Rob Ruha

Aotearoa’s Finest: Big hearts, big voices and much aroha

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Text Stephen Fox
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Aotearoa’s Finest bring the power of Māori kapa haka to Hawai‘i stages this week. Aotearoa is the indigenous name for New Zealand; kapa haka (meaning, “to form a line and dance”) could be described as the Māori equivalent of hula, a traditional blending of song and dance. Summit spoke with group member Rob Ruha the same day the group performed in Kona. The group will perform two more shows, one on Maui and then on O‘ahu.

Ruha grew up practicing kapa haka on the east coast of Te Ika O Maui, New Zealand’s north island. A native speaker of te reo Māori, the Māori language, he speaks with fervor and intensity; a true believer and musical messenger for his culture.

“My background is in kapa haka,” Ruha relates. “My family is a strong kapa haka family, and it’s one of my earliest memories. I think my first performance with my family was when I was about four years old. My grandparents were renowned composers on the east coast [of Aotearoa]. I wrote my first song when I was about 12 years old, and started teaching kapa haka when I was 15.”

Aotearoa's Finest, (L-R): Horomana Horo, Seth Haapu, Maisey Rika, Rob Ruha

The group came together recently, though Ruha and Maisey Rika come from the same Te Whānau-ā-Apanui tribal kapa haka performance group. They met Seth Haapu performing together as openers for American R&B artist John Legend about five years ago. Ruha then met Horomana Horo, an expert in Māori traditional instruments, at a festival of Pacific arts in American Samoa. All are top performers in Māori music and represent a new generation raised proudly within the indigenous language and culture of their people.

“We are actually just good friends that really love jamming together,” Ruha says. “And we’ve been part of a really powerful upbringing in singing and dancing Māori music. When we come together, we create fusions of all the knowledge and experiences that we have been part of.”

Ruha speaks forcefully and rapidly with an earnest zeal. He tends to go on for long stretches; he has a lot to say, and he has the credentials of an expert in his art and its true purposes.

“It’s a powerful tool that creates social glue.” Ruha explains of kapa haka. “For our culture, song and dance is powerful. It’s a storehouse of historical knowledge; it’s a crystal ball for what we’re thinking for the future. There’s huge responsibility with that; excellence in delivering that. You are the vehicle of messaging; you are the vehicle of history; you are the vehicle of ancestry; of maintaining traditions.”

Like hula, kapa haka communicates deep cultural information. It conveys genealogies, history and identity information. Unlike hula, it has never really become popular as a tourist attraction. But it has excitement in spades.

“You’re constantly in this bubble of creating the most perfect experience you can, full of rapture and magnetism,” Ruha says. “To make sure that people are reached in a warm way; in a generous way. In a way that makes them feel really good. That’s what it’s like growing up in the kapa haka world. As well as the practical things—voice projection, how you stand, the composition nuances between tribes, the language differences, the way you stamp your feet and position your hands—that are uniquely you.”

The tour and, really, everything Ruha does is in service of the goal of restoring Māori culture, gaining autonomy and at least some measure of justice for the decades of cultural loss.

“That vision is powerful indigeneity and it permeates everything we do,” Ruha says. “Things like love. Things like—we call it whakaaro nui, to be considerate; to be sympathetic, empathetic towards people, towards their stories. To welcome them in with great warmth and understanding. Things like aroha. Here they have the aloha spirit, and that’s the same thing. It’s through our upbringing and these powerful cultural movements like kapa haka. It’s that clarity that we’re here to promote to all the communities that come to our shows. To our indigenous community, to those that are maybe not indigenous but have strong feelings on who they want to be and what they want to reflect about themselves.”

As with Hawaiian culture, Māori culture continues to strengthen as it recovers from decades of cultural erasure. The Māori people also face questions, similar to those faced by Hawaiians, of how to deal with change in an increasingly globalized world. How can the arts stay relevant without losing authenticity?

“We still sing songs that were written a thousand years ago,” Ruha explains. “And we sing them as commonly as people sing “Hey Diddle Diddle” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But in doing that, in maintaining thousand-year-old compositions, we have to rebrand them so they are still exciting for the current artists and audiences. When I was growing up, rule of thumb was that the most important thing was the messages and the stories that they hold, and everything else was up for grabs. Meaning the way that you produce them, the way that you arrange them, how the tune goes, the way that the tune is received by the audience is up for interpretation. But in terms of content, that’s what we are charged to do.”

The Hawaiian Renaissance inspired the Māori people, who in turn inspired Hawaiians with their kohanga reo, the model for Hawaiian language immersion schools.

“Pūnana Leo is a great example of this clarity of vision for our indigenous communities,” Ruha says about the private, non-profit preschools run by families, in which the Hawaiian language is the language of instruction. “When we have ultimate clarity, and we test that in movements, like the kapa haka movement, in our arts; when we have ultimate clarity, there’s a great magnetism to also see that in their own lives. The establishment of Pūnana Leo is a great example of how we can do that, and what can come of it when we start sharing out to the world.”

Ruha sounds like a political activist at times, but this is not his main purpose.

“Political action is a byproduct,” he explains. “In our shows here and in our life’s work it is to empower people to be themselves. Kapa haka teaches us how to be us; to be the best us. It teaches us what we are. Our songs are about championing us, our ways, so we have a clear vision of who we are and who we want to be. What that does is it aligns all the other activity. Political action, that’s activity. The most important thing is that we’re clear on who we are.”

Ultimately, Aotearoa’s Finest is a performance, and it looks to be a powerful one. Ruha describes his intent for the experience.

“It will be a roller coaster of emotion, because we’re emotional performers,” he begins. “We connect deeply with the messages we have to share. Audiences will get hit with a wall of sound that is uniquely us, uniquely Māori, based fundamentally on our kapa haka art forms and enhanced by contemporary sound. We’re contemporary artists as well. They’ll hear a lot of songs that are in our native tongue, te reo Māori. And if they don’t understand, that’s completely fine because we ask people to take the songs into their souls before they take them into their intellect. They’ll experience times where they want to share with us their tears and their laughter.”

They have big hearts, big voices, and much aroha. Aotearoa’s Finest will be a great experience, culturally, musically and emotionally.


Aotearoa's Finest with Maisey Rika

Maui Arts & Cultural Center, One Cameron Way Kahului, HI // Thur., Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m. // $40, all ages // 808-242-7469, Mauiarts.org

Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel Street, Honolulu, HI // Sun., Jan 28, 6 p.m. // $19-64, all ages // (808) 528–0506, hawaiitheatre.com

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