15 Apr 2024

Classical and kapa haka combine to honour Māori Battalion

From Three to Seven, 4:10 pm on 15 April 2024
The 28th Maori Battalion at a transit camp in Egypt on the morning after their evacuation from Crete, June 1941.

The 28th Maori Battalion at a transit camp in Egypt on the morning after their evacuation from Crete, June 1941. Photo: DIA / Alexander Turnbull Library

There are rich choral traditions running through New Zealand's cultural fabric, but they don't always mix and mingle.

On one hand, the classical choral sound brought to this country by its pakeha settlers. On the other, the indigenous musical culture of kapa haka.

Like two rivers, they flow side by side, but rarely do the waters meet.

That will change on Saturday 20 April when the Orpheus Choir joins the Hiwa Performance Creative (or the Hiwa Crew) to sing a new work by Takerei Komene: "E Kiwi E"

It's a tribute to the Māori Battalion and forms an Anzac double bill with Karl Jenkin's hugely popular "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace".

When Bryan Crump sat down with Orpheus Choir director Brent Stewart ahead of a rehearsal, he asked Stewart why such a collaboration hadn't happened sooner.

Orpheus Choir Music Director Brent Stewart in rehearsal

Brent Stewart taking the Orpheus Choir through "E Kiwi E". Photo: Bryan Crump

Stewart put it partly down to classical musicians not wanting to be seen culturally appropriating kapa haka.

Conductor Takerei Komene smiles and his right arm is raised in the air to acknowledge the applause of the audience at the Big Sing National Finale 2022.

Takerei Komene Photo: Ginal Demeer, Cactus Photography

In that sense, commissioning Komene to create a new work for Orpheus was the perfect circuit breaker.

Komene writes mainly in the classical tradition, but they grew up performing kapa haka.

Speaking to Bryan Crump, they said they also felt moved to write "E Kiwi E" as a response to recent conflicts overseas in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

At its heart, Komene's work is based on the 1941 waiata written for the Māori Battalion by Tuini Ngawai.

Ngawai's original waiata was less of a battle cry, more a song written from the viewpoint of whanau back home, hoping their loved ones would return.

Over three and a half thousand men served with the 28th Māori Battalion during the Second World War. Six hundred and forty-nine were killed in action, or died soon after.

The 28th Maori Battalion waiting to move up into the front lines from Gambettola, Italy on 19 October 1944.

Photo: AAP / Alexander Turnball Library / George Frederick Kaye

For their re-working of "E Kiwi E", Komene has combined kapa haka and classical choirs, a special children's chorus (gathered from schools around Wellington) and the Wellington Brass Band. It's their most ambitious composition yet, says Komene.

"It really forced me to think about who I am as a person and as a culture bearer, and someone who carries heritage, who carries whakapapa."

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

Komene had originally intended to write a work on an even larger scale "featuring many more texts and a much bigger musical landscape ... but as I was working on the piece I realised you don't need too many words to say a lot".

There's maybe a little trepidation in their voice as they prepare to hear their own major new work performed for the first time, but there's excitement too, excitement that's matched by the members of the Orpheus Choir.

Wellington's Orpheus Choir in rehearsal (April 2024)

The Orpheus rehearsing "E Kiwi E". Photo: Bryan Crump

First bass Angus Stewart says he's loving the change in language and style compared to what he usually sings.

"This is the selling point of the piece ... just how different it is, how many different people are involved in this performance. It's just totally unique."

Second alto Sarah Jane McCosh agrees.

"I just think it makes sense for us to do these sorts of collaborations because here we are, a choir in Aotearoa and this is our music, our country's music."

The performance of "The Armed Man" by Karl Jenkins, and "E Kiwi E" by Takerei Komene will take place in the Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday April 20th, from 7.30pm.