August is Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori, or Māori Music Month. And, serendipitously, the one album from a New Zealand artist I’ve listened to more than any other this month is from a multi-talented Maori artist, Ruby Solly. In fact, I’ve been listening to it since I first became aware of it in early July, and it’s one of those profoundly cathartic releases that seem so effective and efficacious in these troubling times. At the time of writing this review, I’m holidaying in Wales, and much of the surrounding scenery reminds me of Aotearoa. There’s a sense of getting back to nature that matches the feelings evoked by the music of Ruby Solly.
Pōneke is an album rich in found sounds and taonga pūoro – the traditional musical instruments of the Māori people of New Zealand/Aotearoa. There is an entrancing sense of the fusion of the more avant garde classical and jazz that would not be out of place on the wonderful Rattle record label, several releases of which also use taonga pūoru to great effect (and affect). For me, the birdsong alone is a major drawcard, as it is full of nostalgia for me. The birdsong of Aotearoa is so incredibly different from that of the UK, where I now live, and one of my favourite things on the rare occasions I have returned to New Zealand since moving to the UK has been to hear that birdsong again.
It’s no great surprise for me that the taonga pūoru naturally fits with the birdsong. More surprising is how well the cello fits, too, which was added in the studio atop the field recordings. Then again, considering Ruby Solly has played the cello in genres such as metal, punk and reggae, as well as its more traditional environments, I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising that she is able to use the instrument to express sounds to fit whatever style she desires. It’s one more layer of sound in a release that is not just layered with different sounds, but is multi-layered in itself. Pōneke is not just an album, but a complete artwork, comprising music, poetry and painting. The many layers match the general concepts of the album, of te taiao and whakapapa. Whakapapa is, loosely speaking, a sense of genealogy, lineage and descent. It’s a noun, and a verb – the recitation, in the proper order, of genealogy. It’s also another verb, meaning to layer, or to place one thing upon another. Taiao is the natural world, and for Māori it is as important as whakapapa – as people are just as tightly connected to te whenua (the land), and to the natural world.
Pōneke is quite incredible in the way it so effortlessly evokes te taiao. Perhaps more so for an ex-pat like me, than for some who live in Aotearoa. It’s a cliché, but it’s true that sometimes you have to leave somewhere to truly appreciate where you have come from. It’s funny, because I learnt in primary school my pepeha – a traditional Māori introduction that tells people who you are, and links you to the land and your ancestors – but I never really understood why the land was introduced before the people, until I left that land. Ko Kapukataumahaka te maunga, ko Otago te moana. There is something about Pōneke that takes me home, even though I have never lived there. Perhaps because Pōneke (Wellington) and Ōtepoti (Dunedin) are both harbour cities, surrounded by hills? This is music of a place I recognise, even if I don’t know it. Ruby Solly’s music articulates and communicates the feelings and experiences she has with te taiao perfectly.
If anything, this music makes me more aware of my ignorance. As a Pakeha, I’m not sure I can ever really know what it is to be Māori. Much of Māori culture has been appropriated as Kiwi culture, which is not necessarily a bad thing if it is truly appreciated and understood. Yet Māori culture, like that of any indigenous peoples, is deep with many layers. (Yes, there’re those layers again.) It makes me wary of reviewing an album such as this, which surely has so many layers that I may well misunderstand or understate. From the outside, the culture of a people can easily be seen in their language, clothing, food and music, for just a few examples. What is less easily seen is thought processes and interactions, and notions of self and relationships with others, the past, and nature. For me, this is one of the reasons why – though I’ve listened to quite a few Māori artists this month – Pōneke has resonated so strongly. It feels like a link between the Pakeha and Māori worlds, because we share a space, yet what a place means can be drastically different, as can our links to that land. Everywhere we walk, we walk on our histories. Pōneke makes us think about those histories, and sense of place. Or, at least, that’s how I feel, when I listen to it.
I realise I’ve said little about what this album sounds like, but this is because I think it is an album that speaks for itself, and needs to be heard, rather than read about. Ruby Solly’s hope with Pōneke was that it would inspire the listener to connect with whatever place they called home. In a way, it’s done just that for me, albeit for a place I no longer call home – but which will always be home.
01. Te Kōkī (2:39)
02. Waimāpahi (3:16)
03. Karaka – Tau (2:00)
04. Karaka – Wana (2:44)
05. Urupā (4:34)
06. Te Aro Pā (3:58)
07. Te Tangi Te Keo (1:42)
08. Matairangi (2:39)
09. Somes (2:23)
10. Matiu (4:02)
11. Koukou (1:43)
Total Time – 31:40
Ruby Solly – Found Sounds, Taonga Pūoru, Cello
Record Label: Independent
County of Origin: Aotearoa/New Zealand
Date of Release: 5th June 2020