Ria Hall Performs Rules of Engagement at The New Zealand Festival
Concerned with the perennial themes of conflict and resistance, Rules of Engagement took five years for Ria Hall to complete. Her key inspiration came specifically from a letter written by Henare Taratoa (Ngāi Te Rangi) in March 1864 to the Governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey, which outlined how both Māori and British should conduct themselves in battle. This code of conduct became known as the 'Rules of Engagement' and the album features kōrero about both the battles of Pukehinahina and Te Ranga from Hall's great-uncle Turirangi Te Kani.
Hall was born in 1982 or 1983 of Ngāi Te Rangi/Ngāti Ranginui ancestry. The youngest of four sisters, she grew up in Maungatapu and first became interested in singing through kapa haka at secondary school. In 2006 she formed the reggae band Hope Road and in 2011 sang at the opening ceremony of the Rugby World Cup. The same year she released her debut self-titled EP, which won Best Māori Album at the 2012 New Zealand Music Awards. From 2012-13, Hall was a presenter on Māori TV's AIA Marae DIY. In 2013 she featured as a guest vocalist on Stan Walker's single Like It's Over. She describes her musical influences as mainly roots reggae, raga, soul, and hip hop, while her mother loved listening to country music.
Hall has collaborated profitably with a diverse array of artists in the past, including Fly My Pretties, Tiki Taane, and Electric Wire Hustle. Mostly mixed by Taane at Tikidub Studios, her new album's sixteen tracks move effortlessly from hip-hop beats to lush soulful arrangements and feature performances from Taane, Kings, Laughton Kora, Mara TK, and Che Fu. Hall’s pure and powerful voice shines brightly on Love Will Lead Us Home, Tell Me, Barely Know, and the beautiful Black Light. Ralph Hotere died while the album was in development and Black Light is dedicated to his memory, with lyrics inspired by his artwork. Mara TK helped coin the song and also features on this track.
Rules Of Engagement is clearly a passionate cri de coeur, featuring Hall as the central narrator. Aiming to create an honest dialogue about both the positive and negative aspects of New Zealand history, the album upholds the integrity of Maori culture amongst modern musical sounds and the current cultural climate. The opening track, In These Trenches, is a specific call to arms, with the poet Te Kahupakea Rolleston demanding to know “Will you rise?” The second song, Te Kawa o Te Riri, showcases Hall's commanding vocals and lyrics, delivered entirely in Te Reo Maori. In an album full of powerful moments, Hall’s use of Te Reo is both richly layered and highly evocative. “There is so much power in the language, and everything it stands for. It’s presence in this album is like the air I breathe," she insists.
Barely Know touches on the uncertainties of past relationships and places them in a familiar context, while Te Ahi Kai Po (“the fire burning away the darkness”) is inspired by the slaughter at The Battle of Te Ranga, trying to discover the roots of resistance through times of anguish and despair when defeat seems imminent. Spoken word archival recordings of Turirangi Te Kani from 1968 feature on three tracks (50,000 Acres, The Battle, and Te Ranga), adding another personal dimension to the mix. Considered as a fully-integrated concept album, Rules Of Engagement provides a personally-guided tour not only through Hall’s own life and experiences, but also through the shared experiences of her whanau.
Although inspired by a significant time in New Zealand’s history, the themes of Rules Of Engagement remain universal and highly relevant. Hall is staunchly unafraid to challenge the status quo and to ask hard questions, not in a spirit of confrontation, but rather from a profoundly raw and honest perspective: “The key message in my album is to encourage understanding. In order to understand where we are heading to, we must not only acknowledge our past, we must understand its implications and the effect it has had on the current landscape of New Zealand. We can do so much better in this area and it seems we have only made incremental change. I would love to help effect a dramatic shift for the betterment of generations to come.” The twin themes of the album - conflict and resistance - translate to all places where oppression is still present.
Completing the album has itself proved a huge test of Hall's personal resilience, "much like the concept of the album really. The initial conception and development started in Wellington, where I lived for past ten years … Then, with life taking over and everything in between, it was completed in Tauranga, my spiritual home. And it all makes sense, even though it’s taken this long to complete, and I’m really happy with the outcome."
Hall is an outspoken and fearless artist with resolute ideas about the past and the future - a free-thinking, edgy, and unapologetic soul. Rules of Engagement depicts an epic panorama, combining many genres, and highlighting Hall's incredible vocal range. From the aftermath of war through colonisation to her own personal convictions, it addresses current issues and social problems on multiple levels, confirming her position as a polemical and preeminent voice on the indigenous NZ music scene.
Hall will perform Rules of Engagement with the help of vocalist Mara TK and powerhouse trio The Nudge as part of the New Zealand Festival on Saturday, 24 February, at the Festival Club, 17 Cable St,. Wellington, and on Sunday, 25 February, at Maoriland Hub, 68 Main St, Otaki.