17 Nov 2023

Bringing classically-trained confidence to waiata project

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 17 November 2023
Kawiti Waetford

Kawiti Waetford Photo: Supplied

Kiwiti Waetford is having a little trouble hearing interviewer Bryan Crump.

He's speaking to the RNZ Concert host from the deck of the TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu and there are a few unruly tourists nearby.

There's been a bit of a link between New Zealand opera and unruly tourists, but the Welsh-trained baritone's latest musical adventure isn't operatic: he's been called in to advise some of Te Tai Tokerau's brightest young performers of waiata and soul sung in Te Reo Māori.

The Barber Shop Sessions is a recording project based in Northland featuring local singers performing in Māori.

Waetford's involvement from a Te Reo Māori perspective makes perfect sense. Descended from Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Wai and Ngāpuhi, Māori was Waetford's first language.

But what's an opera singer doing advising singers from the soul and reggae world?

He's certainly not trying to get them to sing operatically. As far as Waetford is concerned, good singing technique is universal.

"All a vocal coach or singing teacher does is remove, or assist in removing, any bad habits," he says, whether it's jaw tension, or tongue tension, or negotiating any break in the singer's voice.

"Whether they are singing opera, reggae, R&B or soul, the voice does what the voice does, and really what you are trying to do is assist their voices to sing in the best possible way that they can sing, in their style, and all really from the heart."

Te Whānau Mānihera perform in the band IllumiNgāti

Te Whānau Mānihera perform in the band IllumiNgāti Photo: Tai Huri Films / Ryan Alexander-Lloyd

So far, Tahi.fm, RNZ's youth-oriented online platform, has "dropped" two episodes of The Barber Shop Sessions.

One features the eight-piece reggae band IllumiNgāti, the other, the prodigiously talented 15-year-old Kapowairua Waitai.

A soulful performance by Kapowairua

A soulful performance by Kapowairua Photo: Tai Huri Films / Ryan Alexander-Lloyd

So here's the thing, there's not a barbershop quartet in sight. Where does the name comes from?

That's to do with the location, explains Waetford: The Chop Shop Barbers in Kerikeri.

Turns out this is the second podcast series to come out of this hair care establishment.

In the first, Chop the barber-turned-interviewer talked with his male customers about life and mental health.

The podcast, produced by Tai Huri Films, was so successful they made a second series, this time focusing on the local music scene – hence The Barber Shop Sessions.

The fact that Waetford, a trained singer, is based just down the road made him a natural choice as the vocal coach for the series, but the real clincher was the focus on singing in Te Reo Māori.

Being a confident speaker of both Te Reo Māori and Te Reo Pakeha has given Waetford the confidence to "walk the tightrope" separating Te Ao Māori from the Pakeha world.

It's only natural he'd jump at the chance to bring that approach into his musical life.

"We, particularly my generation, were the product of the first efforts of the renaissance of Te Reo Māori through the Kohanga Reo movement and the Kura Kaupapa Māori movement...it's given us the opportunity to have our elders, our Tupuna, our Kaumatua, Kuia involved in the education system alongside us."

Even Waetford's operatic education in Wales under the tenor Dennis O'Neill was, in a way, an expression of his credo of living and thriving in more than one language.

Heledd Gwyndaf has been protesting to keep the Welsh language front of mind for many years.

Heledd Gwyndaf has been protesting to keep the Welsh language front of mind for many years. Photo: Supplied

"Their language creches, that was the model for Kohanga Reo. It was actually crack-up as man when we lived there, all of the brochures you get would be all in Welsh, all of these consonants...and it was awesome to see their language, their Reo, put at the fore and then English was after."

Chop is moved by Jimmy's story

Chop is moved by Jimmy's story Photo: Tai Huri Films / Adam Jones

The next episode of The Barber Shop Sessions featuring interviews with Chop the Barber and, of course, wonderful Te Reo Māori singing coached by Kawiti Waetford, is out on 24 November, with four more due before Christmas.

You can check out the series here.