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In a peaceful cul de sac in Newtown, a stone’s throw from the town belt, sits a nondescript brick house that would attract little interest from passers by, except when music occasionally drifts out through the open windows: a scatter of drums, a glittering harp, voices that glide and soar.
This is the home of musician Mara TK, his whānau, and his new record label – Meetinghouse Records. Its aim is supporting and releasing indigenous music that, while recognising the past, fixes its vision squarely on the future.
When he recites his pepeha, Mara TK (Kai Tahu) names Aoraki as his maunga and Waitaki his awa. But like many Māori, Mara has come to lay his head far from the places of his tūpuna: in the countless cities he’s travelled to with his band Electric Wire Hustle (EWH), and the others where he lived before settling in Newtown in 2008.
While Meetinghouse Records is only a few months old, this brick house has been something of a wharenui for years. The lounge is big enough for visiting kids to play happily with his two girls, while friends and whānau sip coffee in the sunny kitchen with Mara and his partner Jessie. The room that has recently become label HQ has already seen countless musicians come and go – people like Louis Baker, Troy Kingi, Mark Vanilau, Teeks, Warren Maxwell, Estere and Riki Gooch. And while it now boasts a donated piano and some extra gear, it’s been used to record EWH albums for years. But now that it has an official name, the goings on within these walls are organised around a greater purpose − firstly, facilitating connections between Māori and other indigenous artists.
“The meetinghouse is a clear symbol − it only exists for the purpose of connecting people,” says Mara. And of course making and releasing music, or as Mara puts it: “f*cking killer records that have spiritual and cultural heft.”
“My main ambition is for myself and my contemporaries to make amazing records that future generations will listen to, be inspired by and even give them a sense of direction. This is exactly what the late great Hirini Melbourne’s music has done for me, and Patea Māori club, Dalvanius Prime, Ruia and Ranea Aperahama − I can’t start to express how important their music is to us on so many levels,” he says.
In terms of genre, Meetinghouse will deal in soul and offshoot genres like psychedelic soul, funk and jazz, while exploring themes of indigenous experience in Aotearoa and the wider Pacific.
“One of the prevailing themes in Sun Ra’s Afro-futurist music was that he was an alien because of the fact that American society didn’t treat him like a human being… Now if Samoans are alienated by raiding their homes, detaining and deporting them, then what kind of narratives does that form in the minds of those alienated? And in the minds of the society that condoned those deportations?” says Mara. The first slated releases from the new label are a solo full-length from his group Love and Hope with Mark Vanilau and Troy Kingi (search out the song Aku Moutere, you won’t regret it) and the fourth record from EWH.
There’s also a very special bilingual album he recorded with a group of kids in the wharenui at Otākou Marae on the Otago peninsula, and his own solo debut − for which Mara has found himself writing more in Te Reo Māori than ever before. “It’s such a poetic language. You’d struggle to find another culture that uses more proverbs, tribal sayings, affirmations and turns of phrase as Māori do… so exciting to use − mostly because of the window they give into what Aotearoa and our society was like in earlier times,” he says.
As an example, Mara shares a proverb: “Kotahi aho kia rewa, kotahi aho kia poupou”. This whakataukī reminds the fisherman to keep one line in shallow water whilst another is in the deep. “It’s a very coastie way of saying ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’,” he explains. Isn’t making a record label based in his family home something like putting all his eggs in one basket?
Mara laughs. “This is why the proverb exists, yes I probably have! I’m gonna rely on another proverb now which is ‘Hoea tō waka…Row your own canoe.’ Follow your vision.”
Mara TK’s new album Bad Meditation is out now on all streaming platforms.