It is impossible to know where to start when talking about the sheer delight of living in Aotearoa, New Zealand, but one of those has to be the way the country has been spared from the worst excesses of COVID-19 due to a series of good decisions, luck, and geographical remoteness. The impact of this on the local music scene has been both challenging and difficult due to lockdown, and many in the scene have suffered terribly due to the lack of international touring artists, but there have also been some upsides. One of these is that last weekend the Auckland Folk Festival went ahead as planned in glorious sunshine, and while there were a few international transplants, everyone performing was a New Zealand resident. I was there for the two full days, and while there were many highlights, one of these was the discovery of Aro.
I was fortunate enough to catch them twice in concert over the weekend, and came away incredibly impressed, loving what they are doing. Aro comprise husband and wife Charles (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Te Ata, Te Ati Awa) and Emily Looker, with Charles providing vocals and acoustic guitar, and Emily vocal gymnastics, while on this release there are a few more instruments here and there to provide a little more colour. This EP, released in November 2020, is a follow-up to the album ‘Manu” which was released in 2019 (“manu” is Te Reo for “bird”) . The album contains songs inspired by a trip around New Zealand where they listened to the sounds of the birds, and here we have another five in the same vein. Each song is about a different bird, all sung in Te Reo, and while Charles ensures the guitar is always accompanying but never taking away from the vocals, Emily uses technology when playing gigs to record live loops to pitch her voice against or create harmonies on her own vocals by adding thirds and fifths.
On this EP they obviously allow themselves some multi-tracking, but for the most part this is what I heard when I saw them last weekend. Before each song they would explain what this particular bird meant, and why they had taken it in the direction they had. The one which probably had most impact on me was “Huia”, which is an extinct bird that used to be favoured for its tail feathers, which were worn by Maori chiefs, who were seen as weavers of the tradition and of people. This is dealt with directly in the song, with lyrics “He mana ,mana, rangitira, He mana kararanga nga tira nga hau e wha, Kia kaha Aotearoa” which translates to “A prestigious song, the song of a leader, One that knows how to weave the people together, We can do this Aotearoa.” Like many Pākehā (introduced from or originating in a foreign country), I am embarrassed by my lack of understanding of Te Reo, but “Kia kaha” is something which everyone understands, and my wife even has the symbol tattooed.
There is something about not only that song, but all on this EP, which is bright and full of aroha (love) and resonates so very deeply indeed. No, I cannot understand the lyrics so have to resort to translation tools, but the emotion and sheer joy is palpable, and it fills me with a light I simply cannot express. Wherever you are in the world, this five-song EP is sheer beauty, and it is of no surprise to me that they running workshops in schools to encourage young people. They were finalists for the Maioha Award at the Silver Scrolls (2019) and the APRA Best Children’s Song Award (2020), and surely it is time for others outside Aotearoa to discover the delights of this wonderful duo.
And if you have read all the way to the end of this review why not visit their website to discover more. There you will be amazed to discover that this EP is available to download free of charge, and you owe it to yourself to immerse yourselves in the sound of Aro.