Te Rito grows from strong roots
Combining Maori waiata with contemporary R&B is proving a winning mix for Wellington singer Kirsten Te Rito.
The 34-year-old has been performing most of her life, and more recently has released her debut album, Te Rito, with husband and keyboard player James Illingworth.
The album is bringing her Maori heritage into the modern day with distinctive R&B and soul beats woven with te reo lyrics.
"Te Rito" means "root or growth point", reflecting her life's journey which has included leaving school and becoming a mum at 17.
She has two sons, 17-year-old Ren and 15-year-old Vaughan.
Te Rito and Illingworth wrote the songs in English and had them translated into te reo by her cousin, Joe Te Rito, who has a doctorate in Maori and works at Auckland University of Technology.
They have been taking te reo lessons at Te Wananga o Aotearoa and hope to one day be able to write songs directly in Maori.
Her Maori father was a native speaker but never taught his children the language.
"He was punished at school for speaking it. I wanted to produce something fresh for young Maori to listen to, to encourage them to embrace their language.
"There are a lot of melodious hooks, lush vocals and catchy beats – a bit of soul, R&B as well as some jazz influences."
The fusion of genre along with the Maori lyrics make her work unique, Te Rito says.
"Singing in Maori is so much more organic, it has awesome rhythms. It's poetic: for 10 words you have to say 20 in Maori, and it's softer generally."
While most people would not necessarily understand the lyrics, they would get the themes and emotions of the songs, similar to listening to Italian opera, Te Rito says.
After years of working in musical theatre, including performing in Maui – One Man Against the Gods and The Lion King in Melbourne and Shanghai, Te Rito says she was happy to be focusing on her original music and her album was a culmination of that.
"I love writing and the whole recording process is really exciting."
She has found the recording industry in New Zealand "very supportive"
"Much more so than I expected. It seems quite different; people are much more open than I would have expected."
Last month, her single Oranga was included on the Kiwi Hit Disc, which is collated by NZ on Air and sent to radio stations across the country. Maori stations have been playing her songs regularly, she says.
At tonight's Waiata Maori Music Awards, Te Rito is a finalist in five out of eight categories: best female Maori solo artist, best Maori songwriter and for her album, best pop, urban rap/hip-hop/R&B and traditional Maori album.
Te Rito says winning would raise her profile, resulting in more gigs and appearances.
Past winners have included Tiki Taane, Stan Walker, Herbs and Nesian Mystik.
She believes there is scope for contemporary Maori pop music, both here and overseas.
The Waiata Maori Music Awards will be held at the Hawke's Bay Opera House, Hastings, tonight from 7pm. Te Rito is out now.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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