Haka Soul Meets Symphony

The ‘haka soul’ catalogue of Māori musician Rob Ruha (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui/Ngāti Porou) will be reimagined for orchestra on 23 June in celebration of the Māori New Year, Matariki. Journalist Ximena Smith spoke to Ruha about what audiences can expect from his collaboration with the APO, Ka Pō, Ka Ao. 

Rob Ruha and his whānau have been doing kapa haka (a traditional form of Māori song and dance done in a group) since before he can even remember. “All my brothers and sisters, we all haka together. And our grandparents before us, our greatgrandparents before them… I come from a family of songwriters and performers of waiata Māori,” Ruha explains. 

So, it’s no surprise that the music Ruha now makes as a solo artist has a distinctive kapa haka influence – group chanting, harmonic vocal ensembles, body percussion, te reo Māori lyrics - fused with modern R’n’B, soul and reggae hooks and melodies. Ruha describes his music as ‘haka soul’, which he says is more of a feeling than a genre or a sonic style.  

“The biggest thing that I take away from writing for kapa haka is that you are never, ever writing for yourself or about yourself,” he says. “You are writing to move people from the depths of their soul to action, to think, to move, to stamp their foot, to tap their toe, to bob their head, and to do all of those kinds of things. I think for me, haka soul is a release of powerful energy through music, from the depths of my soul.” 

This June, Ruha and his band The Witch Drs. will join forces with the APO for Ka Pō, Ka Ao, a one-night celebration of the Māori New Year, Matariki. Emotional power ballads like ‘I Te Pō’ and R’n’B 

summer anthems like ‘Kalega’ are among the tracks from his eight-year musical catalogue that will get the APO treatment, and several new, unreleased songs will be added into the mix as well. 

Ruha says that a lot of the pieces from his catalogue already have some string and brass arrangements, thanks to the composer Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper, so he’s looking forward to fleshing out those arrangements even further with the might of the APO at his fingertips. 

The show’s underlying theme is of darkness/night (Te Pō) and light/day (Te Ao), which Ruha says represents the creative process of bringing thoughts and ideas into fruition.  

“As opposed to being a binary that is like good and evil, it’s actually the journey from darkness into light,” he says. “Darkness for us symbolises creativity and the most potent form of innovation and thought, and then light is the coming together of all those ponderings and meditations you would have in the darkness and releasing all those things out into the world.” All the aural components of the show will weave together over the course of the night to reflect this light/ darkness journey, he adds. 

The show’s theme also of course pays tribute to the rising of the Matariki star cluster, Ruha says, which signals the start of the Māori New Year and can be best seen at night during the mid-winter months. 

It’s an important time of year for Ruha and his whānau - like many Māori, they spend Matariki reflecting on the year that’s been, celebrating achievements and looking ahead to  future possibilities and opportunities. This year is a particularly special milestone for Ruha, with Matariki being recognised officially as a public holiday for the first time.  

He says he’s honoured that Ka Pō, Ka Ao will help mark the occasion by taking place on the eve of the new public holiday. “It’s an opportunity for us as Aotearoa to truly celebrate a holiday that is uniquely us, that only comes from this whenua, this country,” he says. “And to do that in our lifetime… that’s an amazing taonga (gift) that we get to give to the next generation of Aotearoa citizens. It’s a beautiful thing!” 

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