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.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By James Belfield

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.

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