Māori entertainer Rob Ruha doesn’t want to be called a pop star. His bio describes him as an artivist, a hybrid artist and activist. Music is the platform for Ruha gifts these days; it’s much more than entertainment.
“I’m a ‘monstar’ maybe but when I think of popstars I think about beautiful people like my brothers Stan Walker and Troy Kingi,” Ruha chuckles.
“I grew up with Troy doing kapa haka on the East Coast together. Maisey Rika, Ria Hall, they’re pop stars, so are a heap of kapa haka people. But I just do me and love writing songs.”
Ruha’s just name-dropped some of the biggest stars on the Māori music scene, artists he’s sometimes related to, and most of the time has collaborated with in Aotearoa and around the globe. The Aperahama twins were also influential when Ruha was a teen.
Ruha is understating his presence in popular culture, however. Because 35, a song he wrote and performed with the rangatahi choir Ka Hao has gone ballistic, with more than 12 million views on Tiktok and a number 1 spot on the Top 40 NZ songs chart. And if you listen to commercial radio, it would almost be impossible to have missed the song that celebrates life on State Highway 35, which meanders around the stunning East Coast of the North Island, from Opotiki to Gisborne.
The song has been especially popular with African American communities and indigenous nations around the globe. New videos are still being made by children, politicians, television celebrities and TikTok influencers like Dogg Face (the Fleetwood Mac skateboarding sensation) – who have millions of followers.
“For the kids [a song going global] a normal thing that happens on Tiktok, it’s been more exciting for the adults! The rangatahi are proud that people would love a song about where they are from.”
‘These things have shaped me’
Three years ago, Ruha helped establish Ka Hao, as part of a range of strategies to address social issues on the Coast, and articulate the cultural values of the area. A sold-out tour of Tairāwhiti quickly followed and the young people went on to record an album One Tira, One Voice.
“My focus has always been rangatahi,” Ruha says about the song which was written in less than an hour. “Protest, faith, history, spirituality – kids need these things to be leaders of the future.”
Ruha’s strongly connected to Tairāwhiti, both parents are from there and his childhood was spent between Hicks Bay and Waihau Bay. And music – and art – has long been in him.
“My childhood was kapa haka, kapa haka, marae, kapa haka,” he laughs. “We still do kapa haka together; it’s a whānau thing.
“I’m an eighties boy, so when I was a kid, the kōhanga reo movement was just kicking off and gaining momentum. Our pākeke (elders) started to share the knowledge they had hidden for so long. Te reo Māori was a very natural part of my upbringing.
“And my whānau is creative in a broader sense too. My grandmothers were both weavers. Aunties and uncles were carvers and moko experts. Art, creativity, Māoritanga, spirituality – these things have shaped me and that has trickled down to my tamariki.”
Music is universal
Moving to Porirua in the early nineties for high school would prove discombobulating.
By the nineties, Māori had been migrating to urban centres from their tribal homelands for more than 50 years. Tribal networks like Ngāti Porou ki Pōneke sprouted to strengthen iwi connections and support whānau into city life.
“I wasn’t used to being away from whānau. Going to Mana College [in Porirua for Year 11] where I could count my relations on one hand was a culture shock. I was in a different iwi territory, and it was actually something I struggled with. The whānau I did have in Porirua pulled me into groups like Ngāti Porou ki Pōneke.”
“[Mana College] is where I got the music bug. Manny Abraham was our music teacher. He is the older brother to Ruia and Rānea Aperahama, and we studied their music during music classes.”
If you’re not familiar with the Māori music scene, it is thriving. Made with Māori audiences and iwi radio in mind, performers routinely switch between English and te reo Māori. They’re also used to playing at festivals around the world, and over the years the influences on Māori music have diversified, and now range from rhythm and blues to Afro beats.
Some of the tracks on Ruha’s latest album Preservation of Scenery have a chilled jazzy house vibe. These days you hear Māori music on George FM and in the Koru Lounge. Groups like LAB and Shapeshifter routinely record songs in te reo.
“I create my music primarily for my people,” Ruha says thoughtfully. “But actually, it is for whoever, it is for everyone, it is universal. [The track] 35 is an example of that. Through social media people are hearing the songs and the resistance to Māori music is disappearing.”
Ruha’s articulating an evolution for Māori music, and there’s always a tension and hesitancy when Māori art shifts into the generic cultural space. The excitement of reaching new audiences is tempered by a latent anxiety about what might be lost in the process.
‘I didn’t feel that I fit in’
Ruha would move from Porirua to Gisborne to complete his last two years of school. This is where he met his wife – Cilla Beach from Ruatorea. They have gone on to have five children. In the process, Ruha’s had a number of reinventions. After finishing school, the Ruhas would work in Hawaii, performing at local resorts, managing the kapa haka aspects of luao performances.
“Hawaii is a very special place. Being a native speaker of te reo, it was easy to make the switch and communicate with the locals. It was almost dialectal, similar to speaking to someone from another iwi.
“We have a whakapapa that connects us to the Hawaiian islands. I felt a very real, a very ancient connection with the people, that was deep in my puku.”
Returning to New Zealand, Ruha went on to guest lecture in dance at the University of Auckland, manage the marae at Unitec, and coordinate a Bachelor of Performing Arts programme at Te Whare ō Awanuiārangi. He was also the Director of the National Institute of Māori and Pacific Performing Arts.
“Now all of that feels like an old life.
“I didn’t have any musical aspirations because I didn’t feel that I fit in. I didn’t see other artists who wore moko or spoke te reo – as a natural part of their response to the world. Writing music was always part of my jam and I was quite happy to do that for kapa haka.”
On a trip to Hawaii with Ria Hall and Maisey Rika, Ruha was asked to perform by himself.
“Maisey said, it’s time for you to hang your piupiu up, you’re going to do this mahi now. So, with their support we launched into building a music career – 2014 was my first new release.
“I was happy to make music, try new things and experiment. I took this template from kapa haka and experimented with it in this new world. I was prepared to go in and explore. I didn’t have any grand plans, I was just happy writing – and doing something new.”
‘Sing from your heart, your soul, your puku’
Ruha’s had quite the trajectory since he started his solo career. Ruha’s music has picked up number one spots on Te Reo Radioscope charts, iTunes and occupied top 10 spots on The Official NZ Music Charts, NZ Heatseeker Singles and NZ Albums. Ruha was also presented a Laureate Award by the New Zealand Arts Foundation in November 2017.
“I’m attracted to rn’b and soul. I love the purity and the depth of spirituality you can feel in reggae. A lot of Bob Marley’s compositions were quite prophetic, in that way it’s comparable to Tuini Ngāwai’s compositions.”
Ngāwai, an esteemed song writer from Tokomaru Bay, wrote about racism, oppression, and Te Tiriti. These issues are close to Ruha’s heart.
“There’s a soulfulness about (performers of colour). They sing with their heart, passion and conviction.
“When you sing mōteatea, haka, when you sing songs of protest, you sing from a place that is very disconnected from your intellect. When you sing from your heart, your soul, your puku – these places are warm. Everything has mauri (life spark), and when you perform, it comes from that pure source.
“I want to engage with that spiritual resonance and create what it wants me to create, what my ancestors want me to create, and fashion something new out of it.”
Preservation of Scenery: the new album
Rob Ruha has definitely got some pipes and croons across the twelve tracks like a latter-day Maxwell. Thematically the album could only hail from Aotearoa though.
There are elements of protest, and there is the sadness of the Māori experience – a grieving for the loss of land, language and culture. Also, a tribute to prime minister Jacinda Ardern. The song Taka Rawa comes with a challenge, to embrace Māori knowledge and take it forward into global leadership.
The album is beautifully produced and there’s some romance and seduction in there too.
“Ko te oranga o te Māori, ko tōna Māoritanga. Ko te whakatinanatanga mai ko tōna reo, ko tōna whakapono, ko wōna maunga, ko wōna awa, ko wōna moana, ko wōna whenua. Ko au e tū atu nei, ko te ariari a rātau mā, te whakapuru mauri o wēnā taonga katoa.
“Māoritanga is life, you can feel it in our mountains, you can feel it in our rivers, in our song, in our art – and in our oceans and in our land. I am just a vessel for all of that beautiful essence and quintessence, an effigy of those gone before me.”