Q&A: Aro’s Emily and Charles

Husband and wife musical duo Aro’s upcoming bilingual EP He Manu Anō celebrates tales and melodies of Aotearoa’s native birds. Emily and Charles Looker korero with What’s Hot New Zealand about te reo Māori and music.

What has been your experience of bringing te reo Māori further into the music spotlight? While touring the country the last two years with our waiata, we’ve been encouraged by the engagement and interest people have expressed for our bilingual music and the Māori perspective that informs some of our songs. One thing we weren’t expecting was for our music to connect with people of all ages, from little ones right through to the grandparents. It’s been cool to hear who’s been jammin’ our waiata across the country, and a bit overseas as we’ve recently discovered! We’ve been humbled by the recognition our Manu album received, particularly for the first track ‘Korimako’ – which was up as finalist for the APRA Maioha Award 2019 and the APRA Best Children’s Song Award 2020.

Do you have any great stories from recording He Manu Anō? The whole project has been recorded from our home which has been a sweet experience. We did one single from home during the lockdown and thought it would be a good project for us to record this one from home as well. One challenge with recording from our whare is picking our times to record, between the neighbour mowing their lawn, the house party getting started down the road, or our two animals who we have to make sure are in their chill mode rather than hypo or we won’t get the quiet needed.

Tell us about the process of creating waiata inspired by the tales and melodies of native birds. It starts with hearing the melody of their song – that usually piques the interest. Then we go on an adventure of learning about their stories, how Māori saw them, and try to weave the narrative into something that’s relatable to all of us in our songwriting. We learn from our tūpuna Māori the practice of taking direct inspiration for songs and melodies from our environment, even to the point of some using mountain ranges to guide a melody. Likewise, we try to incorporate a bird’s melody, even down to the clicks, by imitating it with our own vocals or some kind of instrument – usually hidden like a Kinder Surprise.

What is the kaupapa of this EP? Similar to what it has been since we started this journey as Aro – to encourage and remind all of us, including ourselves, that we’re all taonga, and we ought to take care of each other and our environment. We’re making deliberate choices this time around to try to appeal more to our young people. It’s a crazy world out there, and we want to encourage everybody to have each other’s backs – we need it!

What do you hope people will take away from listening to it? Hopefully the above, in that we feel just a little bit closer to our brothers, our sisters, our neighbours, whoever they may be. It’s about love, and there are countless whakataukī, proverbs that speak of how important love is, especially with each other (not just the butterfly kind either), and some of which feature on this EP.

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Do you have a favourite te reo word or phrase you want more people to learn? That’s a tricky question. We would hope that if people want to learn Māori they would want to learn it in its entirety, whatever that looks like, and encourage learning what the real meanings are behind the kupu, the words, and not just by its English translation. If there is any word to encourage someone reading this to go and discover, maybe our name Aro could be a good place to start, it’s almost like a reference to why our kaupapa is what it is, or you can learn the lyrics of our songs if that’s better for your learning style.

How does the creative dynamic work between the two of you? We don’t know, except that it does work, and not all the time either. We are definitely strong in what we are most comfortable with, that is Emily with vocals, and Charles with instruments. Regarding songwriting it’s quite balanced, and at the same time very different depending on who is taking the lead in any of our songs, as we do have our own favourites as well. Being a husband and wife kind of helps the dynamic too, knowing each other that much, while acknowledging we’ve still got heaps to learn about each other too.

What does your chill time look like? Dream chill time for Charles is in a remote place somewhere on the rocks fishing, but he gets by with a bit of gaming. Dream chill for Emily is being with people, having friends over for a dinner party! Together it’s food and movies, in the comfort of our whare with our little animals.

You use quite a few different percussion and instruments in your music. What’s your favourite quirky sound? We’re massive fans of manipulating natural sounds, like slapping non-instrument surfaces, or distorting a whistle, or swinging a metal bench stool and catching it ringing. I think our favourite thing is actually in the fun of making something quirky.

Who would you most love the opportunity to jam with? We feel like we’re blessed to know so many great musicians in our circle of friends/family that the desire to jam with somebody amazing is pretty much fulfilled. Lianne La Havas would be cool to jam with though.

What is the best thing happening in Aotearoa music right now? The use and response to te reo Māori in mainstream songs. There have been a couple of moments where Charles has remembered some of his grandparents’ stories of what it was like for them as Māori, and what that meant for a language. We acknowledge things aren’t perfect, but we do feel blessed and excited to be living in times like these, where major change seems to be afoot.

What’s next for Aro? Next up for us, after the release and tour of He Manu Anō – which is also paired with a schools tour: workshops around identity, songwriting and our native manu – we have our annual summer tour, which is Aro bringing sounds to a bunch of campgrounds, a few festivals and local gigs around the North Island. 2021 we will be releasing our next project, He Wai, which will be waiata inspired by the underwater life, creatures and stories of the voyage to Aotearoa. We’ll be touring this around the country and look forward to seeing where our mahi in schools will take us next too.

Aro release their single Kōtare on 13 August, and the full EP will be available from 27 August.

aromusic.co.nz