Lorde defends Maori culture in unique EP

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By Griffin Brammer, Editor-in-Chief

New Zealand singer-songwriter Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, has released an EP featuring five of her latest songs sung in the Te reo Maori language.

“Much of my value system around protecting the natural world comes from traditional Maori practices,” Lorde wrote in a newsletter to her fans. The artist released the album, titled Te Ao Marama, a few days before the official Maori Language Week in New Zealand on September 9.

The album features Maori covers of songs from Lorde’s new album Solar energy album. These included Solar Energy, The Path, Stoned at the Nail Salon, Fallen Fruit and Oceanic feeling, each with their own uniquely translated titles and lyrics.

The artist also posted a statement on his website stating that 100% of the proceeds from Te Ao Marama sales will go to two different charities based in New Zealand. The first, Forest and Bird, aims to help New Zealand’s wildlife conservation efforts. The other, the Te Hua Kawariki charitable trust, seeks to preserve Maori traditions and customs across the country.

“I’m someone who represents New Zealand to the world in a way,” Lorde said. “(Maori culture) makes us who we are here.”

The singer worked with a team of translators, language experts and former Maori to create the most respectful listening experience possible for Te reo Maori speakers and non-speakers.

“Even if you don’t understand te reo, I think you’ll appreciate the elegance of my words,” Lorde said.

One of the main translators and collaborators on the project was Dame Hinewehi Mohi, a singer and language activist who has worked extensively in the field of Maori music, including producing the 2019 Waiata / Hymns album, which re-recorded several songs by famous New Zealand artists in Maori.

“It really warms my heart to know that young people like Ella are absolutely going to commit to (te reo Māori),” Mohi said in an interview with New Zealand cultural magazine The Spinoff. “I like it in pieces.”

In addition to Lorde and Dame Mohi, the translation team included Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Hana Mereraiha and Hēmi Kelly.

Through the translation process, the team were able to incorporate references to Maori culture and mythology into the song lyrics.

The very title of the EP itself, Te Ao Marama, translates to “world of light” and is not only a reference to the “solar” part of the English title, but also describes an aspect of the creation story of the Maori world, emphasizing themes the natural beauty and preservation of the album.

In Te Ao Mārama / Solar energy, the translation of the line “I am a bit like a prettier Jesus” replaces Jesus for “Hinemoana”, a Maori deity of the ocean.

There have also been a few instances where Lorde’s intricate metaphors have been traded for Maori traditional expressions. InHine-i-te-Awatea / Oceanic feeling, the image of Lorde’s black lipstick gathering dust has been replaced with “Let the sun shine on you and cast your shadows behind you”. Lorde would later say that this is one of his favorite lines from the EP.

In their interview with the singer, The Spinoff addressed the racist history and treatment of the Maori people and the submission of their language by the New Zealand government. “(te reo Māori) was not something that was part of my life, and it was something that I had a kind of sadness and a bit of guilt about,” Lorde explained.

The project also features indigenous Maori performances alongside Lorde. In Hua Pirau / Fallen fruit, Mohi opens for the song, and towards the end, translators Mereraiha and Kelly perform a Haka – a traditional Maori song – behind Lorde’s voice.

Lorde said she was nervous about the album all the time but accepts all criticism.

“I’m a little overwhelmed, and I’m the first to admit it, and I’m open to any response to that,” she said. “What would have been worse was having been too scared to do it… It is sadder and more frightening to me than being attributed to some kind of white savior complex.”

Photo courtesy of @ 1ettakate via Twitter


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