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As Māori fusion band WAI.TAI drives towards a million Spotify plays for its debut EP Hoea, musical director Robyn Kamira unpacks the activism that underpins her band.

“Sadly, the divisive politics we see around the world is hurting us all,” says Kamira, “and I wanted to use music to help dismantle our ignorance of other worldviews. By exploring musically what being culturally positive today means, we hope to leave our audiences with something to ponder.”

The band’s fresh focus on social justice, the environment and tolerance brings a new perspective to activism while acknowledging the music of Māori activist bands from the 70s and 80s and the music of Bob Marley–or “Uncle Bob” as he is affectionately called by many Māori of that generation.

The Māori music is merged with Celtic, Appalachian, Middle-eastern, Asian and Eastern European, and any genre from anywhere in the world. For example, the band’s recent concert at the International Jazz Festival with Rodger Fox’s Big Band merged Jazz with Māori to a delighted audience last month. Advisors and musicians from different cultures help place the diverse music together.

“Love, desire and struggle are a part of any culture and we try to capture that in ways that are culturally and musically magical.” WAI.TAI’s new song South Pacific Paradise speaks to the rising waters threatening small islands in the Pacific and the grief of leaving. Earth and Sky takes romance to a whole new level telling the story of Papatūānuku, earth mother and Ranginui, sky father and their impending, forced separation. The Scorpion and the Frog is a nod to the wisdoms of the peoples in the middle east, and 499 is a tribute to the heartache of the Chinese Goldminers and their families in the 1902 sinking of the SS Ventnor off the Hokianga coast.

“We weave music, storytelling, humour, and our distinct Māori values throughout the sets, while lending our voices to the struggles of others.”

“We’ve called it Waitai Music–meaning it has a kaupapa of positive cultural activism through world music fusion.” Now, after seven years of sharing, Kamira thinks it’s time to introduce it to the world as an important new genre of our times. She wants other musicians to add their creativity and to help grow the messages of positive cultural activism globally. 

She might be onto something. Waitai in te reo Māori is ocean water and she points out that we are all connected by oceans and waterways. Cultural activism for positive change and tolerance acknowledges this connectedness.

The band’s core voices are female. They bring complex three-way harmonies and rhythms and the soundscapes range from ethereal to warrior-like. “There are no dainty flowers in this band,” quips Kamira. The men bring their masculine dynamic in support roles–often bass, drums and hard rhythms.

The constantly changing and eclectic line up of musicians from Aotearoa and overseas are selected based on instruments, voices and location. Each musician brings their own flavour making each concert an unexpected and unique experience for everyone–both on and off stage.

Musicians learn the material online until just before each concert, when they get together in person to bring it all together. “You need skilled musicians for that to work,” says Kamira, “and WAI.TAI has been fortunate to have had those in abundance.” The results are incredible.

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