Today we have a poetry and music video premier from Ruby Solly with film created by Sebastian Lowe and Viktor Baskin, as well as a wānanga around toi kupu, music, and writing into place between Ruby Solly and essa may ranapiri.
The video can be watched here:
Pōneke can be streamed and purchased here
essa may ranapiri Kia ora Ruby
I’ve been reading your poetry forever (since before I even knew you) and have been so privileged to hear you play and sing in public, and these songs on Pōneke are just giving me so much life recently! Just stilling those anxious jitters I’ve been struck with after the end of lockdown. It feels so of the outside as well. To me the songs create this river where you dip in and out of such a strength of emotion, I go from chilling and vibing to crying and humming along; face wet! It feels like something I’ve been needing for a long time. And there also poems that go with each one!
Before I ask you anything about the album could you talk a bit about how you got to where you are, your whakapapa and journey here to this time/place?
Ruby Solly Kia ora Essa!
Kā mihi nui for opening this wānanga space. I was a reader of yours before we met too! I love how we get to be woven together in this way, it’s very special to me. I really like the idea of these pieces forming a river as when I was recording them, I looked at a lot of old river routes from pre-colonial times. I like to think of the water under the concrete and how it can be heard in these pieces. After I finished the album I was actually gifted some of the original river stones from the Te Puni Stream which runs under my street, which joins up to the Waimapihi which features on the album. Was a perfect taonga to be given to mark being able to bring those songs and sounds out into the world again.
I whakapapa to Kai Tahu and Waitaha on my taha Māori, but I also have Jewish, Irish, Scottish and English whakapapa within me. I whakapapa back to Waihao as my tino marae in Te Wai Pounamu, from the Rōpa whānau. I was really lucky to grow up on the foot of Mount Ruapehu where I learnt koauau from my primary school teacher, Maria Kuppa, which was my first time meeting ngā taonga puoro. I started playing cello when I was about seven when we lived in Taupo, which also features on the album. I started playing taonga puoro again at university under the korowai aroha of mentors such as Al Fraser, Ariana Tikao, and Rob Thorne. I’ve lived in Pōneke for seven years and over that time have been lucky to receive teachings on our whakapapa here from Kai Tahu kaumātua, as well as learn from locals and historical records about this place and how my histories are placed within it.
essa Sounds like the album is such a culmination of things for you, everything is of course, but it’s cool to pay attention to the whakapapa of our mahi so thank you for sharing that e hoa.
So the songs are lyricless but you wrote these little pieces of toikupu to go with the waiata (which i love!) it really gives context to the music but they work so well as pieces of music themselves. They are full of stories from around the region, what was something (or some things) you learnt that really stuck out to you and why?
Ruby Completely, I think with me when I get an idea it’s not necessarily a poetry idea or a music idea or an art idea; it’s just an idea in and of its self and I get to grow it into whatever direction I choose depending on how I treat it and feed it.
I did! It was hilarious because I wrote these very dry factual explanations of each track and then showed one of my cousins who pointed out how academic and dry they were. I’d just finished my masters so I was in this very academic Pākehā writing frame of mind and it reminded me to break out of that. I thought about how so much of our histories have been given to us and passed down through toikupu and song, and that maybe this work is adding to that tradition. I wrote all the poems in one big day during lockdown, but I had all the info in my head from the descriptions I’d written previously which took a lot longer. That’s often how I work as a writer anyway with a research and thinking phase taking up a lot of time and the actual writing just coming in at the end, I call it the internal blackboard a lot to explain it. The original descriptions can still be seen on the bandcamp page though in case that style suits people better.
I think the things that stuck with me the most were the places that I could whakapapa too, which says a lot about representation within arts and the importance of it. Pieces like the two Karaka poems / songs, and the ones with tohu from ōku mātua tūpuna like Koukou are so special to me. Something I love about taonga puoro is the presences that show up for you when you play, and learning to not only read those tohu but play with them.
I thought about you for this wānanga because one, I love your work, and two, because I’ve heard you read some hōhonu, beautiful pieces about place and your connection or disconnection with it. I love the way you unpack these things like taking things out of a messily packed suitcase, then show us everything inside then pack it neatly so we can see the whakapapa behind these feelings. It really inspires me as a writer and an artist. For you personally, how does writing about place affect you as a Māori writer?
essa I just want to speak to something you were saying at the top there before answering your question. It’s so true that the lines between forms are colonial constructions and it makes so much sense for me for this art to take on many forms, I often have paintings and poems and songs that speak to similar things like a little family work. I don’t know I just think that smooshing of form is really cool!
Writing about place is everything really, it hurts a lot, it challenges me, it makes me feel everything I lack, but also it’s everything we are and will be and have been. Because it’s all about place right? The whole state of things is due to where we are placed, where we are displaced. I wrote a poem about my marae, a place I have only passed on the highway or “visited” via the google maps and the work really does summon something, like just putting words into the world establishes some tenuous connection point. Like a little gift from my ancestors. But also I do worry I fetishize that disconnect sometimes, make my life about the things I don’t have rather the opportunities and connections that I can make. It’s also funny as well because growing up I feel like a lot of things teach you that place doesn’t matter like all the names of the streets are some dead colonizers from Britain and the shows on TV are American, none of us present on the box. It has really been a learning experience for me over the last ten or so years finding place or even coming to see it.
And that is another thing about Pōneke that I really love is how it seems to cuts through that noise – that hypermarketed, hyper commercialised, there is always an ad waiting noise, especially with the melodies that keep returning and returning (we see that spiral again) and the all that incidental sound of place itself. And also it’s so layered, taonga puoro, instruments, found sounds, voice, and bird’s song. Would you be able to talk a little bit about the recording process?
Ruby Yes! The idea of art, or just expression in general being placed into different categories is really colonial when you boil it down. Being able to communicate across mediums and languages is a strength we have inherited from our ancestors that we continue to build upon.
I feel that sense of being challenged. Place is so… present in te ao Māori, we’re asked where we’re from before we’re asked who we are which is both a beautiful thing, and a very complicated thing for those of us who have not been privileged to have that relationship with turangawaewae cultivated in the physical sense. Writing into a place is a very Māori way of creating I think, and yes, it hurts to do it and to move through it. But it definitely gave me a deeper sense of understanding and helped me work through the kind of fetishizing that can happen with any diaspora. I’ve heard it referred to as “competitive pain” within our Jewish diaspora, and I really wanted to be able to choose how I presented that pain and how I wove it with all the other emotions that come with it, the full spectrum of it.
Thank you! When I create complete works like a book, or album, or a large piece without a major prompt I like to try and have it so even if no one was ever to see it but me (and my descendants possibly); we would still grow and learn from it. Then I decide whether I want that to be shared wider. I think in many ways that can cut out the subconscious desire to make something to fit the norm or to serve others, which in many ways serves people who don’t always have their needs met in media usually.
For the recording process I recorded taonga puoro within the different environments, responding to them in real time. Then I layered up cello at home afterwards to support the taonga puoro. Some tracks have some extra layers of sounds from the places when I wanted to really tune in to particular sounds like the gulls on Matiu-Somes island for example (they were also dive bombing me so I had to have a few goes). The whole thing was actually recorded on an iPhone four which I haven’t told anyone until now because I was super whakamā about it! But I learnt a lot about recording and took principles from how jazz bands recorded around one singular microphone in the 1920s with things being placed different distances from the mic. The mixing really added to the sound too which was done by Al Fraser.
essa I have listened to a lot of pro stuff recorded on phones there is a lot of life in those kinds of set ups I think! There is even a strange ideology I think behind those pristine soundproofed spaces set aside for recording, it benefits the subject matter so much for the recordings to done in the spaces they’re responding to! The mix is awesome, brings it all together so well, Al did a great job!
Some final questions, what would you want people to take from this record if just one thing?
Also you have a book of poetry coming out next year do you feel there is an overlap between that work and this?
Ruby Completely! It’s given so many people so many more options! I think as well it can be used as a tool to remove the ’sacred room’ element of recording where we try to eliminate all noise in a studio, and through that it can bring the environment back into the music as a contributor. I think acknowledging the space you’re in and all that brings is a big part of te ao Māori and it feels really good to be able to look at recording in that way as a method of decolonizing the recording process. Al is awesome! We both had finishing off the album and all its components as a sort of lockdown project, and it was so good to have someone who really understood the work and how I’ve developed as a player and a person through it.
I think if I could pick one thing for people to take away… it would be an increased ability to listen to and feel histories in places, with more of a sense of presence. To show people that idea that the repercussions of the past are still here, and we kind of get to look back at them in a way where we see the good and the bad all mixing together, and we get to decide where we go with that information. I’ve had lots of conversations with friends and whānau recently about matakite and te ao wairua, and I think my path into that world is being able to hear places and their histories. It’s deep work to be able to share that and I feel grateful to be walking on that path.
I do! I think for me there again is that creative process where there is a seed of an idea or an experience, and I get to choose what I feed it with and how I grow it. With the book, I started writing it long before I realised. So many of my pieces were about growing up on mount Ruapehu and Turangi, or my family histories and relationships, and then I just saw this thread with my connections to Kai Tahu and all these other people and places through my Dad and that was what was growing as the book. I’m excited for people to read the book because it does that same thing I think, it acknowledges that there is the good and the bad and all of it is our history and has lead to us. There’s a real narrative of me starting to see and hear that through my childhood and figuring out how I choose to live with it. I’m super fascinated too with the parts of our culture we don’t always acknowledge. Things like how we raise children, or the things we value, or the way we structure our speech. I think those things are often the parts that colonisation struggled to remove, and through them that’s often how we find and reclaim our ways of being and so much of our matauranga. Dad used to get me to swim down this river every summer, while everyone else had boats and life jackets, because he wanted me to be a strong swimmer because it was a survival skill for us and our environment. Little pieces like that are often misunderstood, but can be great gifts. I’ve saved myself from drowning many times.