Opinion

He huatau

Love Me As I Am

The Music of Mahinaarangi Tocker, Auckland Arts Festival, March 2018

“Shona Laing is playing her guitar in the dressing room, while Annie Crummer is gasbagging to Hinewehi Mohi and I’m trying to remember these tongue-twisting rhymes Mahinaarangi Tocker wrote”. So tweeted another Name in NZ Music, Moana Maniapoto, from a rehearsal for the Auckland Arts Festival concert to honour self-declared “mongrel” Mahinārangi – Māori, Celtic, Hebrew, Lesbian.

MTocker Ivan KarczewskiFamily, friends and some of the best-known musos of 1990s Aotearoa came together on March 16 and 17 to present a moving concert in memory of this talented singer–songwriter, who died a decade ago. There in the Auckland Town Hall they sang Mahinārangi’s songs, more than one of the professionals grumbling light-heartedly at how devilishly difficult these were to sing and to commit to memory.

The evening was a mixed experience. It felt wonderful / felt okay. It tingled the spine / fell a little flat. It was well attended / why was there not a full house? It got rave reviews and great coverage (especially from Radio New Zealand) / it didn’t get what it deserved.

Much symbolism comes with such a venue as the Town Hall – not least that the artist has “made it”. It’s a weird old space to fill, though. Was dry ice really needed, and did the cabaret-style tables and chairs work in place of the Stalls? Maybe. From the Circle, it was certainly fun looking down at them and their occupants.

A lot of soloists, a LOT ­– from ethereal Emma Paki to down-to-earth Don McGlashan – took their turns on stage. There was more than one group of outstanding backing musicians. Perhaps what avoided a sense of repeated entries and exits was producer Tama Waipara’s careful selection of recorded interviews with Mahinārangi, the otherwise absent star.

Some blink-and-miss-it moments occurred – I hope I caught them all. For instance GALS: the Gay and Lesbian Singers provided amazing backing vocals, but only at the very end of the penultimate (and title) song, ‘Love Me As I Am’. It seemed a shame. Good to know, though, that they were recorded for posterity – together with the rest of the concert (RadioNZ Concert).

Some voices had seen better days: hell, they’re the same age now as Mahina’s was when she died. We saw and heard singers who’d vanished after brief leaps to fame, and some of whom it might be said, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Could any of this line-up do justice to Mahinārangi, who made music sound easy and whose notes were like quicksilver?  What a bunch of diverse talent, though. And so many Live Famous People!

The performers  were like a fifty-cent (or rather $50) mixture: some tried-and-true favourites, some disappointments, a few delicious surprises. At least one dragged out some truly annoying stand-up comedy to cover discomfort – that’s you, Anika Moa – but others seemed at ease with their material.

Shona Laing must, I thought, have really worked on her reo for this concert. Later, though, I learned that she and Mahinārangi had performed ‘My Love Be Still’, which has some Māori lyrics, for The Mongrel in Me show from 2004. Shona describes her as “a magnificent teacher. She just, you know, she was a tyrant with the accent.”

The most effective and affecting performances, I want to suggest, were by artists who, like Shona, were real “old hands” and had been able to make Mahina’s songs their own. Don McGlashan’s rendition of ‘When I Grow Up’ (first heard in the Like Minds, Like Mine campaign for mental health) sounded just like something he might have written. Moana Maniapoto offered a song that had been given to her by Mahinārangi: until she told us, I’d not noticed that ‘Papatūānuku’ was not Moana’s.

Annie Crummer chose work that, in Mahinārangi’s recording, had showcased seemingly effortless vocal acrobatics. Annie put her own spin on ‘Danger Kissing’, bringing a vocal richness and timbre very different from – but equally impressive to – the original. Lesbian muso Charlotte Yates’s performances in honour of Mahinarangi were both heartfelt and heart-wrenching: maybe Charlotte still holds a torch for this dear friend.

A relative newbie also showed she could produce goosebumps, however. Twenty-something Nadia Reid’s version of ‘Ending’ was perhaps the best and most effortless performance of the evening, the one that most evoked the original artist. Nadia reportedly asked to be part of the concert and, though they never met, has long admired Mahinārangi. In an interview before her national Ballads and Badlands tour of five years ago, she identified Mahina’s ‘Ending’ as one of the songs she would most love people to hear.

Mahinārangi’s family members book-ended the evening. Two Tocker sisters and – gasp – grown-up daughter Hinewairangi performed, largely a capella, bringing more goosebumps.

Don McGlashan was the only male soloist besides dancer Taiaroa Royal, whose mischievous demeanour with a pink fan was camp rather than blokey. What was Tai doing there, I wondered? Later I found out that he’d once shared a stage with Mahinārangi at New Zealand’s International Festival of the Arts, and that Taiaroa Royal – like other artists in different disciplines – had dedicated a work to her.

So another thing I’ve now learned about this much-missed muso is that she was a great collaborator. This is clearly one of the things that has prompted her peers and musical descendants to embrace her as they have. (Her ineffable talent is, of course, another.)

“I think she would have just loved all the versions of her songs,” Don McGlashan said at, and of, this tribute concert. “I think she would have just sat there and cracked up.” Yes, she would have laughed a lot: she was known for being full of humour. She’d have been in her element. But “sat there”? Never. As one of our art world’s best co-workers, she’d have joined in with gusto. How could she resist?

Claire Gummer

Photo by Ivan Karczewski and Kioui Pix.

Read William Dart’s reflections and listen to 30 minutes about the concert here, listen to Shona Laing talking about Mahina here, and read Radio New Zealand’s article about her career here.

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