Bringing Attention to the Maori Language, One Song at a Time

In August, Lorde released her third album, “Solar Power.” Three weeks later, she put out an EP called “Te Ao Marama,” with five songs from the record translated into Maori, the Indigenous language of New Zealand. The second release was no mere afterthought — it was part of longtime conversations in her native country about boosting a language that not long ago experts feared could die out.

“Pakeha artists have been lending their support to the language revitalization movement for years, and as someone with global recognition, I knew at some stage I would do the same,” Lorde wrote in an email, referring to non-Maori New Zealanders. “But ‘Te Ao Marama’ didn’t come from a place of duty. I am richer for having sung in te reo” — which means “the language” in Maori — “and also for having made the connections that made doing so possible.”

When the musician and producer Dame Hinewehi Mohi, one of the primary engines behind the musical Maori revival, performed the New Zealand national anthem at the 1999 Rugby World Cup in Maori rather than English, she got “such an adverse reaction from a minority of people,” she recalled in a recent interview. Twenty years later, she assembled “Waiata/Anthems” (waiata means “song”), an album of English tracks performed in Maori that includes a translation of Benee’s “Soaked” and Kings’s “Don’t Worry ’Bout It.”

“Before this,” Mohi said, “there were only a handful of artists recording in te reo Maori.”

The public’s response to the album astounded her: “Waiata/Anthems” debuted at No. 1 on the New Zealand charts in 2019. The work, and interest in Maori music, has not subsided. This year, the public broadcaster TVNZ released a documentary series that followed different artists translating and recording their songs in Maori for a second installment of the project. More than 30 tracks in Maori were released as a playlist, eight of which made it into the local Top 40, and two in the Top 10.

Awareness and celebration of Maori music is mirroring a shift in attitudes toward the language across New Zealand. The country’s European settler government suppressed Maori beginning in the mid-1850s, punishing children who spoke their language at school and deliberately dispersing Maori families in white neighborhoods to assimilate them, creating far-reaching whakama, or shame, around it. By 1987, when Maori was finally declared an official language, the vast majority of its remaining speakers were older.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of supporters, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said in 2018 that her newborn daughter would learn both Maori and English. Newscasters now greet in Maori; weather reporters call places by their original, Maori names; supermarket signs tell you where the “chicken/heihei” is. Kotahi Rau Pukapuka, an endeavor that aims to publish 100 books in Maori over the next 25 years, is already far ahead of schedule. Mohi’s idea to bring attention to the language via contemporary music was pragmatic: More than half of the Maori population, which make up nearly 17 percent of the total population, is under 30 years old.

But who sings in Maori, and how, has also become a flash point. Lorde was criticized in the wake of her EP’s release by those who argued that white speakers are privileged to do so without having to address the trauma of the Maori people; or said that the EP is a painful reminder of how many Maori haven’t had access to their own language. Other observers called her project “a pop culture landmark we should welcome” and “a very powerful international statement about the currency of the language.” Mohi had approached Lorde about working on the original “Waiata/Anthems” because “you want the biggest audience” exposed to Maori, she said.

Singing has always been a large part of Maori culture: In formal meetings, it is compulsory to sing after your speech (these “songs” are more like chants). Songs are used to pass on information, including “telling the grandchild what deaths he needs to avenge, what things he needs to remember, the important features of tribe history,” said Sir Timoti Karetu, an expert on Maori language and culture.

Maori people sing other songs — love songs, naughty songs, insulting songs — in everyday life, too. “We sing no matter where we are,” Karetu said. Music helped keep the language alive even when the government’s restrictions were in place. Maori people adapted with the times, writing new tunes highly influenced by Pakeha melodies. “We’ve borrowed the tune and done our own thing,” Karetu said.

Bic Runga, a Maori singer involved in both “Waiata/Anthems” releases, said, “There’s a really big shift in awareness here.” She was in the process of reconnecting with her roots when Mohi approached her for the first album, which included her song “Sway,” made famous by the movie “American Pie.” Though Runga had only absorbed little bits of Maori in elementary school, as a result of doing “Waiata/Anthems,” she’s been connected to more fluent speakers and is trying to incorporate Maori into her emails, like opening with “tena koe” instead of “hi.”

Runga has tried writing a song in Maori, although it’s not as simple as translating the text directly. “It was kind of spooky — it was about talking to death,” she said. When the lyrics were getting checked, she found out she’d been using the literal translation for death instead of the personified word — Maori is a very metaphorical language associated with a worldview that is more connected with nature, and doesn’t necessarily follow Western assumptions.

“It’s very easy to do a literal translation, but that’s meaningless to both cultures — it’s just words,” Karetu said.

An example of its nuance can be found in Lorde’s “Hine-i-te-Awatea,” or “Oceanic Feeling.” Hana Mereraiha, who translated it, said she was granted creative license for the three songs she worked on; the album “Solar Power,” with its dedication to the sun and everything living under it, was quite Maori in spirit already.

“There’s a really beautiful concept in te ao Maori, that of kaitiakitanga,” Lorde wrote. “It refers to an understanding that people and environment are interconnected and dependent on each other’s care to thrive.”

The final line of the third verse of “Hine-i-te-Awatea” refers to the Maori idioms “paki o Hewa” and “paki o Ruhi,” which both mean fine weather, referencing the deities Hewa and Ruhi — “paki o Ruhi” is associated specifically with summer. Its last part, “te ao marama,” is a translation of the equivalent line in the English version, “I can make anything real,” as it refers to when the god Tane separated his father (Rangi-nui, the sky) from his mother (Papatuanuku, the earth), and brought light into the world.

Mereraiha “broadened the universe of the song so that all the spiritual presences I could always feel but could never articulate were there,” Lorde wrote. “The Maori version feels like the original to me now.”

Since Mereraiha started translating, she has worked with around 12 artists, and is writing and singing as well. “Dame Hinewehi has opened up many pathways into the music industry,” she said.

The Maori singer Marlon Williams, who made a brief appearance in “A Star is Born” in 2018, decided to write his next album completely in Maori. Like Runga, Williams didn’t really speak Maori until a few years ago — he attended a kohanga reo, a total immersion preschool, and took some Maori at high school, but none of it stuck.

For Williams, learning the language fresh has helped his songwriting. “I’m not aware of the errors I’m making,” he said, so he’s “not weighed down by them.” He relies on a collaborator, Kommi Tamati-Elliffe, a hip-hop artist and Maori lecturer at the University of Canterbury, to check over his work and find solutions when phrases aren’t working.

“We’re on another awkward step on the globalization ladder where everything is mixing and melding,” Williams said. But he believes listeners don’t need to understand the lyrics for the songs to become big hits. “I don’t know any more Spanish after listening to ‘Despacito,’” Williams said. “Things that exist in the pop realm sometimes are their own thing.”

Language revitalization is “a never-ending battle,” Karetu said. “All of us who have been colonized by somebody else are struggling for our languages to survive.” But, when it comes to songs, he’s more positive. “Waiata will never die. I think waiata will go on forever and ever.”

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