Ria Hall’s Rules Of Engagement

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October 27, 2017 marks the release of Ria Hall’s debut album, Rules Of
Engagement. Drawing on the themes of not only love and war, but also revolution
and change, the album has been nearly five years in the making, and is an epic
collision of traditional ways of thinking and modern musicianship.

The day before Winston Peters announced his decision to go with a Labour/NZ First Coalition, Tim Gruar had a chat to singer and musician Ria Hall about another type of political arrangement – one that was proposed 153 years ago. Known as ‘The Rules of Engagement’, this was a set of four rules set out in a letter written by Henere Tararoa to Governor Grey outlining the manner in which the battle of Gate Pa should ensue and how soldiers and warriors should conduct themselves during one of the most intense periods during the New Zealand Wars. They were:

“Rule 1 If wounded or (captured) whole, and butt of the musket or hilt of the sword be turned to me (he) will be saved.
Rule 2 If any Pakeha being a soldier by name, shall be travelling unarmed and meet me, he will be captured, and handed over to the direction of the law.
Rule 3 The soldier who flees, being carried away by his fears, and goes to the house of the priest with his gun (even though carrying arms) will be saved.
Rule 4 The unarmed Pakehas, women and children will be spared.”

“Henare was a clergyman, schooled in Otaki,” Hall says, “So he understood the vernacular of the day. I found that to be fascinating and part of my inspiration. An interesting angle of compassion. It wasn’t a defiant act, more a realisation. It was like he was saying ‘Well, we are going to do this and this is how we’ll go about it’. Obviously, Grey didn’t buy into this.”

He’d dispatched soldiers to the area and ordered General Duncan Cameron to take the land by any means necessary, including using 24 pounder howitzer guns. But this battle ethic was held by Maori. It is well known how the British pounded the Pa in one corner to try to breach the battlements only to be tricked into a false sense of security when the assault party attacked and was ambushed by warriors hiding in a series of tunnels. This is one of the stories Hall grew up with, but was never taught in school she says. In her music she wanted to capture some of these and also wrap in the emotions and anguish from both sides.

There is also another tale, of the dying Lt-Colonel Booth, who was caught on the battlements after the ambush. At night Rawiri Purirake and other defenders snuck out to gather up their wounded. Upon hearing the cries of fatally wounded soldier and his colleagues Heni Te Kiri took them water in her hands and fed it to them to drink from. “This is just one incident that followed ‘the rules’ – that wounded troops were given help and allowed to recover.” In that respect, she says, some dignity was given.

Having performed as one of the brightest lights during recent tours with Fly My Pretties Hall’s voice soured with deep soulful resonance. Most of the material she wrote was about love and respect. Taking on history as controversial and potent as this was a major challenge, she tells me but ultimately worth it. My first question was why take this on?

“I’m a descendent of the three Tauranga tribes involved in the battle. So, I felt like this was part of my history and I knew the stories and the legends the evolved overtime. I thought it was a really interesting way to approach the creation of an art work, and more so, because of the context, being from the region myself. I felt an instant connection.”

“I grew up, being schooled in Tauranga,” she says, “with history only from the perspective of the British and yet I was hearing all these stories of what happened and that was quite ironic given that most of the children in my class, like me, we descendants of the people involved in the battle.”

To understand what she means, it would help to have a brief understanding of what happened. It was during the early months of 1864 that war came to Pukehinahina ridge (Gate Pa). There had been fighting over land in the Far North and in the Waikato. But what made this battle so different from other battles were two things. Firstly, the Pa’s defences, a series of trenches designed by Pene Taka Tuaia and anti-artillery bunkers that would lure the British into a false sense of security. Ultimately, that meant the Pa was successfully defended by a small cohort of warriors against a vastly larger force. According to historian Jamie Belich, this was one of the first times that trench warfare was used – and successfully, as the British lost significant numbers. But the second, more important point was the stories the came out of the battle and these are what Hall has built here music around. Stories of courage, innovation and resilience. All the songs are based around Gate Pa (29 April 1864) and Te Ranga (21 June 1864), the subsequent battle that followed in June 1864. The songs are about the battles, what went down, the devastation and loss. The album runs in a loose chronological order. It opens with a powerful quote read by Te Kahupakea Rollerston (In These Trenches) about standing strong to hold the land. It was the first block in the manifesto of war, Hall says.

For Hall this a personal journey not only through her own life but also through the shared experiences of her whānau. The song, Barely Know, touches on the uncertainties of past relationships, and places them in a familiar context to the listener. Te Ahi Kai Pō (“the fire burning away the darkness”) is inspired by the slaughter of many Māori at The Battle of Te Ranga, and about trying to find resolve through times of despair. To add more variety and historical colour she’s included some archival recordings from 1968, made by her great-uncle Turirangi Te Kani. These feature on the tracks 50,000 Acres, The Battle and Te Ranga, adding another personal level to the album.

This album has been nearly five years in the making for Hall. It is a work of art which challenges the status quo, at times asking the hard questions, not in confrontation, but rather from an honest and deeply raw perspective. From the aftermath of war through colonisation to her own internal battles, it is an open expression, speaking to society on numerous levels. Composing and performing in both Te Reo and English she also worked with a very ‘talented’ crew made up of Kings, Laughton Kora, Che-Fu and Electric Wire Hustle, especially Mara TK. “I’d known all these people from before Fly My Pretties days, through living in Wellington. I originally worked with Electric Wire Hustle on the first draft of the album back in 2013. Mara TK was ‘instrumental’ in the music compositions. I sat with him and spoke about what I wanted to achieve. He helped me create these wonderful atmospheric ‘soundscapes’.” Later, the project was taken to Tiki Taane’s Tiki Dub Studios to complete. “He had overall sonic control. He had a huge influence over the final production. I think it’s a meeting of history and contemporary times meeting each other. We have to reach back into our past to look to the future.”

With a special day set aside for the first time this year on 28 October to acknowledge the New Zealand Wars Hall is very pleased that our history is finally getting the recognition it deserves. “We recognise the Battle of Passchendaele, ANZAC Day, the Queen’s birthday but not our own history. This is more important I think. We don’t pay enough attention to ourselves. It will be interesting to see how that conversation plays out. What’s the point about knowing about others overseas if we don’t know our own history.”

Hall is currently in Tauranga, preparing her show, based around the album for the Tauranga Arts Festival, where she’ll debut her music in front of her home crowd. She will perform live alongside Wellington three-piece powerhouse The Nudge (Iraia Whakamoe, James Coyle & Ryan Prebble). The performance will also feature a stage set designed by award-winning visual artist Tracey Tawhiao. Following that Auckland audiences will get to see her, and then the show travels to Wellington February next year as part of The New Zealand Festival. Her debut album, Rules of Engagement is set to be released on 27 October.

Tim Gruar