Ria Hall has made an album that looks from the past to the future. Nick Bollinger takes a listen.
We’ve been hearing for a long time that digital streaming has taken the focus off albums and shifted it back to individual tracks. That may work in some artists’ favour, but there are others whose breadth of vision can’t be contained in a single song.
Rules Of Engagement is Tauranga-based singer Ria Hall’s first album. It is full of great individual tracks, but the artistry is in the way she has threaded them together, like a fine piece of tāniko.
The title comes from a letter written in 1864 to the Governor of New Zealand George Gray, by Ngai Te Rangi leader Henare Taratoa, on the eve of what would be remembered as the battle of Gate Pa, which took place in Hall’s tribal area of Tauranga Moana. Though the rules, as outlined by Taratoa, were dignified and humane, the battle turned out to be a major defeat for the British.
But the phrase ‘rules of engagement’ carries its resonance into the present as well, and at times it becomes more a symbol of the ongoing battles - for culture and language, to right the wrongs of the past – and a suggestion of how two cultures might engage today.
‘Te Kawa O Te Riri’ evokes the sunrise over the trenches of Gate Pa, while stitched through the record are accounts of that battle taken from a 1968 interview with Turirangi Te Kani, older brother of Hall’s grandfather.
These pieces of archival audio, to which Hall has given subtle instrumental frames, are poignant, deeply atmospheric and give the album a very solid and palpable set of roots, which are amplified in powerful songs like ‘They Come Marching’.
In making this album, Hall worked with a number of different musicians, co-writers and producers. Several were made with the Wellington group Electric Wire Hustle, and have the hallmarks of their style, steeped in soul/R&B tradition with Myele Manzanza’s propulsive, polyrhythmic percussion dancing around Hall’s vocals.
She’s also worked closely with musician and producer Tiki Taane, whose work here ranges from solemn electro beats, through acoustic meditations, to the reggae-ish groove of ‘Tell Me’, which she sings with Che Fu.
Other voices can be heard as well. There’s the rapper Kings, who co-wrote and produced ‘Barely Know’ and provides a distinctive staccato cameo, and she’s joined on ‘Forever’ by the powerful Laughton Kora.
But my favourite vocal moment comes when Hall interweaves her voice with that of Electric Wire Hustle’s Mara TK on the mystical and poetic ‘Black Light’.
There really are a lot of different things going on in this album. There’s even a song written by Billy TK, guitar hero of Human Instinct and Powerhouse fame (and Mara TK’s dad). Yet it all coheres, because of the strength and continuity of its central theme: those rules of engagement that were laid out in the past yet provide a way of thinking about the present as we step into the future.
Rules Of Engagement is available on Loop Recordings