Composer, poet, cellist and taonga pūoro practitioner Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is looking to the stars for inspiration on her next project, an especially commissioned piece for the upcoming Wellington Jazz Festival. I had a bit of a kōrero with her about writing her new festival work, Te Karanga o ngā Whetū, learning more about te ao Māori and finding her own place in the universe of things.
Ruby Solly is a powerhouse of creativity. During Lockdown last year she released her first album and in February performed with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra at the Auckland Arts Festival. Currently, she’s speaking at the Auckland writers Festival about her new book Tōku Pāpā, which speaks to Māori growing up outside of their papakāika.
So, a quiet life, then?
“I had a gig last night which finished at 10.30PM, which is late for a Sunday. Then I got home and ate, wound down, etc. It felt a bit hard doing this again after months of quiet last year (in Lockdown). I guess I haven’t got used to these late nights yet. Still, we’re performing again, so what am I complaining about? Ha!”
Now that it’s all back on, I ask, musicians and creatives are back to the usual cycles of boom and bust. Weeks of intense work followed by weeks with nothing to do, then work again.
“Yeah. It’s all on. Then it’s done and you realise there’s life before this, and you wonder what you were doing before. Not much, I think. Sitting on the couch watching the Simpsons.”
That is not true of Ruby Solly at the moment. There’s the festival commissions, the poetry book. And she actually wasn’t taking time off over Covid either. Last year Solly released the brilliant soundscape album ‘Poneke’, which almost seems to bottle the aural experience of being in the bush and surrounding hills of Whanganui-a-tara.
I want to shout out a huge mihi to Solly for capturing my world, my city, in this music. This took me right up through the Khandallah bush-line to the top of Mount Kaukau, where I explored as a child. The observation deck that you climb up to on the top gives you 360 views of the harbour. It was and still is my happy place. The use of bird calls and taonga puoro perfectly conjures up those memories. Warmly returning me, and many Wellingtonians back to treks and hikes up the city’s hillsides on sunny days, and picnics near the canopy line, as tui and piwakawaka flitter about attempting to swoop down and steal those stray, unguarded morsels.
“Ka pai.” She’s happy to hear that. “That’s really lovely. It was a really interesting project because at the start I was just doing it to document my learnings. But also my own learnings of my own whakapapa in terms of this place. It’s important, in terms of te ao Māori to learn of things in relation to where you are and where you fit in. And who and what you are working with. And it grew organically. But about halfway through, I realised I had the makings of an album. But it was never super polished or high production. The fact that it was a private project, never really done for the ‘public’ made it right for the … public (at large). Does that make sense?”
I ask her – does she mean it was a personal project without any commercial pressure or obligations from commissions? No demands for ‘a single’ or product, as an outcome.
“Yes. It was interesting for me because I’d worked on a number of other people’s projects for years and years, as a session musician.” That includes Whirimako Black, Trinity Roots and the New Zealand String Quartet amongst other notable musicians. “This was my project. There was actually pressure on me, to be myself. To represent myself in this work, for the first time. But as it went on, the pressure released as I developed my relationship with my surroundings. I guess I became more comfortable to explore where I was. So, this was an album, as it was, not as a person trying to make a claim in any way. This is how I relate to where I am, in Wellington.”
Brought up on the Central Plateau, Solly has lived and worked in a number of towns and cities around Aotearoa. But for now, at least, she’s really taken her adopted city to her heat. She lives in Aro Valley, a place full of creativity – from artists to academics, to brewers and music makers.
“Yeah,” she acknowledges, “All of that in one ‘personality’, eh! Music, writing, poetry is all connected.”
So, when you sit down to write, say a commission, as you have for the upcoming Jazz Festival, what is your driver, or guiding star? How do you focus?
“I think for me, remembering back to my early years growing up, a lot of what I was learning was through a pakeha lens. So, I didn’t always see where I fitted in. And there seemed to be a lack of resources. So, when I make music or my own resources, I try to include elements with a Māori voice. Like a bird or an element. I often have to research these because people often assume I just know which ‘voice’ to use. It’s not always the case.”
Solly is more than a musician. She’s also a qualified music therapist and academic. Does this help with her work?
“Yes. I thoroughly research and kōrero with those I trust, to check if it fits right or sounds right. And that includes a range of kōrero with different iwi, to make sure they are included. Every way is right.”
Solly is referring to her recently commissioned piece for the Wellington Jazz Festival, Te Karanga o ngā Whetū, which focus on stars that have significance within pūrākau Māori (Māori myths and legends), including Rehua, the star that taught birds, and in turn people, to speak.
This project will be brought to life with what she calls her ‘dream band’: “Tararua, my regular band, (with taonga pūoro practitioners) Alistair Fraser and Ariana Tikao and (double bassist) Phil Boniface. And we have guests Rosie Langabeer on piano, Riki Gooch on drums and Gerard Crewdson on trombone/euphonium. We want this to be a fresh multi-dimensional work, ancient knowledge for the mind, body and wairua. I love the way they work together, a really appreciative, supporting band.”
I ask Solly about the universal theme of birds acting as conduits for language. They appear in the legends of many countries, often as guiding lights to wisdom.
“I wanted to explore the concept that whakapapa is not just DNA. We often teach children or those who don’t have a deep concept of te ao Māori and we want t get the concept across quickly. We think in terms of bloodlines. But actually, it’s everything that’s gone into something to make it what it is now – be it a creation, a person, a story, art work. There are other whakapapas. Like my musical whakapapa which includes the musicians that went before me and the birds, right back to Rehua. Everything is interwoven but it means you have all these characters and knowledge backing you up and have the confidence to do what you need to do.”
Incorporating taonga pūoro and jazz instruments like double bass, piano, drums, trombone and euphonium this suite explores how mātauranga (wisdom) and pūrākau are passed down through music and chants. It delves into the link between Māori kōrero tuku iho (oral traditions) and jazz, another medium designed to pass on knowledge.
I tell her that I find it fascinating that for taonga pūoro every instrument, be it a nguru (nose flute) or Pūrerehua (wind instrument) all have unique voices and characters – birds, elements, concepts. Traditional jazz instruments such as drums or sax are multi-lingual, but they don’t belong to a character, they can only assume identities.
“Yes. Taonga pūoro are instruments that tell you what they are. Like a specific bird, the sound of the wind, or a spirit.”
I asked her about the first time that she touched these instruments.
“It was at my first primary school in National Park. I had a teacher who had Kōauau that she showed us how to play. I could get a few notes, but nothing major. But I got interested. Having that exposure is really important to nurture that, especially at an early age. I remember playing, getting that sound out and how it felt quite different to the sounds made by Western instruments. I didn’t play again for a while, those techniques laying dormant until I picked it up at University and started playing again. And I started working on qualifications for musical therapy for people with acute mental health, and then working as a player. I was already working as a musician, playing cello. So, playing some of these taonga pūoro was another skill that I picked up.”
Back to Te Karanga o ngā Whetū, what made her look to the sky for inspiration?
“I think it was a conversation I had about how stars have different pitches…when they fire up from earth. The distance between our earth and the stars can be measured by listening to the frequency that each star emits. The different pitch tells us how far away from earth they are. And, I was thinking of this in terms of te ao Māori, the legends and stories. And the awareness we have of the sky, who many things come to us from the whakapapa of the stars. This helped me further learn, understand and imagine the world around us, with us in the centre, with ngā Rangi tūhāhā (the ten spaced heavens) above and below, Raroheka (a house between the land of the living and the land of the dead). Where we sit in the wider world. It’s a beautiful journey, reclaiming knowledge, understanding how we live in the Māori world and the Pākehā world and learning this and the whakapapa of all the stars the stars is very beautiful and logical. There’s an idea in te ao Māori that’s everything is connected.
It’s not just stories. But science, too. We have a lot of conversations about how we can bring together, stories, culture and the relationship between science and music. My partner is a scientist. In Te Ao Māori mahi toi and science are connected. Geometry, weaving and stories are all connected. And so, I wanted to use all this in my music. I thought about how to convert the frequencies emitted by stars into musical notes and work them into a piece.”
This conversation is starting to blossom, especially around Matariki, I note.
“Yes. And the cool thing is that there’s now a national understanding of Matariki. But there’s also a beautiful regional korero around it, too. For example, different iwi have stories about inanga, whitebait, and how they are descendants of Ruhua. Each year at the time whitebait start to come out Ruhua’s children, which includes a small white flower, start to be seen on he banks of the river. This is a sign that spring is coming. Again – a connection between the stars, birds, stories and science.
And, I also have some Jewish whakapapa, and I’ve played in klezmer bands, country and blue grass, orchestras. I grew up around music from all quarters (Solly’s mum was a ukulele teacher, her dad is a singer, her grandmother played piano, her uncle was a musician and her stepdad was in the Hamilton County Bluegrass band). All this experience goes into my compositions. For instance, there’s a particular piece in my work called ‘Atuatahi’, which is one of the stars in the Southern Cross. It’s got this really sea shanty ‘feel’. It’s about navigation. With Rosie Laing playing accordion. It looks at voyaging, and what we did in the past and how we can only voyage for so long. Climate change could bring it all to an end. This piece brings Māori and English whakapapa and looks forward to when they finally merge together.”
Solly says that she takes her mission very seriously. She acknowledges that her commission is asking her to provide a work of substance and meaning, to bring to her audiences. She feels a weight of responsibility to her community.
“When you are given a platform of this size you need to be doing things that make people think about things (like climate change, mental heal, big issues) that they might not usually consider.
There’s a final piece called ‘Pohutukawa’ which is a kōrero about of indigenous women, who are 7-10 times more likely to be missing or murdered and the crimes left unsolved. This is an international problem. For instance, in the USA and Canada there is a big movement around this, and the wearing of the colour red to acknowledge this issue. (Solly is talking about Canada’s ‘Red Dress Day’ (May 5) the National Day of Awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). A similar event is held in the USA). The Pohutukawa is a red flowering tree, but also at the end of the world.”
This is another chance to bring in anther topic for kōrero and make people think more deeply after they leave the show.
“I want my audience to learn and dream and be entertained. To have an all-round experience. This is what all good music should be.”
This interview first appeared here: https://www.ambientlightblog.com/wellington-jazz-festival-2021-interviews-ruby-solly/