Behind the Lines: Ria Hall and Rob Ruha

22 October, Spiegeltent, HBAF18
By Tryphena Cracknell

Seeing these two heavyweights of Māori music on stage together, introduced by Ali Beal as the cream of Māori musical talent, fresh from a trip across the Tasman where they played a sell-out show at the Darwin Arts Festival was a really special opportunity. The pair and their band are in the middle of a nationwide tour but there was no sign of tour-fatigue and tonight’s performance was high energy, start to finish.

Dramatic, heavy lighting paired with a watery loop set the atmosphere. The show was split into two sets, generously explained on cards scattered around the seats. The music of Te Pō, Set One we read, “presents…traditions and cultural practices that maintain and strengthen spiritual connectivity and consciousness…” while Te Ao, Set Two, is “confronting, yet uplifting, bright, hopeful and solution focussed…” These themes played out in the visuals which shifted from soaring earth, sea, sky, filmy kēhua figures (Te Pō) to fiery smoke and flame (Te Ao), military tableaus which gave way to soft plays of light. There was an inter-set costume change too – black to white, which added to the thematic shift.

Hall’s soaring vocals were mesmerising, and fitted smoothly with Ruha’s compelling style. Both held the stage for the individual pieces, creating a real synergy when they came together. They were backed by an exceptional line-up of musicians, all well-known in their own musical careers. Fellow coastie Tyna Keelan, bringing it on lead guitar and backing vocals, drummer Darren Mathiassen locking down the rhythms with Johnny Lawrence on five-string bass. And who was that whizzkid on the keys? I was waiting to catch his name. The band members weren’t introduced, though the show was clearly a collaboration of musical minds and there were several times that the singers handed the stage over, for the band to deliver some killer riffs.

Kicking off Te Ao, Ruha’s kauhau addressed the audience directly (albeit punctuated by the volunteer fire brigade’s siren). Ruha followed by Hall, each articulated the show’s overarching leitmotif – nationhood – challenging the audience to step out from behind their lines and to see behind the lines of others, to have the tough conversations in order to create a positive future for the generations to come. This provocation to get “woke” was delivered with hope and generosity of spirit, as Hall put it, “No matter what culture you come from…if you call Aotearoa home, this idea is for you.”

Each waiata rounded out this central narrative, spinning out an intense mix of musical genres, from funk, soul, rhythm and blues, to rock, reggae and martial, with references to kapa haka. The songs were interspersed with a curated set of archival soundbites and early on in Te Ao, a volley of racist rhetoric, the most familiar drawing out a few nervous, uncomfortable giggles from the crowd. From this low ebb, the show rose back up to the uplifting place it had begun. This was a cohesive, disciplined and highly polished show from a collective of artists at the top of their game. The standing ovation said it all about how the audience felt about the show, and maybe too that the wero that had been laid down was being accepted (though I’m pretty sure we were mostly the converted).

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