Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Our taonga, our sacred object. That which brings us together. The ukurere.

Tucked under the head of my Maton ukulele is a piece of pohutukawa. But in the pōwhiri it has the honour of being rākau whakaara. And my ukulele? Let's call it my taonga in this ceremony. It felt like both got married last weekend in a wee town on the far side of Aotearoa.

We first did so 2 years ago. It was an incredible time then, and so it is again.

The gentleman is not being so gentle. 

He is visibly and audibly angry at me, and at the hordes of manuhiri (visitors) who have walked up from the beach, onto the land of these people, the tangata whenua. With no shirt (man is he buff!), a traditional flax skirt (piupiu) which clicks loudly with each lunge and sway, and a mighty whacking stick of some sort (taiaha), he, and his angry face, are something fearsome. I'm told that the apparent anger is the way they make people welcome in these parts, a ritualised challenge to we visitors, and to get us to display our intentions, good or otherwise. But the cultural legacy, for me, as pakeha, is fear. I can't help it. Otherwise I am just a tourist.

Thanks to Kiri, all of that anger is being channelled at me, for I represent the hordes of damn Aussies following me up the path. I am grateful that Kiri is there, guiding me in the protocols. Go Forward! STOP! WAIT! PICK UP THE STICK WHEN HE PUTS IT DOWN! All of these are whispers, but they are received with urgency. Don’t take a wrong step Mark.

Where’s the 'stick' (rākau whakaara)? The angry bloke, with his larger mate, are waving their taiaha around, right in front of me. I feel like they are threatening to take my head off, but I stand my ground, and hold their wide eyes. He reaches around behind, and pulls out a piece of pohutukawa, the rākau whakaara. I am struggling, holding my taonga, (my Maton ukulele), my crumpled piece of paper (my mihi), and his eyes which watch my every step. He places the rākau whakaara on the ground, and I make a move to pick it up. He gets even more angry, scything his taiaha, fiercely pointing at the rākau whakaara that I am to pick up, but I (truly) leap back in fear.

Things seem to calm down a bit, he takes a cautious move away, his eyes always on me. Kiri whispers ‘ok’, and I retrieve the rākau whakaara. Great. Now three important things to juggle, my mihi (now crumpled and sweaty), my taonga, and now the rākau whakaara, which somehow seems to represent a temporary agreement sacrament between me and the tangata whenua. The two warrior men seem satisfied, and go back to join their people.

This bunch of beautifully dressed, harmonising, fiercely haka-ing tangata whenua are Te Whakatohea. They are the original people of this region. They are the proud people of Opotiki. They are also the  regional winners of this year's Kapa Haka competition, and will soon be going on to Wellington to compete in Te Matatini - the National Kapa Haka Competition.

An older gentleman steps forward. He is bald, clean shaven, his entire head covered in tattoos. He is the showman running the pōwhiri. But to say 'showman' is almost to to imply disrespect. None meant, for this man is Dudu Maxwell, a kaumatua - a venerated elder. He explains, in English, all of the elements we are witnessing. He cracks jokes, they sing waiata, they haka some more, sing a bit, and then, something gets lost in translation. They forget that I too have a story and a waiata to share. After 20 minutes or so of being entirely immersed and educated, he seems to be winding things up. Has he remembered me? Us? Someone says something, and he goes ‘oh! Someone is going to respond’?!

That’d be me, the big man (who feels little inside). I uncrumple my mihi and commence.

‘Tena koutou! Tena koutou’.

In Te Reo (Maori language), I thank them for hosting us so generously in 2017. We are from the large swimmer crab to the left (or Ahiteraria – Australia – there are no ‘Ls’ in Maori), from Newcastle, from Yohaaba, from Merewether.

We are here because of ukureretanga (our culture, brought together by our taonga, the ukulele). It brings us joy, it brings us music-making – ko whakatangitangi, it brings us together. And then we offer our gift, our song, our waiata, which is one of theirs. Not awfully well known, but 30 of us start to sing, no ukureres, but we sing in Te Reo, and we do so with good voice. There are clearly murmurs from the other side. That pakeha fella, he has done well, speaking Te Reo (maybe they laughed a bit at my accent), and now his people are singing in Te Reo. They are alright.

And then it felt like the ultimate respect and tribute - they step forward, and sing with us. We all sing our waiata together. And with this we are joined together.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

We are joined. We are joined. We are all joined together.

As Kiri said later in a Facebook exchange

Kei te pai, grasshopper