by Jasper West

Te Whānau Puoro: Peaceful Protest In Song

by Jasper West

Te Whānau Puoro: Peaceful Protest In Song

As if Te Matau-a-Maui wasn’t already punching well above its weight in the music and arts scene, Flaxmere College and Tamatea High School have just produced Tangata Beats-winning band Te Whānau Puoro. Jasper West catches up with them. Made with support from NZ On Air Music.

“We met through Tukotahi Raki. He used to work at both Flaxmere and Tamatea High School. He noticed that Flaxmere had a rhythm section, but not a lead guitarist or lead vocalist while Tamatea had a lead guitarist and a lead vocalist, but no rhythm section,” singer and lyricist Shayne Te Kuru reminisces.

Only formed in May 2023, the band includes Aroha Sellwood (vocals, guitar), Izrael Shields (lead guitar), Naiara Marshall (keys), Hohua Mitai-Price (bass), Koha Sellwood (drums) and Te Kuru. After winning Tangata Beats, Te Whānau Puoro recorded and released their first single Rise Up, a funk infused ‘peaceful protest’ song. The waiata is a calling to empower oneself through deeper connections to ancestral knowledge.

“We’re all on the same kaupapa of Māoridom, it helps a lot, knowing that,” explains Shayne. “Definitely something that I love about our songs is there’s no violence or jeopardy, it’s really just music.”

Their Rise Up opens with a rock/reggae intro and first verse, but once the drums come in with that stanky offbeat, you start to realise how many influences these musicians are drawing from.

“I love Joel Shadbolt‘s [LAB] sound and I love what he does to the guitar, but I think collectively we’re into the kind of fusion genre, how we don’t really put ourselves in one category to define our sound,” shares lead guitarist Izrael Shields.

Working alongside Conway Jeune (Toi, Tunes Of I) at Massey studios in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Te Whānau Puoro refined their track into a perfect mix of character and finesse.

“They were all very supportive of the kaupapa we were aiming for. They listened to what we wanted and wouldn’t take away from it, but add,” Izrael continues. “We didn’t want to change the meaning of the song. We tweaked a little bit how it sounded, so there’s little echoey parts in there and there’s little screeching guitar parts that are dubbed in the background, but we didn’t want it to mean the song.

“You’re kind of amplifying the saying that less is more. So that’s what we stuck to. Remember the meaning of the song. Let’s make it sound mean, but not too mean where it distracts from the message.”

This mentality with the engineering and mix lead to a sound that reveals the true talent of each of the musicians in the band. Locking in tightly with one another and chopping seamlessly through fast funk lines and sparse laid back reggae grooves, they play to each other and not themselves, which is a mature characteristic, especially in high school students.

While writing the new single Rise Up, Shayne remembers the process as being not 100% straight forward.

“I was a bit whakamā about how the band would feel standing up for our culture and ancestors,” she admits. “But I believe every song that we do write, we get everyone together so that we’re all on the same page. Sometimes I just sit in my own little room, make up a few words, maybe a little rhythm, and then I just come back out and sing it to everyone. I write words easily when I have something to talk about.”

Each of the members collaborates to make a cohesive sound, and for Izrael, it’s more than just a band.

“I would say that music for me is a medicine. I believe that music can cure any pain, any pain possible. It’s a way to connect. Growing up, my nan and I were the only ones who could properly play an instrument. So myself, my mom, my brother, my sister, and my dad, we all lived in one household and none of them played instruments except me, but we grew up always listening to music. I think music is a universal tool, and it’s a universal language as well.”

A deep well of creative and considered ideas, Te Whānau Puoro have another couple of tracks ready, the next to be released is a waiata called Our Generation.

“It’s kind of like a conversation. It’s a bit of dialogue,” Shayne articulates, diving deeper back. “In our first verse I’m trying to portray how my ancestors would feel if they were to come here now and see what’s happened. But of course, later on in the song, I talk about how they set up this foundation for us. You know, our culture, their culture, it’s still thriving. Even with everything that we’ve been through, there are still some of us out there with the same mauri that they have.”

With plans on getting back into the studio this year and a gig lined up at the Paisley Stage in Napier, this group of high school students are setting themselves up for fruitful careers in the music industry. Their variety in sound makes them stand out amongst others, which only benefits the message they portray. Rise Up is a peaceful protest song, and Te Whānau Puoro are all well aware that the pen is mightier than the sword.