From garage to charts: how Māori strum helped shape New Zealand’s sound | New Zealand

IIn late 2021, a series of videos began circulating on social media: a talented singer singing R&B and hip-hop songs in a New Zealand style. Songs are stripped back to their simplest guitar base, peppered with Māori words and New Zealand jokes. Behind the rendition, there is something profound, instantly recognizable: the sound of the guitar that musicians call “Māori strum”.

This is perhaps New Zealand’s most distinctive and enduring musical sound, played on guitar across the country and often dubbed the jing-a-jik. or my rakura, after the rhythm it produces. These are passages that are heard not only at marae (meeting houses), family gatherings and competitive kapa haka (action dance) performances, but in some of the country’s most beloved hits, including OMC’s How Bizarre and Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. .

The TikTok series by musician and actor Maaka Pohatu, extensively titled “00’s club bangas if they are Māori style garage party guitar jams”, became an instant hit – garnering hundreds of thousands of views.

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Basically, the Māori strum uses three to four chords and a light upward strum is matched with a heavy downward strum on the second and fourth beats, to produce a rich bass and treble combination, performed with swinging percussion.

“It’s a very technical way of interpreting a song … and breaking it down into its most basic components”, says Pohatu.

The beauty of strum, which has been perfected at garage parties across the country, is its simplicity and familiarity.

“Garage parties are all about the whole room singing along,” says Pohatu. “Even if you’re not a great singer, it doesn’t matter, it’s about inclusivity. We have a saying: if a song goes to a Māori garage party, it’s the national anthem.”

Pohatu first came up with the idea for a Māori strum-R&B medley during an overseas tour in 2009. He joined Jam Circle with award-winning pop musicians Rob Ruha and Rawiri Waititi, now co-leaders of the Māori party.

“They played Māori trumpets and composed a medley of love songs, including Low by T-Pain,” he said. As each verse ends, it’s up to the next singer to keep the medley going, in friendly competition. Pohatu’s version of TikTok is also a collaborative affair – some artists add duets to the song, others perform dance acts in a kapa haka style.

The videos were made during New Zealand’s lengthy Covid lockdown. “On the one hand, TikTok is satisfying [the garage party] – if I can’t go to my partner’s house, then I’ll try to bring the vibe to TikTok.”

Once you search for strum, it pops up everywhere in New Zealand pop. Neil Finn credits him with forming the backbone of a number of Crowded House songs.

“That influence has always been there,” Finn said in a 1995 Sunday Star-Times interview. “It runs deep from childhood because that is how we learn to play guitar and hear people playing guitar around us.”

“I can’t remember the first time I heard it, but I know I was very young,” said New Zealand singer-songwriter Marlon Williams, who recently joined Lorde on her European tour. The shock echoes through his early memories of Kohanga Reo – a Māori preschool – and the sound of a waiata (song).

Its specificity is hard to pinpoint, but Williams believes it can be recognized through its “feathered, blunt use of mute and percussion”.

A few years ago, Williams started playing “his own little variation on the strum, just from sitting around and jamming”.

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My Boy, a single from his new record, is one of the fruits of that time: the song mixes hearty, rhythmic strum with a disco-pop hook. “I think of it as a Māori stun,” he said of the song. “It’s on mute, played without a pick, but mostly in the way the vocals glide over the guitar.”

But for a musical tradition with such a strong imprint on the country’s culture, little is known about its exact origins. The footage appeared around the time of the second world war, when the touring Māori army had their performance committed to recording. This then proliferated throughout the 60s along with the emergence of pop music.

Dr Michael Brown, curator of music at the Alexander Turnbull Library, chronicles some of his history in his doctoral thesis.

“I found many versions of the Māori strumming style; each player seems to have a slightly different vernacular approach,” Brown wrote. “Full chords and strum percussion accents serve as versatile accompaniments that can be adapted to almost any song.”

As New Zealanders embraced the Māori language more and more, Williams said, his musicality also began to make its way into pop, and the sound of his music.

“The Māori waiata musicality is implicit in the sound, grammar, and rhythm of the reo. As more and more countries begin to experience it as a living language, we can’t help but allow whakaaro Māori (a Māori idea) to permeate our musical tastes.”

Pohatu appointed musicians such as Williams and Rob Ruha as torchbearers for the evolving and distinctive Māori musical style.

“They really combined the whole history of Māori music, kapa haka, Māori show bands with all the fancy bells and whistles of today and super sharp productions… It’s such a beautiful thing.”

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