TE KAAHU: Māori Language & Music Is ‘Beautiful, Intelligent, Vulnerable & Sensitive’

19 September 2022 | 4:33 pm | Reshma Madhi

"Decolonisation is not a simple process. It is something that must be done with the utmost care."




TE KAAHU is the Māori music project by Aotearoa singer-songwriter Theia (Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Tāpa), who has released her first album, entirely composed in her Indigenous language, entitled Te Kaahu O Rangi.

We caught up with TE KAAHU ahead of the new vinyl release of the record, aptly timed in the same month as Māori Language Week, which this year commemorated the 50th anniversary of te Petihana Reo Māori (Māori Language Petition), where she broke down what her latest record means for her and what it remembers.

“The album are all songs I have composed in my Indigenous language, and not only that, but also my tribal dialect. The record is a tribute to my female ancestors – first and foremost my grandmothers, who I know would’ve cried to, danced to and loved these songs. Lyrically they rely heavily on metaphor, tribal sayings and proverbs. Sonically they are influenced by the music I grew up surrounded by. Traditional waiata such as mōteatea, pao and karanga, but also classics from the ‘50s and ‘60s - a weaving together of the ancient and the new.”

TE KAAHU has crafted a thoughtful, considerate creative work. One that commemorates and honours generations before.

“The album artwork is a nod to Māori portraiture of the 1800s. It’s painful to see the hurt in my ancestors’ faces as they sat for portraits in this time of war and land confiscation. My gaze is unapologetically fixed on the viewer: ‘You will not ignore me nor my people.’ Resistance and rangatiratanga. With me, in my arms, is the ever-present kaitiaki and taniwha of a kaahu (hawk) - a manu rangatira representing divine power and authority. This portrait is the manifestation of the TE KAAHU kaupapa. To heal, restore and empower my people.”

That connection and link to whakapapa (a line of descent from one’s ancestors) has been a story and a journey that threaded its way through the making of this latest release.

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“A lot of special things happened in the making of this record. One of them was that I went to my haukaainga (tribal lands) to shoot the video for the song Rangirara, which takes its name from my late paternal grandmother. We wanted to shoot the video in this old hall, which I’d visited with her in the past when she was alive. So my manager contacted the caretaker. When she told her why we wanted to hire the hall, the woman was so excited - it turned out we were whanaunga (relatives).” 

Nominated for Best New Artist at the Rolling Stones Awards NZ, this latest release follows up TE KAAHU’s critically acclaimed debut album. She has also made waves in the Canadian charts and just performed at this year's BIGSOUND in Brisbane, where she got to share some of the wairua (spirit) of her latest release beyond her ancestral lands.

TE KAAHU is equally as thoughtful when observing the recent rise in popularity for embracing Indigenous culture and language and how music can break down myths.

“I feel encouraged that we are seeing a shift in how te reo Māori is being embraced in Aotearoa. To see Māori faces on mainstream TV and hear our voices on radio is a huge step forward. We still have so much further to go, but we must also acknowledge the progress as well.

“I think there is still an element of tokenism and ticking boxes to some degree. That is something we all have to navigate – true change and progress can only be made when the desire to learn and embrace Māori language and culture is genuine and for the right reasons. Decolonisation is not a simple process. It is something that must be done with the utmost care, with Māori always at the heart of it.

“The ‘angry warrior’ trope has been peddled in the mainstream for generations but through these waiata, I want to help to shine a light on just how beautiful, intelligent, vulnerable, and sensitive our language and music is.”

Alongside making music, TE KAAHU also teaches te reo and is supporting those on the same journey as her.

“I always must pay respect to those who paved the way for us. Māori have been making music – and excellent music – for generations. And I am so grateful to those who came before me and who didn’t necessarily receive the recognition they were due – both in Aotearoa and internationally.

“I meet many Māori who are embarrassed that they’ve never been given the chance or have never felt confident enough to connect with their language and culture. To let them know that there is no shame in this and provide them with a safe and nurturing space to start that journey, is a privilege for me.”