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December/January 2021

by Mark Baynes

X-Factory: Ka Mānu, Rob Ruha & Protest Songs

by Mark Baynes

X-Factory: Ka Mānu, Rob Ruha & Protest Songs

Acclaimed musicologist Daniel Levitin has argued that songs can be split into six categories according to their evolutional, biological, and cultural purposes (Levitin, 2008).

The categories are:

  1. Friendship – songs that emphasise the social bonds within a group, like Lean on Me by Bill Withers.
  2.  Joy – songs that express delight, the thrill of a wonderful experience, like Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder.
  3. Comfort – cathartic songs that lift our spirits in times of crisis, like any blues you can think of.
  4. Knowledge – used to convey information, like nursery rhymes.
  5. Religion/Ceremony – all the songs we use for important rituals), and
  6. Love – hopefully self-explanatory.

Although his book is criticised by some as being over taxonomic, it’s not at all about being categorical, instead, it’s an examination of fundamental drives that motivate humans to make music. Levitin is a researcher in Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, but has also worked as a professional musician and music producer.

Friendship songs serve the purpose of bringing people together to promote co-operation in one form or another, in order to survive, or at least make life more tolerable. Applied to various situations, co-operation could promote any of these situations:

  • Working together
  • Attacking/defending together (protest songs)
  • Supporting each other
  • Friendship
  • Averting conflict
  • Forging group identity (maybe not formally but like a bonding anthem for a group of ‘outcasts’)

The evolutionary value is that humans interact socially, whether in friendly or destructive ways. If we can avoid the latter, like in wars, we are more likely to survive and thrive as a species. Our social bonds are essential to our well-being and we do survive and thrive better in groups, so anything that helps us in these causes are beneficial to our evolution as a species.

So what does this have to do with Rob Ruha, I hear you ask? Well, in August 2019, Ka Mānu, a track composed by Ruha, was released to the world. Ka Mānu was recorded by a host of artists including Bella Kalolo, Maisey Rika, Ria Hall, Seth Haapu and Troy Kingi.

According to TeAoMāori News, Ruha et al recorded the song specifically to support of the Ihumātao land protectors.

Ka Mānu speaks of unity and peaceful resistance. It is perhaps the quintessential friendship song, through protest, containing many of the elements described above. Some of my favourite songs are Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, most of which have become iconic in their depiction of particularly poignant moments in history.

Ka Mānu is honest, grounded in a sense of purpose only rivalled by its simplicity. What do I mean by that exactly? Well it is in the key of G major, and the predominant harmony is the first four chords found diatonic to the key centre (G, Am, Bm, C), the skeletal melody is also built around these same notes. Both the melody and harmony are firmly grounded in the tonic.

From a semiotic perspective, prosody is achieved through this grounding, a strength from a combination of predictability and sense of home. Even the introduction of Ka Mānu and in the choruses, the melody is doubled by Kōauau (taonga pūoro), its use both purposive and significant. In addition use of BVs connotes the ‘voice of many’, a concept supported by the cameo appearances of many established artists.

Reggae has always been a platform for protest songs, known for tackling issues both from last century and just recently in the Black Lives Matter movement, and Ka Mānu is a classic reggae track.

Marika Hodgson does an exceptional job on bass, supportive and absolutely groove centred but also playing innovative fills between sections. Darren Mathiassen lays down a powerful drum track too. Tasteful horn arrangements by Thabani Gapara and Jake Krishnamurti feature throughout, with clavinet, piano, and organ smoothly laid down by Leo Coghini and James Illingworth respectively.

In short, Ka Mānu achieves ‘classic NZ reggae’ status, doing what it does best. Its story of friendship and protest is dear to the heart of many New Zealanders, and if you subscribe to the premise of Daniel Levitin, its reason for being is paramount to the survival and spirit of humankind.

Lyrics

E te hunga whakapono iti
Me haere māori i runga i te moana nui
E tā!

Ka whati te moana nui – e tā!
Ka whati te moana roa – e tā!
Ka mānu, ka mānu tonu e tā – e tā

He waka tē ai tahuri – e tā!
He waka tē ai tīkoki – e tā!
Ka mānu, ka mānu tonu e tā – e tā

Hikohiko te uira,
Kanapa i runga
Whētuki i raro rā
Ka papā, ka rū ana
Ka porepore koa e
Takinakina e – E tā!
Takinakina e – E tā!
Takinakina e – E tā!
Takinakina e – E tā!

Translation

Oh ye of little faith
Walk forth with ease upon the great ocean

Though the seas may roar
And the oceanic expanse rage
You will remain afloat

For you command a vessel that shall never be overturned nor unsteadied
You will remain afloat

Lightning may flash
Illuminating the heavens above
Sending rolling thunder below
Resounding, trembling
Though overcome with fear
Ascend
Prevail
Lead Sing!

Ka Mānu, Nā Rob Ruha, 2019

Dr Mark Baynes is Programme Manager for the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree at MAINZ, Auckland; a degree program that fosters students’ ability to find their own musical voice, culminating with the creation of a capstone project such as an album, film score or music for game audio. For more information visit www.mainz.ac.nz