East Coast singer-songwriter Rob Ruha is recognised as a leader in traditional Maori music. Ruha and his band the Black Quartet play as part of Matariki on the Move at this year’s Matariki Festival. Interview by Grant Smithies.
You’re a modern day Maori crooner, albeit it with a unique musical edge. So where does that voice come from?
Kapa Haka. Like many Māori around the country, I’ve been doing kapa haka from a very young age. My whole whānau has. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have performed with some of the best kapa haka teams in the world – that means hours and hours of training, lip trills, scales, breathing exercises and everything else that goes with producing a good sound. Kapa haka is also the cornerstone to my particular brand of recorded music that I call ‘Haka-soul.’ Kapa haka informs the presentation of my ideas vocally, the way I move on stage, the way I dress – everything! That includes what happens off stage too, like having karakia before and after every show, being respectful to everyone from the event organiser to the stage sweeper, sharing ideas, not being late, and remembering that I represent more than just myself in what I do.
You perform these days as Rob Ruha and the Black Quartet. Does that name hark back to the glory days of the Howard Morrison Quartet and the Maori showbands?
It’s more a reference to string quartets. I was fortunate enough to have the Black Quartet play on my second single ‘Tiki Tapu’ and for me the strings sold it. I think that classic orchestral sound is under-utilised in today’s music – but I love strings, so I thrash them in my music. For me, they provide a depth of sound, drama and dynamic that is a perfect match for a kapa haka mind. When you mix the two, you can paint amazing pictures that are captivating, provoking, explicit yet abstract, contemporary and relevant.
What is it like playing on the marae compared to more conventional venues?
Playing at the marae is nerve wracking! Everyone knows you and everyone is waiting to pick you to bits! Honestly, I would rather sing solo to a stadium of 10,000 people in Auckland or Australia. In saying that, the marae is where it’s at for me. It’s the ultimate test of how good you are, and if you can crack it there, you can crack it anywhere. Also, if you have their support, you have it for life and that is overwhelmingly powerful.
What does Matariki mean to you and what do you do to celebrate the Maori New Year?
For me, Matariki is a time to reflect and prepare. For my whānau, we always make sure that if we can’t make the Huamata (Ringatū karakia that is connected to traditional Matariki practices) we will return home to Te Whānau a Apanui to the tekau-mā-rua (Ringatū service held on the 12th of every month) in June. It is a time when those we have lost during the year are at the forefront of our thoughts and those who are still with us get a bit more attention.
You now live in Rotorua but grew up in Hicks Bay. What do these areas mean to you?
Hicks Bay or Wharekahika will always hold a special place in my ngākau. My dad, brothers, sister and grandfather still live there; my tīpuna are buried there, my marae is there – that is my papa-tipu. Lots of memories and lots of good times like endless summers at the river, fish and chips at the beach, lambs tails at school, kapa haka on the tennis courts with fluorescent Dazzle spray tī-rākau, fundraising cabarets at the marae and a whole lot more. I also whakapapa to Ngāti Rangiteaorere and Tuhourangi in Rotorua. My wife has whakapapa here also through Ngāti Rangitihi so we are at home away from home in Rotorua too. Our dream is to return home to the east coast to raise our kids there. We have some whenua in my dad’s iwi Te Whānau a Apanui and plan to head there to settle in a couple of years.
How has your sound evolved on your new album?
My last album Tiki Tapu was an opportunity to trial musical possibilities for my compositions outside of a kapa haka context. The new album ‘Pūmau’ is an extension of those ideas, showcasing collaborations with some amazing artists I admired growing up and some emerging artists I think are gonna be the next big thing here in NZ. Strings will feature again in many tracks as well as a strong rhythm section dressed with some new accents I think people are really gonna feel. I’m really excited about this one.
Rob Ruha and the Black Quartet play July 1 at Te Mahurehure Marae, Point Chevalier; 2 July, Orewa Community Centre; 3 July, Waiuku Town Hall, Waiuku; 4 July, Te Ao Marama Marae, Te Hana. More info: matarikifestival.org.nz. The new album Pūmau is released August 21.
– Sunday Star Times
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