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Musician Warren Maxwell returns to his roots to connect Wairarapa Māori

Musician Warren Maxwell with “Nanny’’ Mihi Namana at UCOL’s  Whakaoriori Marae in Masterton. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw.

Musician Warren Maxwell has returned to his roots.

Trinity Roots frontman Warren Maxwell is laying down history, recording 25 waiata composed and sung by Wairarapa Māori, as part of a cultural project aimed at connecting iwi with their music across four generations.

It’s somewhat of a departure for the acclaimed musician, who’s used to recording and composing contemporary music – typically sung in English – for his dub-reggae band, but there were some fitting connections. Maxwell traces his own whakapapa to Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Rakaipaaka and Ngāi Te Rangi, and his recording studio is at the entrance to the Wairarapa region, in Featherston, where he lives.

Maxwell, a music lecturer at Massey University, spent many hours at marae around the region last year, recording a mix of traditional and contemporary waiata composed and sung by Māori, from children at Te Kōhanga Reo o Hinetearorangi in Masterton to whānau from local marae, and “nannies’’ from Te Rangimarie Marae in Rangiotū, near Palmerston North.

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The waiata, composed by local Māori and those with links to the Wairarapa, are a rich resource for hapū from Cape Palliser up to Mangakino, north of Taupō, where a number of descendants of Wairarapa iwi now live.

Maxwell, guitarist and lead singer with Trinity Roots since 1998, approached the project quite differently to recording the music of a contemporary band, relishing the experience of being greeted to each marae with a pōwhiri and engaging with local Māori through their waiata.

“I’ve recorded kaupapa Māori groups before, but I have never gone to marae like this and collected songs off-site,” he says. “It wasn’t just a matter of setting up microphones and getting on with it. There is a real kind of richness in terms of the diversity of the songs and the flavour of the music. What I love most about the songs is the integrity of the performances, and these will resonate across the generations.’’

Deborah Davidson, chairperson of the Wairarapa Moana Trust, says each marae was asked to sing its favourite waiata as a cultural record before kaumātua and other elders passed on. The recordings will be released slowly on Spotify and iTunes, and a limited number of DVDs will be gifted to kaumātua. Each recording was also filmed, and these will be uploaded to the trust’s YouTube channel. “They are a taonga for our people and our region,’’ she says.

Some songs in the collection feature guitars, others are choral pieces. One, composed by Wellington-based songwriter Hone Hurihanganui, “sounds like a spaghetti Western”, says Maxwell. The last in the series, “Whakapukepuke Ai I Aue”, was written two years ago by “Nanny’’ Mihi Namana with her friend, Lou Cook, to be sung at tangi. Namana says it references the sadness of the person’s passing and the local landscape: their ancestral mountains and the local Ruamahanga River. Sadly, Cook died last year, on Namana’s 80th birthday.

Now 81, Namana has lived in the region since she moved there with her family at the age of eight. She often sings at marae, particularly at tangi. “These waiata are important to our hapū and that’s why each marae has its own songs. Some of my children and mokopuna live in Australia, so this will be a way they can listen to waiata from here.’’

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

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