Modern Maori Quartet’s national tour has some very big strings attached

by Russell Baillie / 21 February, 2017

Modern Maori Quartet: Maaka Pohatu, Francis Kora, James Tito and  Matariki Whatarau.

The “quartet” bit in the name of the Modern Maori Quartet is flexible. Sometimes, the line-up swells to five.

But on the group’s forthcoming New Zealand tour, the four on stage will become … hold on, let’s count … 69.

They will be joining forces with that other well-known local covers outfit, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

No, it’s not just the NZSO backing the MMQ, just adding some nice strings to the group’s suave, contemporary, comedic take on the Maori showbands of the 1960s and 70s.

“We always felt we wanted more ­collaboration between the two groups than having the orchestra as merely a backing group,” says Summer Pops ­conductor Hamish McKeich. “Sometimes that happens in crossover concerts and then it becomes all a bit pointless.”

When the Listener speaks to three of the MMQ over lunch, they haven’t yet rehearsed with the full orchestra. They’ve been in training, though.

Matariki Whatarau and James Tito go for salads as part of a pre-tour diet and fitness regime.

“We are trying to detox and get ­physically ready for this as well as vocally get ready for it,” says Whatarau.

“We want to be as ready as possible. This is a massive deal for us and we are taking it seriously.”

“It is both exciting and daunting for us,” says Matutaera Ngaropo, who is the band’s occasional fifth voice, dramaturge and musical director – all five are trained actors with stage and screen credits.

“The NZSO are a group who know exactly how each other work. They are at a level of virtuosity which is incomparable in this country. So, having to match that kind of game  …”

Conductor Hamish McKeich. Photo/Tracy Valarie

The show has been months in the ­preparation. No, it’s not just a matter of ­shouting the chords to Ten Guitars at the string section. Seven different arrangers, from South Auckland producer Anonymouz to ­contemporary classical ­composer-percussionist Gareth Farr, have been commissioned to ­orchestrate the MMQ’s songs.

The tunes range from waiata medleys from the Howard Morrison Quartet era to group originals written for an ­upcoming album. There has also been a script to write. The group, who had their foundations in theatre, say they want the concert to tell a story. One that is part history of Maori song, part evocation of the family garage parties they remember as kids.

Whatarau: “That was our dojo – being cheeky kids running around garage parties, trying to learn how to play guitar with your dad or stay up as late as ­possible for a singalong or sneak a beer. This is also a ­representation of how we grew up – just dressed up in suits.”

Well, like the NZSO, the MMQ are used to playing in formal attire.

The Rat Pack suits have been part of the group’s thing since it was founded by James Tito. He figured he and his fellow drama school graduate bandmates could put their musical talents to work between sporadic acting roles.

The original line-up of Tito, Maaka Pohatu, Whatarau and Ngaropo first appeared as the MMQ in their own ­musical play Nga Bro E Wha in 2013.

Ngaropo headed overseas for a role in stage musical The Lion King and was replaced by Francis Kora, late of the ­sibling rock band Kora and a graduate of Toi Whakaari.

They became the house band on the short-lived Temuera Morrison ­television variety show Happy Hour, adding ­singalong nostalgia and putting their own spin on the likes of Lorde’s Royals.

The opportunities kept coming – from corporate and arts festival gigs at home to shows in Britain, Hawaii, ­Australia, Malaysia and Uzbekistan. Although they’ve become a thriving self-contained entertainment business, they laugh that they still get mistaken for hit opera trio Sol3 Mio, despite the ­musical, racial and population dissimilarities.

Whatarau: “They are very different to us. They are trained singers, for starters. The sound they put out is nuts. We’re not that at all. We get mistaken a lot for them.”

Tito: “Even when there are four of us standing together.”

Whatarau: “Even straight after a show.”

Tito: “And they go to church. We skipped church.”

Whatarau: “When you hear PI voices, particularly Samoan and Tongan, you know that their inspiration has come from the church. Our inspiration is from the garage.”

In the coming weeks, the MMQ – and their new bandmates – will be heading to a dozen town halls and theatres around the country.

While the crossover tour might open the NZSO to a different audience, it also fulfils a cultural obligation for an ­organisation in which Maori have very little representation.

The Summer Pops tour will be a ­musically gentle start to 2017 for the orchestra. But McKeich says it won’t be boring for the players. “The music doesn’t have to be difficult for the ­orchestra in order for them to enjoy ­performing on stage. They have plenty of that ­elsewhere in the year. Maybe it will give us a ­chance to bring the comedy out.”

The orchestra won’t be playing on everything, though. The planned set list includes an unaccompanied MMQ ­playing Float On, the 1977 hit by R&B group the Floaters. The disco-era song is best ­remembered for its astrologically themed chat-up lines: “Leo and my name is Paul, you see I like all women of the world …”

There’s possibly a good reason the quartet will be doing that one alone. If all 69 on stage had a turn (“Pisces. Ah, hi. I’m Nigel from second violins …”), this garage party could go on all week.

The Modern Maori Quartet and NZSO Summer Pops tour starts in Napier on Thursday, February 23, and plays 12 main centres. 

This article was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.  

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