Choosing her battles
Ria Hall looked to the history of her ancestors in the New Zealand Wars for inspiration with her long-awaited debut album.
Ria Hall looked to the history of her ancestors in the New Zealand Wars for inspiration for her long-awaited debut album.
Aconcept album is a bold move in a musical era dominated by playlists and downloads. Even bolder is making such an album about 19th-century colonial conflicts. But that’s what Ria Hall has done with her debut long-player, Rules of Engagement, which is inspired by two battles near Tauranga in 1864 during the New Zealand Wars.
The Tauranga-based 34-year-old, who has worked alongside TrinityRoots, Stan Walker and Fly My Pretties, doesn’t pull her punches as she recounts the battles of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) and Te Ranga as a framework for songs about love, war, social issues, revolution and change.
Key to the album, and the subject of its title, are the four “Rules of Engagement”, which Ngāi Te Rangi preacher and warrior Henare Taratoa delivered to Governor Sir George Grey, outlining how both sides should conduct themselves and highlighting how mercy should be shown to those surrendering or seeking refuge, and for unarmed women and children.
Hall says she wanted to provoke debate about present-day New Zealand by drawing on history.
“I’ve never been a person who has written music about hooking up with someone in a club – I just don’t find anything substantial about that as a topic,” she says. “There’s a place for that music but just not in my place. I’d much rather talk about issues and provoke thought and try to effect some good change – that’s my little mission in life.
“And, yes, I had to be fearless in this work because I was coming in from a historical context and so I had to know my shit. I’m not a historian, I’m a creative and first and foremost I’m a descendant of the battles. So I am aware there could be some backlash to what I’ve created, but that happens anyway as an artist when you put yourself out there, and I’m pretty tough.”
The idea for the album came from a conversation over dinner in 2012 with TrinityRoots and Eru Dangerspiel drummer Riki Gooch. He had produced Hall’s debut EP the previous year and pushed her towards finding a single hook on which to hang her songwriting.
Having grown up in Tauranga and heard about the “Rules” from both the British colonial and tangata whenua perspectives, Hall says they were an immediate inspiration.
“I grew up on those stories so I already knew what I was getting myself into. I just thought it was a really interesting way to bring history back into the present and move it forward – it’s a dialogue we should continue to have so we can understand each other better and have a greater sense of the history of this place.”
Musically, the first draft for Rules of Engagement was put together in Wellington with Mara TK’s band Electric Wire Hustle. But after moving back to Tauranga from the capital in 2014, Hall put the project on hold. When New Zealand On Air funding came through at the end of 2016, Hall was able to complete the work alongside Tiki Taane, Mara TK, Che Fu, Kings, Laughton Kora and Sam de Jong, as well as poet Te Kahu Rolleston, kapa haka tutor Te Raania Ormsby-Teki and Te Ori Paki, who, with Hall, is a Marae DIY presenter.
Hall freely admits her choice of teammates seems a little male-heavy, though she’s collaborated with artist Tracey Tawhiao, who has created an exhibition inspired by the album and the stage set for Hall’s live performances.
Possibly the most important collaboration, though, is the use of archived recordings of her great-uncle Turirangi Te Kani discussing Gate Pā with pioneering broadcaster Ted Nepia in 1968. Three of the conversations – 50,000 Acres, The Battle and Te Ranga – act as signposts to the album’s historical landscape. Hall found copies at her local iwi station.
“I knew the recordings existed, but when the people at Moana Radio let me into their archives and these interviews were the first things I came across, it all made sense to me,” Hall says. “It was serendipity, but I think it was also the nod I needed from my own family that my ancestors and my grandfather and his family were saying, yes, you can do this.”
Although Rules of Engagement is set in the past, the music spans everything from hip-hop to traditional waiata, bass-heavy electronica and soulful R&B, and it moves effortlessly between English and te reo.
Hall’s connection to contemporary New
The music spans everything from hip-hop to traditional waiata, bass-heavy electronica and soulful R&B.
Zealand is loud and proud – a tension she has recently carried to both the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington and around South America as a representative of modern Māori music for the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute’s Tuku Iho exhibition.
Hall chuckles and fizzes through our interview, bouncing between political subjects, the 2007 Urewera raids, Winston Peters and a recent hour-long conversation with a homeless woman in Tauranga.
Rules of Engagement reinforces her “glass half-full” outlook that New Zealand can be a better place. She ends it with the song Hawaiki, which borrows the words of Kupe’s wife, Kuramārōtini, on first sighting land: “He ao, he aotea, he aotearoa.”
“This work isn’t about me creating something with these wonderful people, it’s about creating a dialogue among ourselves,” she says. “By ending on what Kupe’s wife saw and said when she first sighted New Zealand, it shows that we’ve all migrated here from somewhere. Whether you came on the Endeavour, or you came on the Tākitimu waka or you came on Air New Zealand, we’ve all migrated here and made it our place, our home.”
Rules of Engagement is released on
October 27. Hall is performing the album during the Tauranga Arts Festival on October 28 and at Lot23 in Auckland on November 4.
“Whether you came on the Endeavour, the Tākitimu waka or Air New Zealand, we’ve all migrated here.”
Ria Hall: “I had to be fearless in this work.”
Hall performing as part of Fly My Pretties.