Jul 31, 2010
Wai's roots run deep, yet their music is also fiercely modern.
Roots is a word that has been attached to many kinds of music. In North America, it denotes the rural traditions of hillbilly and blues. In Sweden, it means folk music and instruments like the 600-year-old nyckelharpa.
Curiously, in this country, roots has become almost synonymous with dub reggae, an imported and relatively recent genre that has much to do with Jamaican traditions but little to do with local ones.
If ever a New Zealand album called for the roots tag, it is Ora, the latest album from Porirua-based Wai. This music has roots that run deep: all the way to the first musical sounds ever heard in these islands.
And yet it can also sound fiercely modern, even futuristic. It is as though the Maori notion of past, present and future existing simultaneously, and of the constant presence of one’s ancestors, is embodied in these grooves.
Before becoming partners in life and music, Mina Ripia and Maaka McGregor both performed in pioneering reo bands – Ripia as a singer in Moana and the Moahunters, McGregor as drummer in Aotearoa.
In 2000, they launched Wai with the groundbreaking 100%. A number of bands before them had successfully hitched the Maori language to popular modes like reggae, rock and R&B. Some had incorporated pre-European instruments, while Dalvanius Prime, with the Patea Maori Club, created a pop hit in Poi E by fusing traditional poi dance with a pulsating dance beat.
But Wai went further forward by going further back. They turned to the tradition of the poi for the rhythmic foundations on which they built the rest of the music. Sampling the distinctive slap of the woven ball, McGregor created beats that echoed the ancient and complex patterns of the poi, making a bed both solid and supple enough to support Ripia’s vocals, a unique blend of melody, harmony and chant.
With little more than beats and voices, 100% was characterised by its sparseness. By contrast, Ora is lush, as though a garden has sprung up on the ground left fertile by its predecessor. Iain Gordon of Fat Freddy’s Drop brings keyboards to many of the tracks, fattening up the chords and basslines, and the total effect is a compelling polyrhythmic funk, capable of commanding any dance floor. On the sleeve, McGregor is jokingly credited as Maaka Phat, a hip-hop-style alias of which he is more than worthy.
But if Ora holds its own as a modern dance album, traditional roots are never far from its digital surface. Even the gigantic jelly-like synthesiser line Gordon plays on Hine-Te-Ihorangi is based on a poi rhythm.
Ripia’s vocals, mostly multi-tracked, glide from monotonal chant to haunting minor-key melody, while guest voices add to the richness. On Hine-Te-Ihorangi, Mark Te Whare weaves his singing around Ripia’s in a soulful counterpoint. For He Tapu Koe, she is joined by the distinctive smoky tones of Little Bushman frontman Warren Maxwell.
The strong material comes from a variety of sources. The faint hint of a strummed guitar on Maranga Ake Ai is a reminder of the song’s reggae origins as an early original by Aotearoa. Hone Taiapa is adapted from a poem by Hone Tuwhare, set against the percussion of the poi and featuring a rare and welcome vocal from McGregor. The album closes on a celebratory note with Faifai Maile, a collaboration with former Holidaymakers bass player Pati Umaga that explores fresh fusions between Maori and Samoan traditions.
Although it has been a decade between discs, Wai have not been idle. Part of that time has been spent touring internationally, with the result that their music may be better known in Greenland or the Channel Islands than at home. They were a favourite of BBC world music broadcaster Charlie Gillett, who died earlier this year and to whom the album is dedicated. Knowing the value he placed on music that explores and surprises, yet carries a sense of its identity – its roots – he would surely have loved Ora.