Mahinarangi Tocker

by Gordon Campbell / 29 October, 2005
Singer/songwriter.

On the eve of her 50th birthday, Mahinarangi Tocker has just released a new double CD, The Mongrel in Me - the title a reference to her ancestry, and to her fierce creative and survival instincts. A top singer/songwriter for over 25 years and an actor (in 2000's beautiful but rarely seen here film A Small Life), Tocker is also a campaigner for the acceptance of the mentally ill, and she does workshops and school visits to illustrate music's value in fostering self-esteem. Recently, she wrote lyrics for Ross Harris's work Roimata, and performed it with the Auckland Philharmonia.

You're Maori, Jewish and Celtic. Seems you've got the minority bases covered. I'm not actually Jewish, I'm Hebrew. I'm mostly Maori ... but my father is a Jew, of Jewish/Celtic descent. I wasn't brought up with the Jewish religion, so I can't claim to be Jewish. Genetically, I'm a Polynesian Semite, with a Celtic twist.

Which still means there's a chunk of Palestine that could be yours for the asking. Or for the taking. No, thank you. I visited there in the 1970s when I was quite young, and although I did have an enjoyable time I also remember being very uncomfortable with regard to what was happening, even then, to the Palestinians.

You're not left-handed, though, are you? Yes. And I'm not straight.

That's what I mean. A left-handed Maori/Hebrew lesbian. You could be sitting on an arts-funding bonanza ... And I'm short. And my left breast is bigger than my right.

In what ways is The Mongrel in Me album a reflection on this mixed ancestry? It gives me permission to sing in all the styles that I do sing and write in, and to get away from any genre thing. I don't think I've really belonged to any genre, anyway, and with this album it's like I've been given total permission just to be me. Obviously, the style in which the music is arranged might tell the listener that I have a Maori - or Celtic or Hebrew - background. But there are also some songs ... maybe it's in the way the words are put together, in the cynicism or sometimes in the humour ... but some friends have told me that they can hear the Hebrew or the Maori coming through ...

For example? In the song "Sweetheart" there's an obvious klezmer sound, but lyrically it's kind of cheeky. It's a love song without it being a love song. A tongue-in-cheek style that's a little bit smart ...

You have dealt with this biographical material before, on the Te Ripo album. How does this differ from what you did then? There's just more of it, really. On Te Ripo, there was a song directly speaking to my ancestors, but on this album ... it's as if I haven't simply been given a bag to carry, I have been given a car to drive. There are songs that you can see only as a Maori song about the land, or as coming from who I am as a Maori woman. But there are also other aspects. Such as the song called "Spinning" ... which is a love song I rather like. It's sad, though.

Apart from heritage, is there any external force that has helped you at this stage of your career? I don't know about external, but I'm certainly a lot more well, mentally. And with that comes a lot more confidence in dealing with people. Therefore, I'm much more prepared to go out and stick at a job. And I've been thoroughly enjoying that.

I don't mean this to sound like reverse snobbery, but this album began as a commission from the Festival of the Arts - and playing with the Auckland Philharmonia must also feel like a long way from where you started. Yes. It's a hell of a long way from St Patrick's Catholic School in Taumarunui, where I was an absolutely staunch kapa haka girl, and heavily into sports. Yet, as with most people's lives, you don't recognise the jumps that you might have made. Or that it was a long road. I know there have been things in my life that could have prevented me emotionally from continuing living. However, music, I think, has saved my life many, many times. So, even if I'm pretending to be confident, it's important to me to continue to do that - and music is one way that I can pretend without it being dangerous.

It's much the same for the audience. Music is where some of our deepest feelings are articulated by a kindred spirit. Speaking of which, there is a song called "Arnold Brooker" on the album. Did you recognise aspects of yourself in Arnold? I met him when I was singing at a concert called "Mad Pride", which involved performers who had lived with mental illness ... It was an incredible non-judgmental thing, and I just felt so good. And meeting him and realising that he was a bit weird, but that here we are now in the 21st century and talking about de-stigmatising mental illness and there he was, all those years ago, doing exactly that ... and how many of us have heard of him? Very few.

Finally, if you ever made a covers record, what songs would you choose? Oh, I'd love that. I'd do "Caught" by Shona Laing and Neil Finn's "Into Temptation". I love that song. And Cream - I'd love to do Cream's "White Room". And anything at all by Jethro Tull.

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