Behind the scenes of Lorde’s mini album in Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous language

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In the song “Oceanic Feeling” from her new album, “Solar Power”, singer Lorde hints at a jump into a lake at Bulli Point, a beloved swimming spot in her homeland of New Zealand: “When I hit this water / When he holds me / I think about my father / I do the same / When he was little… ”

Accompanying her latest work, Lorde – who became an international star with the hit “Royals” in 2013 at the age of 16 – took a different step: in homage to the history and landscape of her country, she recorded a set of songs in her native language, Maori.

“A lot of things slowly came to me as I was making this album, but by far the main achievement was that much of my value system around taking in and listening to the natural world comes from traditional Maori principles. There is a word for it in te reo: kaitiakitanga, which means “the guardianship or protection of the sky, the sea and the earth”. I’m not Maori, but all New Zealanders grow up with elements of that worldview, ”Lorde, 24, wrote in a September 9 email announcing the record.

“I know I’m someone who represents New Zealand to the world in a way, and in making an album about where I’m from it was important for me to be able to say: that makes us who we are here.”

To get it right, she needed help.

A team with knowledge of the Maori language and culture helped rework five songs from ‘Solar Power’, Lorde’s third album, real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor. She released the Maori song set under the name “Te Ao Mārama” or “World of Light”.

Among those who helped Lorde achieve this: performer / producer Dame Hinewehi Mohi, who created shockwaves when she performed New Zealand’s national anthem in Maori, not English, during the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Bringing the language onto the world stage in this way was a big deal – and a far cry from the experience of Mohi’s family and that of other Maori, a population still struggling with a story. colonial which resulted in the loss of lands, languages ​​and identity.

“I didn’t learn Maori growing up until I was 10,” Mohi told NBC Asian America. “My grandparents were disciplined and were not allowed to speak Maori at school… They were tied up, caned; they would wash their mouths with soap.

The collaboration with Lorde became another milestone in an ongoing mission: By the time she partnered with the Grammy winner, Mohi had already worked with some of New Zealand’s biggest stars to re-record their Maori hits. in order to celebrate and revitalize the language.

Once Lorde got involved in Maori recordings, Mohi said, “She’s fully invested in it. And we brought in expert language consultants to accompany it through the translation process, as it is not a literal translation you hear. It is an interpretation which “reflects the Maori worldview” and is “also something that we see as a powerful platform for the language, to be shared with the world”.

Hēmi Kelly, a Maori language professor at Auckland University of Technology, who worked with Lorde to reinvent her music, said the translations were particularly difficult from a technical and creative perspective.

“In Lorde’s song ‘Solar Power’, [she] has a line where it says, “And I throw my cellular device in the water …” if I were to literally translate that into Maori, that would sound silly, “he said. The Maori line is ultimately closer to “I throw all my worries away” – a different phrasing, but evoking the meaning of what Lorde wanted to convey.

Kelly recalled that in the same title song, Lorde introduces himself as “a bit like a prettier Jesus”.

“Christianity is no stranger here in the Maori world, but we also have our own belief systems,” Kelly said. To align him with a Maori sensibility, he said he used the lyrics instead, “My likeness is that of Hinemoana,” the girl of the ocean. “Rather than referring to the Christian story, I am referring to our own religious stories. “

New Zealand’s ethnic Maori population was around 855,000 out of a total of 5.1 million people at the end of 2020, according to government estimates. The current drive to stay true to the richness of the language – and to elevate it for speakers, non-speakers, and those in between – is rooted in its historic suppression in New Zealand (or, as one calls it in Maori, Aotearoa).

After New Zealand officially became a British colony, the Native Schools Act of 1867 prioritized the teaching of English. Over the years, children have been physically punished for speaking Maori. Indigenous peoples have had millions of acres of land confiscated. Assimilation – involuntary and voluntary – has taken its toll.

In the 1970s, linguist Richard Benton launched a major research project, interviewing tens of thousands of people to assess how well the Maori language survived or languished. The resulting report became an essential part of the Maori Language Act 1987, which recognized Maori as an official language.

Since then, progress in revitalizing te reo Maori has been “phenomenal,” Hēmi Dale, Maori language expert at the University of Auckland, said in an email.

In the years since Benton’s report revealed that the language was “knocking on the door of extinction,” as Dale put it, “the perceived cultural, economic, social, and political benefits of te reo Māori were experienced. spectacular growth [in] acceptance. Now Maori are heard from schools to airlines, to television and radio to the workplace.

“There is still some resistance but it is aging and becoming less strident. The language is not yet out of the woods when it comes to the number of speakers, ”he said. “However, there is something to be positive about.”

Not everyone was happy with Lorde’s recordings, with some questioning them as an appropriation or ‘symbol’.

But Hana Mereraiha, who translated several Lorde songs for the project – the proceeds of which will benefit two charities, Forest and Bird and the Te Hua Kawariki Charitable Trust – disagrees with critics. Lorde “went through the right process. It has indigenous artists, indigenous activists and language practitioners… We all work together, ”Mereraiha said.

The Maori language movement is ultimately about “getting our language normalized, flooding the music industry, spoken by our babies, the medium of instruction in our education system – because that’s the key to our healing from this intergenerational trauma, and this is the key to the success of the indigenous people of Aotearoa for future generations, ”she said.

“And if that means Lorde is going to be a part of this movement and use his platform to defend this movement,” Mereraiha said, “so be it.”


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