From garage to charts: how Māori strum helped shape the sound of New Zealand

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

In late 2021, a series of videos started circulating social media: a gifted singer belting out R&B and hip-hop tunes with a uniquely New Zealand take. The songs were stripped back to their barest guitar basics, peppered with Māori words and New Zealand in-jokes. Behind the renditions, there was something deeply, immediately recognisable: a guitar sound musicians call the “Māori strum”.

It is perhaps New Zealand’s most distinctive and enduring musical sound, strummed on guitars across the country and often nicknamed jing-a-jik or rakuraku, after the cadence it produces. It is a strum heard not only at marae (meeting houses), family gatherings and competitive kapa haka (action dance) performances, but in some of the country’s most beloved hits, including OMC’s How Bizarre and Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over.

Musician and actor Maaka Pohatu’s TikTok series, lengthily titled “00’s club bangas if they were Māori style garage party guitar jams (songs in the key of Māori)”, were an instant hit – racking up hundreds of thousands of views.

At is most basic, the Māori strum uses three to four chords and a light upward strum matched with a heavy downward strum on the second and fourth beat, to produce a rich combination of bass and treble, delivered with swinging percussion.

“It is a way of interpreting really technical songs … and breaking it down into its most basic components”, Pohatu says.

The beauty of the strum, which has been fine-tuned at garage parties across the nation, is its simplicity and familiarity.

“The garage party is all about the whole room singing along,” Pohatu says. “Even if you’re not a great singer it doesn’t matter, it’s about the inclusivity. We have a saying: if a song makes it to a Māori garage party, then it is an anthem.”

Pohatu first came across the idea for the Māori strum-R&B medleys while touring overseas in 2009. He joined a jam circle with award-winning pop musician Rob Ruha and Rawiri Waititi, now the co-leader of the Māori party.

“They were doing the Māori strum and put together a medley of love songs, including Low by T-Pain,” he says. As each verse came to an end, it was up to the next singer to keep the medley going, in friendly competition. Pohatu’s TikTok versions also became collaborative affairs – some artists added duets to his songs, others dance actions in the style of kapa haka.

The videos were made during New Zealand’s long Covid lockdowns. “In a way, TikTok was fulfilling [the garage party] – if I couldn’t go to a mate’s house, then I would try bring the vibe to TikTok.”

Related: From outrage to No 1 hits: how Māori musicians conquered the charts in their own language

Once you look for the strum, it shows up everywhere in New Zealand pop. Neil Finn credits it with forming the spine of a number of Crowded House songs.

“That influence has always been there,” Finn said in a 1995 Sunday Star-Times interview. “It’s deep as hell from childhood because that’s the way that we learned how to play guitar and heard people play guitars around us.”

“I don’t remember the first time I heard it, but I know I was very young,” says New Zealand singer-songwriter Marlon Williams, who recently joined Lorde on her European tour. The strum echoed through his early memories of Kohanga Reo – Māori preschool – and the sound of waiata (song).

Its distinctiveness is hard to pinpoint, but Williams believes it is recognisable through its “use of muting and its feathery, dull percussion”.

A few years ago, Williams started playing his “own little variations on the strum, just from sitting around and jamming”.

My Boy, a single from his new record, was one of the fruits of that time: the song blends that full-hearted, rhythmic strum with a disco-pop hook. “I do think of it as a Māori strum,” he says of the song. “It uses the mute, it’s played without a pick, but mostly it’s in the way the vocal phrasing skates over the guitar.”

But for a musical tradition with such a strong imprint on the country’s culture, little is known of its exact origins. Recordings of it appear around the time of the second world war, when touring Māori soldiers had their performances committed to tape. It later proliferated throughout the 60s alongside the rise of pop music.

Dr Michael Brown, the music curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, captured some of its history in his doctoral thesis.

“I encountered many versions of the Māori strum style; every player seemed to have their own slightly different, vernacular approach,” Brown writes. “The strum’s full chords and percussive accents operate as a versatile accompaniment that can be adapted to suit almost any song.”

As New Zealanders increasingly embrace the Māori language, Williams says, its musicality also starts to feed into pop, and the musical sound.

“The musicality of waiata Māori is implicit in the sound, grammar and cadence of the reo. As more and more of the country start experiencing it as a living language, we won’t be able to help but let whakaaro Māori (Māori ideas) penetrate the flavour of our music.”

Pohatu points to musicians like Williams and Rob Ruha as the torchbearers for an ever-evolving, and distinctive, style of Māori music.

“They really are incorporating the entire history of Māori music, kapa haka, Māori show bands with all of today’s fancy bells and whistles and super crisp production … It’s quite a beautiful thing.”

  • Daniel Taipua (Waikato-Tainui) is a freelance writer based in Auckland