Dudley Benson On How Te Reo Māori Enriched His Life As a New Zealand Artist

"It was clear to me that I needed that foundational strength of te reo Māori."

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09 September 2018, 11:46pm

Image by Russ Flatt & Matthew Galloway

In 2007 I was 23, and working full-time in a music store in downtown Auckland called Marbecks Records. Marbecks was – and still is – the kind of place where people go to find something rare or to pick up an album recommended by one of the staff. When customers who raised my inner eyebrow bought an album I didn’t know, I’d take note and sometimes go back and find it. This was the case for Hirini Melbourne’s Forest & Ocean; interesting people would buy this CD, tucked away in the World section (problematic as he was an Aotearoa artist), and eventually I gave it a listen. I had no idea at the time that Forest & Ocean would become not only one of my favourite albums, but also the starting point for discovering a new identity for myself through te reo and te Ao Māori.

At the time, I’d just released my first music – three EPs of material I’d been experimenting with – and was recording my first album, which would come out the following year. Looking back now at the EPs and album, it’s clear to me they mirror my life as a Pākehā raised in a relatively privileged Christchurch community in the 1980s and 90s. The songs are mostly about my childhood before my mother Adrianne committed suicide – a golden painting of memories, a past lost and untouchable. But the songs go even further back in time, digging into the French ancestry that my mum started researching before she died. Through reading back into my genealogy to the point when my ancestors arrived in Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, I felt part of this place, legitimised and concrete, after the falling feeling of losing a parent as a teenager.

Moving to Auckland when I was 21, recording and releasing these songs shortly after, and becoming part of a new culture in that city, all coincided with my discovery of Hirini Melbourne’s music.

When I listen to Hirini’s songs I feel like I’m hearing the wind sing, or the Earth write lyrics. Though his waiata all grew from a place of activism against the threat of te reo Māori being lost, they’re also incredibly beautiful. Hirini wrote dozens of songs in the 70s, 80s and 90s for New Zealand children – and particularly tamariki Māori – to sing in school to give them foundational understanding of the language. They’re deceptively simple songs about nature: our birds, insects, trees. If I were ever to write something so on-point, I would feel I’d done my job as a songwriter.

My personal response to Hirini’s waiata was so strong that I felt compelled to record my own interpretations of his songs about birds. My approach wasn’t so much to aim to keep te reo alive – an effort he’d so successfully contributed to – but more as an environmentalist. Regardless of the starting point, it was clear to me that I needed that foundational strength of te reo that Hirini championed, so I took myself back to school and studied te reo at the University of Auckland Māori Studies department for two years.

Learning te reo for me was initially terrifying. As a Pākehā with very little knowledge of tikanga, I was super aware of coming across as a white honk. Maybe at times I did – I don’t know. Our lessons were largely on te marae, and our kaiako were hugely respected elders within te Ao Māori, but their style was so interactive that students had to be involved at all times. Mistakes were totally OK, and we grew to support each other as students, especially during projects that sometimes brought up a lot of emotions. We were learning mihi, whakapapa, tikanga, the way a marae functions and is built, and, of course, conversation. By the end of my time there, I was able to present a five-minute whaikōrero on my aroha and respect for Hirini Melbourne, and have our class sing his waiata with me; it was at that point that I felt ready to record my album Forest: Songs by Hirini Melbourne.

There’s been a lot of Jurassic roaring recently over whether te reo Māori is important for non-Māori New Zealanders, and why it should or shouldn’t be compulsory in schools. As someone who had no choice but to study the novelty of Latin for four years – an actual extinct language – I can say te reo is not only far more practical in my life as an artist in Aotearoa, but also enriching to my identity. Though te reo hasn’t been a huge part of my most recent album, Zealandia, the Māori world-view I was exposed to through studying the language had a great impact on the record. In some ways, language is the passport to a whole other experience of culture, of history and, most importantly, of how another person feels and lives in this shared world.

As long as Māori continue to suffer in health, justice, suicide and income statistics, it’s my duty and privilege as a Pākehā to do everything possible to understand how it feels to live with the knowledge that this is happening to tangata whenua, to New Zealanders. Te reo Māori is the beautiful and ideal starting point.