Calling all Kiwis and music lovers! And no, I am not talking about the fruit, but rather about Aoteoroa/ New Zealand, since this blog entry focuses on the music of this country’s biggest reggae rock fusion band Six60.
The single “Don’t Forget Your Roots“ of the five-member band from Dunedin was released in 2011 and reached number 2 on the New Zealand Singles Charts. In the past decade, this song has become somewhat of a ‘Kiwi anthem’.
The 2011 release, however, is not where the evolution and importance of the song ends. In September 2019, Six60 released a new Māori version: “Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō / Don’t Forget Your Roots“ in the collection Waiata / Anthems of re-recorded New Zealand pop songs to promote Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week).
In the chorus of this song, Six60 reminds the listener of how important it is to remember our own roots, since they include our family and friends, but also our inner self – what we truly are: “the ones who made us – brought us here”. It deals with the idea of Indigenous heritage and identity and why you should be thankful and proud of it. Neglecting these roots easily leads to them being lost.
To further highlight the importance of what is said in the chorus, Six60 introduces a man (Johnny) and a woman (Jesse), who both are detached from their roots in Aotearoa after leaving their home which “armed them with power”. This results in them being lost in two ways: 1. They lack Māori values and morals and 2. the connection to their roots and their whānau (family), who are the only people that truly matter, becomes tenuous. Overall, both experience a disconnection from their origin. They are displaced and have lost their sense of belonging by leaving their homeland. The concept of loss applies to the man and woman as individuals, but also to their community – “He/She lost the faith of all those who mattered so…” Additionally, Six60 conveys a combination of nostalgia and homesickness with the simple words: “Don’t forget your roots…”
But only if no return is intended.
Representing Māori culture through music and language
Even though the band members all have Māori roots, they did not grow up with the language or culture, yet feel deeply connected to it. Their intention of releasing the song in Māori was to learn more about their culture and understand their origin – their roots. They wanted to provide a song of familiar lyrics that communicates their culture using Te Reo.
But why is music so important to remember your roots?
Well, wherever you are, in New Zealand or overseas, the distinctive sounds used in songs such as “Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō“ can conjure up images of home. Translating popular songs from English to Māori can deepen empathy and provides a solution for the absence of communication between Māori and non-Māori by encouraging discourse. Embracing Māori culture, the waka, the whānau – community and music can convey heritage and is a start to help non-Māori engage with the language and culture. At the same time, it is dangerous to base one’s understanding of a foreign culture solely on one song, since Maori offer a diverse culture with many traditions and also contradictions.
My personal connection to the song goes back almost to its initial release. I first visited a Six60 concert in 2012 in German. When the band sang “Don’t Forget Your Roots”, those who were Māori in the audience, all far away from home, started a haka. It first got me thinking about the connection between music and culture. Whenever I listen to the song now, it also reminds me of my time spent abroad and the people I met.
And as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, friends and family remain apart from one another as we understand the importance of connecting, which includes doing it through Te Reo Māori.
At a concert in 2020, Six60 further combined the song’s new version with a performance of the haka, making the concert uniquely New Zealand by giving the crowd a taste of the country’s distinct Indigenous culture. Now they do it at every single concert worldwide on tour to reconnect with their homeland. Additionally, singing the song is a reminder for them that even if they are on the other side of the world, when they return to Aoteoroa the following quote:
i haere Māori atu, i hoki Māori mai
I left as a Māori, and I have returned as a Māori
applies to them.
To me this performance combined with the haka is filled with a celebration of the Māori culture since the Māori performers get the opportunity to proudly present their traditions and language on a big stage – it cuts through that fear of not being able to express and give Māori back their sovereignty by pushing the unspoken tension between Māori and non-Māori to the side and saying: here is a place for all to gather, unite and sing. Including Te Reo Māori and the haka, therefore, can enrich New Zealand’s music scene and empower national athletes, but some songs also engage worldwide audiences. Embracing the language should be as simple as not forgetting one’s roots … or family.
In an interview, the front singer of Six60 Matiu Walters stated that he noticed more understanding of the culture and an acceptance of songs in Māori especially in New Zealand, which has been a good thing to see. He further suggests that it is something the band helped push by redoing their song in Māori. The translation followed the dream to make Māori music in future not only usable for a political purpose or for social currency but also for the daily and ordinary life.
This is exactly what the band is doing with their new song “Pepeha“, which deals with their personal experience of learning about their actual pepeha – the way of introducing yourself in Māori. It tells people who you are by sharing your connections with the people and places that are important to you. By writing the song, the band was able to acknowledge and further explore their heritage. It helped them connect to their whakapapa and whenua. A pepeha shows their connection to the physical and spiritual place they call home. This anthemic waiata links significant things – prestige, love, and family – with their environment and to their ancestors.
Matiu Walters said they wanted to try to write a pepeha for all New Zealanders, whether you were born there, or you moved there and decided to make Aotearoa your home.
He further stated that the goal of their music is to always transcend any categories and have it all “feeling-based” since it’s what they like about music: It makes you feel a certain way and you can succumb to that feeling and forget about everything else, all the small things in life and just go along with the song.
However, there are a couple of critical voices on the band’s use of music and Te Reo as a way of public reconnection arguing that songs such as “Pepeha“ disregard the sanctity of cultural practices and do not consider the right translation nor provide the listener with the deep meaning Māori terms can carry.
Would you agree with the critics? Let me know in the comments!