just a result of colonisation and being pushed out of our ancestral lands. Our people fled from Waikato and into Te Rohe Pōtae which is the King Country. We were looked after, by the local peoples and then decided to take on Pai Maarire as our religion. This waiata is an ode to Te Ua Haumēne, the founder, acknowledging him and also filled with a lot of sadness because of the number of lives that were lost.
“In the video, I wanted to be able to convey the strength and purity of the faith. I wanted to keep the visuals very minimal, just like the other videos, so that you can focus on the waiata. The prophet Te Ua Haumēne believed that he communicated or talked to God through the winds. Every time we filmed the peak, kind of political moment of the track there were these huge gusts of wind and beautiful, huge kāhu flying over the top as well,” she gushes passionately. “It just felt like absolutely, perfectly ordained and connected with that spirit.
“I chose to wear that particular dress as a way of bringing two worlds together,” she progresses. “Something colonial and white representing purity, that Victorian nightgown sort of style. It’s taking the style of dress that our ancestors were made to wear but wearing dresses designed by Maori designers. It comes from a more empowered place where being able to wear it is stepping into that strong, feminine, ancestral energy, and de-colonising clothes that were used to colonise us. These visuals have a gentleness, but a reminder of the past combined with elements of the present.”
The exquisite, melancholy Taupiri could send one to peaceful sleep.
“Taupiri is done in a beautiful, lullaby kind of style,” agrees Walker. “Taupiri, as her name suggests, is a song of thanksgiving and acknowledgement to my ancestral maunga Taupiri. On Taupiri my Nanny Mite, my great grandmother, and my great great grandmother, and my great great great grandmother have all been laid to rest in her tender care. [The track] just describes how important she is, the peaceful nature and highly sacred presence that she has.”
“Me, my manager, and Karin Yamasaki [the song’s music video maker] felt like the best way to be able to embody the spirit of Taupiri would be to do an animation. I gave Karin a couple of references and a rough idea, ‘Maybe there could be a kāhu there to carry on the theme’. Karin took that and beautifully produced the kāhu in the hands. If you look carefully, there is me in my little white nightgown. It’s just so beautiful. She perfectly brought together the spirit of Taupiri, her gentleness but her strength.”
Critically acclaimed, her Te Kaahu project has gained attention worldwide, including performing a live session with Rolling Stone Australia and being selected for the 2021 ‘Up Next Campaign’ with Apple Music. For Matariki this year, ‘Te Kaahu O Rangi’ was performed in full to a captivated audience at The Tuning Fork in Auckland. Grateful for the response and attention her project has received, Walker contemplates the impact and what this might mean for the future.
“The reception that’s come from my people, Maori and non-Maori, Pākehā as well, to these songs just means so much to me,” she beams. “I created or recorded rather, for posterity, if you will, making sure that these waiatas can be a resource for my people, especially from my hapū and iwi who affiliate to Waikato and Taupiri; the whakapapa side of things but also just as a resource for Te Reo and language learners as well. So, yeah, I guess I’m super grateful for the warmth and the way that Te Kaahu has been embraced, it has just been so phenomenal.
“It’s like a once in a lifetime kind of thing that I’ve been able to do with this record”, she points out. “To also see these other publications and things, even the Rolling Stone live session. To me, it was just such a big deal symbolically because it’s this renowned worldwide publication that’s choosing to give literal space to indigenous music. I guess that was just cool because it just shows me that the thinking is changing around Te Reo and our culture and everything.
“I think the other part which I’m loving and being able to gain from this record is showing, or reminding people of the intellectual nature of our language,” she states proudly. “Even the way that we write and compose and speak; it’s so heavily based on metaphors from the world around us. Matariki is the perfect example because it’s showing how this centuries-old tradition melds science with traditional beliefs with the environment; with all these things that are somehow overlooked in our people and our culture.
“I guess I feel blessed to be a very proud, young, Waikato Maori woman who is very passionate about my people and my nannies,” Walker gushes. “For me, I just feel absolutely happy where I am. Being able to weave together the past, present, and the future, and to speak on things that are important and crucial for my people. To be able to deliver that in Te Reo is really amazing.”