The Music That Flows

Te Awakairangi has a growing and influential music scene. So why are these artists not recognised in their own right? Jessie Moss on why recognition for musicians in the Hutt Valley is long overdue.

At Ātiawa Toa FM in Waiwhetū, Lower Hutt, you’ll find radio presenter Noel Rawiri Woods, at ease and energetic as ever. He sits at the confluence of music that flows in and out of Te Awakairangi, the Hutt Valley, with an ear to the ground. “I suppose I’m a musician. I’m not a pro, but I do write songs and make beats. Just a haututū really.” When people ask what he does, he says “kairaranga”, a weaver. Noel is a true advocate for Te Awakairangi, whether performing with Grove Roots, or producing and MCing on stage. “I’m not here for the pay on the radio. It's my home. Whatever I do, whether it’s rugby league, cricket or music, I’m just carrying on what I’ve grown up in.”

Born and raised on the papakāinga around the marae, the radio station and their spectacular waka, Te Aniwaniwa and Te Raukura, Noel talks about being mana whenua in Pōneke. “Nō konei, nō Waiwhetū, nō Te Ātiawa. When people ask where I’m from, I’m like, Wellington, Te Ātiawa-Taranaki down these ways. It’s my ūkaipō, my whenua, my maunga, my awa, my whanga. We welcomed all the whānau in, slowly lost our acres and ended up in Waiwhetū, a 100-acre block. This is home.” And this is where the settler cities of Te Awakairangi and Pōneke began. Te Awakairangi river, a stone’s throw from Waiwhetū, stretches and winds down the valley to the beach. It meets with the ocean and flows around the hills and across the harbour to the capital. Nowadays, this mix of people and places is known to create some of the best arts and music in Aotearoa. Noel muses, “Waiwhetū was one of the foundations of the hip hop movement. Rhys B (Aotearoa’s first DMC champion) lived here in the 80s. It was all the cuzzies around, jamming.”

Waiwhetū was one of the foundations of the hip hop movement... all the cuzzies around, jamming

Many bands that Aotearoa is famed for have deep connections to Te Awakairangi, but when we generally think of the ‘Wellington music scene’ do we include the Hutt Valley? Do we understand the roots of the ‘Wellington sound’, the source of much of this new growth? There are numerous examples of this: Upper Hutt Posse, Teremoana Rapley and Lisa Tomlins from Upper Hutt, DJ Mu from Fat Freddy’s Drop’s grew up in Wainuiomata, and Weta’s Aaron Tokona and singer Brooke Fraser in Naenae. The flow of music along Te Awakairangi river has never slowed. So why is the music from there usually not identified as such?

Kiki Van Newtown.

Kiki Van Newtown of Giantess, a singer, instrumentalist and resident of Naenae, thinks “it’s a stigma about the Hutt. Because it’s not like other places don’t get recognised. People will identify Nadia Reid as a musician from Port Chalmers, but no one ever says, ‘This musician is from the Hutt.’ I think it is because it isn’t considered to be a romantic or arty place. People think it’s full of bogans or that it’s really working class. But it is romantic.” The breadth and depth of music from Te Awakairangi is a testament to creative and hard-working people committed to honing their craft.

Kiki moved to Naenae in 2015. On whether her connections or creativity changed when she shifted, Kiki says,“Moving out here meant I can practice at volume. The houses aren’t so close together; you can practice without getting noise complaints.” Kiki’s background in DIY, metal and punk was forged in Newtown when house gigs were common and noisy. Decades of gentrification have long pushed this sound outwards. “There are many metal bands in the Hutt, and they are all linked up and share gear and spaces. People host jam nights in Stokes Valley. There are practice spaces above the shops in Lower Hutt city, as it's a bit of a ghost town at night.”

Amba Holly.

A few minutes up the road from Kiki lives 29-year-old musician Amba Holly. She attests to Noel’s tautoko and influence. He performs alongside her with guitarist Neha Gate, Sianne Dougherty, and Maaka Fiso, in what Noel describes as the Hutt’s acoustic sound. Amba, nō Waikato-Tainui, moved from Taupiri to Te Awakairangi as a child. She’s been winning music awards since 2016, and her first single, ‘Mau Tonu’, hit number one across the iwi radio network. “‘Mau Tonu’ was written in my nan’s lounge in Petone. It is my home; I identify quite strongly.”

Like Noel, Amba cites her marae, whānau and Te Awakairangi as her base. “Kapa haka laid the foundation of music for me. I’ve always been musical. We always had singers and songwriters in our whānau. It is hard to explain where it comes from because it’s always been with us. I remember singing on the marae when I was really young.” Her kapa, Te Ahi a Tahurangi, are the current reigning Wellington regional champions. You can hear them practising at Paparakau Tuarua Kōhanga Reo in Naenae, but she travels to Pōneke to perform. “Practice and linking are all happening here [Te Awakairangi], but there is nowhere for us to perform.”

As with Amba, Te Awakairangi is Kiki’s musical base. She doesn’t feel the need to go into the city at all, except for playing live. “There are no venues where there is regular live music. That’s what the Hutt needs.” Kiki knows of some instances where bands have played at local pubs, but thinks the spaces aren’t set up for it. She is excited that the landmark Naenae Hotel is set for renovation to accommodate live music. “I could literally just roll down the road with my music gear in the shopping trolley.”

A new band called Valley Kids has formed, a few blocks from Kiki’s house. “This whole project is based here, the music was born here, the relationships were formed in the Hutt, pretty much at this house. We have a real connection to the area, so we wanted to recognise that and represent it,” says guitarist Danny Sugrue. Bassist Peter Riley, nō Taranaki, nō Te Ātiawa, tells me, “The name [Valley Kids] was formed here, but none of us are originally from here. But the Hutt is the connection between us all.” The group, mostly in their mid and late 20s, hail from all ends of the motu. Valley Kids comprises members of Tomorrow People, Half Caste, Marcus Abraham and Raw Collective, to name a few. The determined and talented group are soon to release their first single, ‘Money’, and they’ve already been noticed by Noel. With his support, all their first gigs have been on big stages.

With origins in the deep south, Danny explains his attraction to the Hutt Valley. “Coming to the Wellington region, it’s nice to be around people who can just be themselves. But what I like about the Hutt is less noise. It’s nice to come back here (after a gig).” Singer Nai McGregor, nō Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, agrees. Keys player, Ihaka Tukapua, nō Muaūpoko, started music on the marae, like Amba. The Taitoko boy is the songwriter of ‘Money’ and describes music as “therapy, I can just let it all out through writing.” The lyrics of ‘Money’ tell a story familiar to many in Te Awakairangi.

the elite don’t give a damn about the bottom tier / living off crumbs and wonder why they fear / when we catching up in the race we weren’t supposed to win / and then we smile with the biggest grin / there’s so much trouble in the world… money makes the world go

“That’s what we see, that’s what we are around, that’s our life,” says Peter. Danny continues, “We want to talk about the real shit, where we are from, this is the Hutt. Something we can all relate to – things you see in a place like Naenae. We’re kinda the underdog. And I think the music does represent that. A lot of the musos that play in Wellington are from the Hutt, so it does breed good music.” Still, all these musicians want a place of their own to play music. Danny explains, “a lot of people cut their teeth playing bar gigs, but there is none of that in the Hutt, no venue like San Fran.”

DJ Lily Chalmers works at the local youth centre, Naenae Clubhouse, and volunteers with local community groups. She also laments the lack of accessible performance spaces. “We have this beautiful mid-sized town hall that’s been done up, but it is probably out of reach so far as cost goes. It's the city's venue, but then who is the city? Is it the Lower Hutt City Council or the people who live here?” Asked whether she goes out in Te Awakairangi, Lily says, “There are no venues I’d want to go to. The Dowse is somewhere I’ve been for gigs, but it's for special one-off things.”

Lily is passionate about young people in Te Awakairangi and cites the clubhouses, spaces for rangatahi, as “little incubators for musicians. We have Bennett Pomana (of Dam Native and Upper Hutt Posse) coordinating the Taita Clubhouse. At the Naenae house, we have Mike Duffy, a musician from Wainuiomata. He is our mentor here.” She describes the clubhouses as being passion led. “There are a bunch of kids who love music there. There is a lot of talent around, and there aren’t enough places nurturing that talent. We definitely could do better for them.” She highlights “the Siren scene here in Naenae, coming out of the clubhouse, and off the back of ‘Savage Love’. The kids finish a track and then take it down to the barber who has a flash sound system in his car and they go driving around and meet up with other cars and blast the new siren tracks. They have crews, and they make their merch. Mike Duffy has been teaching them electronics, so they know how to wire a siren speaker to a bluetooth speaker to get some bass.”

Neha Gate, Sianne Dougherty and Noel Woods.

Years ago, back in Waiwhetū, another clubhouse of sorts began. It is where Noel’s project Grove Roots was formed. “It is named after the Grove that we grew up in, the garage at the back of my koro’s whare. We are like a waka, a collective to ‘whakacoolngia’ te reo through music. We do performance, incorporating haka, taiaha and rākau. We have all these kick-ass kaiwaiata like Sianne, Amba and Ihaka. We help nurture them. But we are also about tino rangatiratanga, go do your own thing,” he says with a laugh and love.

The lack of venues in the Te Awakairangi doesn’t stop these musicians. They simply bring their sound to the city. On the Wellington Waterfront, next to the Te Wharewaka o Pōneke, you’ll find a cafe and venue where te reo is proudly spoken. Noel explains, “Karaka is our whare too, we [Te Ātiawa] bought that after our settlement. It’s a music opportunity. I call it our practice. We get paid to practice at Karaka Cafe.” Noel organises monthly gigs there, providing a link between Pōneke and Te Awakairangi. Connections like this are important, as Danny feels that Valley Kids are “in the process of trying to penetrate the Pōneke scene. If you are not around that area in town and going to those regular gigs, you are not really a part of it. It’s a presence thing.”

Considering how influential musicians in Te Awakairangi continue to be in the wider regional music scene, why are these artists not already recognised in their own right? Listen to these musicians and keep your ear out for Upper Hutt Posse’s upcoming album, currently being mixed in Naenae. All of this music is flowing down Te Awakairangi river for us to celebrate. Let’s start doing that. This recognition is long overdue.

Feature image: Valley Kids

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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