- /Cheyney Biddlecombe
Journal #4 Aotearoa Sound
By Survival/David Grace
The song ‘Rua Kenana’ is an interesting piece to explore in relevance to New Zealand Music. The song is written by David Grace and Survival (his band at the time). The rest of the song’s creative history is a mystery though; the composition of the song can’t be pegged to a specific date. However it was republished in 2013 on the album ‘Rebelling’ by David Grace and Injustice, his present band. The song features both adoption and adaptation of global music cultures as well as embracing it’s own.
Aspects that are specifically traditional New Zealand are the lyrics of the song and the song’s figurehead and inspiration. The lyrics are a mixture of Maori and English portraying the indigenous language as significant to the song’s message while still incorporating the Western influence in order to acknowledge the evolution of New Zealand culture. The Maori lyrics are mostly nouns, names of the places and people the song talks about, however the significance still stands due to the acknowledgment and respect of the original names given by the local Maori before the european invasion.
The song is based on the story surrounding the Maori Prophet Rua Kenana Hepetipa. He referred to himself as Te Mihaia (The New Messiah) who would reclaim the Tuhoe land that had been lost to Pakeha ownership. Rua’s beliefs about Maori Rights split the Ringatu Church in the early 1900’s and so in 1907 he himself formed a passive religious community at Maungapōhatu, the sacred mountain of Ngāi Tūhoe, in the Urewera. The locals started to call the people within Rua’s community ‘Children of the Mist’ due to their isolation on the misty mountain, this is directly referenced in the song; “They lived on the Maungapohatu, Children of the Mist is what they called you”. At the onset of World War Two Rua preached that the Maori should not fight in a White Man’s War and rallied the support of his followers. This is a significant aspect in the song, inspiring the lyrics “He told his people not to go to war, let the white man fight the white man’s war”, this portrays that the relationship between the Maori and Europeans was fraught with difficulties and disagreements. Whether because the isolation of his community inspired anxiety for those living outside it, or whether his beliefs on the Maori inclusion in the War were too loud, police were sent to arrest Rua for sedition in 1916 where he was arrested after a shootout occurred between his followers and the police. Although he was found innocent of sedition he was imprisoned for resisting to arrest. When he was released he found his community devastated by the incursion, with fewer people and less land. However, his followers regrouped and Rua stayed on his mountain until his death in 1937.
However, what’s even more interesting about this composition is its adoption and adaptation of other cultures into its musical sound. The song, though inherently New Zealand, has adopted the Reggae style. Reggae is renowned for originating in Jamaica in the late 1960’s, it incorporates traditional Mento (Jamaican Folk Music), American Jazz and Rhythm and Blues as well as many other styles like Calypso, African, and Latin American music. Reggae is said to have evolved from the earlier styles of Ska and RockSteady, styles that already incorporated Mento and Jazz styles and that emphasised walking bass-lines and offbeat rhythms. Reggae is characterised by this, the offbeat rhythm; referred to as the Skank it is staccato chords played by a guitar or piano, or a combination, on the offbeats of the measure.There is also an element of ‘Call and response’ in Reggae music, which would justify the offbeat of the rhythm guitar and the repetitiveness of the vocal line.
Reggae reached the shores of New Zealand during the 1970’s and 1980’s, it gained popularity quickly after Bob Marley toured here in 1979 and was then helped along by the growing following of Rastafarian religion, especially from the Maori youth. In this way New Zealand adopted another culture’s sound and then went about adapting it to our own particular New Zealand flavours. The adaptation of Reggae in New Zealand has been referred to as a subgenre of Pacific Reggae, this differs from Jamaican Reggae in the use of instruments such as the ukulele, traditional wooden drums, and keyboard synthesizers. The Reggae in New Zealand is also significant because it does not follow typically Rastafarian ideals and instead the songs are often remakes of traditional songs and/or based on real events of Maori history, just like ‘Rua Kenana’ and the story behind it’s lyrics.
New Zealand Reggae also incorporates more dub, jazz and new age electronic sounds. This manipulating and reshaping of recordings is stylistic to New Zealand is dominated by the idea of lessening the vocal complexity and guitar offbeat and instead heavily emphasizing the drum and bass parts. This makes the live sound from New Zealand Reggae bands earth shaking and body reverberating to listen to and is something most New Zealanders seem to enjoy. New Zealand Reggae is also weighty in defining a New Zealand way of life; beaches, barbeques, and a more light-hearted way of life than was originally expressed in Reggae like global news, social gossip, and political issues. Rua Kenana embodies the New Zealand Reggae sound using the synth sounding electronic keyboard which emphasises the more explorative sounds of Reggae, it also uses classic walking bass lines and heavy accentuations on the drum pattern.
Another example of New Zealand music adopting and adapting other cultures sounds is the Scatting lyrics in ‘Rua Kenana’. Scatting is originally from the Jazz age of America and can be located to a Louis Armstrong recording of ‘Heebie jeebies’ in 1926. Although Scatting was around long before this recording according to most, it brought about the turn in the medium and scatting became an artistic skill rather than humoured bumbling within a song. Scatting is characterized by improvised wordless vocals that are so nonsense they aren’t words at all. Within ‘Rua Kenana’ the line is: “Ooh yea ooh yea ooh yea, Scoodily woodily woop bop bayo whoa”. This portrays the adoption of American, and more specifically, New Orleans Vocalist Jazz within New Zealand sound. This, combined with the Reggae sound, creates the ideal example or adoption and adaption.
Scatting is something that has been adopted into New Zealand sound, taken and used in our own context but not changed. This might be partly because it is the skills nature; nonsense is nonsense not matter where you are in the world. There is no distinct New Zealand context in the Scatting lyrics of ‘Rua Kenana’ they are simply non-words that might be spoken in other places. The only variation is the use of ‘Yea’ and ‘whoa’, words that are not nonsense and have meaning. This might be the cultural influence we were looking for, that New Zealand places certain importance on exclamations like ‘yeah/yes’ and ‘whoa/wow’. The incorporation of Reggae is more complex however, Reggae was first adopted by New Zealand musicians but over time was adapted into a specific sub-style of the original sound. In this way it is easy to see the interchangeability of sound throughout cultures, what might start as a copy of one thing evolves into something quite different because of the people it is played by and the places in which it is played. Musical sound seems to be a universal thing, we are always stealing and changing and working-off our neighbours ideas, and this does not change just because we are separated by seas.ay in here…
I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.