(From Sonic Net, formerly Addicted To Noise, US-based online music news site, June 15, 2000)


Can one band bring a renaissance to a culture? It's a tall order, but in the case of New Zealand's Maoris, Oceania are hoping they can at least kick-start the pride.

"There's a big problem of self-esteem among young Maoris," explained the band's singer, Hinewehi Mohi. "I don't think there'll be a time in my life when we're not struggling for equality. But maybe this record can help."

Mohi, half-Maori, half -pakeha (European), Jaz Coleman, the Anglo-Indian former leader of Killing Joke, and Maori master musician Hirini Melbourne are the team behind Oceania and its eponymous debut.

"This isn't a fashion record for me, a flirt with a different culture," asserted Coleman. "I align myself with the Maori people, and I will continue to write for Maori voice and different instrumentation."

The project had its genesis when Coleman moved to Auckland in 1993, where he took out citizenship, became composer-in-residence with the New Zeland Symphony, and opened a recording studio on old Maori land.

"They have a tradition that if you're on this tapu (taboo) land, you have to have the tapu land lifted by a Maori priest in a blessing ceremony. Mohi, a leading Maori whose job as a television presenter gave her a large public profile, sang at the blessing. "People were in tears, she brought such emotion."

Coleman suggested they work together, and prior to Oceania, the pair recorded Coleman's Second Symphony for Maori voice and orchestra, as well as Pacifica, with the New Zealand String Quartet. But Oceania was a completely different idea, a first - a contemporary Maori album.

"What we do is not traditional Maori music," explained Coleman. On the record, chanting vocals and Maori instruments and log drums work together - which they never do within the culture - alongside keyboards, and strings, as on "Kotahitanga" ("Union").

"He was passionate about Maori music, and he wanted the utmost integrity in putting it together," Mohi said. "He thought we should draw from the traditional Maori way of singing, and the spiritual significance of the music and the tradition. I trusted Jaz with the music, and I kept my elders very much in the picture regarding the writing of the project."

At the record company's insistence, beats were added to most of the tracks, and two remixes commissioned from the Beatmasters, including "Hautoa" ("Warrior") to make the record more youth-friendly.

"I wanted to use beat of the Maori drum, wherever I could," Coleman said. "But we stayed open about its evolution. I think the beats on here respected the culture. It works without them, but it was a good idea, since we're not living in the past. You want to be true to the past, but you don't want to end up in crystal shops, do you?"

Mohi also defended the decision. "If you'd listened to the raw version, before the beats were added in England, the record had a very pure, Deep Forest, sound, which changed dramatically when the beats were added in London. But I like both versions."

The final result touches on the New Age end of the spectrum with its gentle melodies and smooth production, the keyboards and strings offering sweeps of sound over the beats. But the Maori element remains strong, both in Mohi's singing and Melbourne's playing ("We put him in the studio and let him dream," Mohi said).

While it could easily be the soundtrack for a dinner party, there's also an edge to the music that stops it falling into blandness Important as the record is - and it's already gone gold in New Zealand - the significance of it resonates far beyond commercial success for the band, the chance to re-awaken the native culture and rescue it before it dies out completely, by inspiring the young Maori people.

"We've come dangerously close to losing so much," Mohi pointed out. "Most indigenous people have suffered from colonization, in every way. In many ways we've been able to maintain a sense of nationhood, but we were almost wiped out by influenza and syphilis that the Europeans arrived. And then there's religion and the artistic elements of our culture that were damaged."

Among those elements was the music, which might qualify for an endangered species list. "Most white New Zealanders don't realize there are 31 tuned Maori instruments, of which there are one master player and one apprentice in the whole country!" said Coleman. "The big push behind Oceania is to modernize these instruments so they can be played in any key, and I can prove to the country that they're the classical instruments of the nation."

And the pair have made inroads for change. Last year in England, at a Rugby World Cup match, Mohi sang the New Zealand (Aotearoa in the native tongue) national anthem - in Maori. It caused controversy at home, but as a result the law has changed to make Maori the official language of the anthem.

It's a start, but there's still a long way to go, and the band are there for the long haul. Coleman has just been named composer-in-residence with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and he plans to work there with Mohi, as well as making a new Oceania record, which will be "more hardcore traditional," Mohi noted.

"I'm committed to Maori music; I love these people," said Coleman.

This article first appeared on Sonicnet.com