Saturday, May 16, 2009

Together Alone: The Maori Creation Myth

In keeping with the spirit of the title of this blog, this time out we’ll go with something completely different …

In the early ‘90s I read an article about the New Zealand Maori and their conflicts with land-seeking British colonists during the 1800s.*

That article sparked my intense interest in the Maori and over the years I’ve acquired a significant library on New Zealand** history.

The Maori are of Polynesian origin and their migration to New Zealand took them across much of the Pacific.***

Most cultures have a creation myth – a story about how the world came to be. I found the Maori creation myth to be very touching. Here is an abbreviated/paraphrased version:

In the beginning, mother earth and father sky were so close that there was no room for even light to exist. Between the dark embrace of their parents, numerous young gods had no room to grow.

After eons of struggling, the god of the forest and his siblings used trees to wrench their parents apart, pushing father sky into an arch high above the earth.

Light from the sun revealed the world and the young gods rejoiced, even as their parents longed to resume their embrace.

The young gods covered the world with foliage, clouds and other barriers to keep their parents apart.

The parting of earth and sky also released a host of evil spirits and soon conflict raged between the younger gods.

The war spirit, Tu, fathered man and gave us weapons to slay animals for food.

It didn't take long for men to learn to use the god's tools to slay each other.

Mother earth and father sky parted forever so that their offspring would have room to grow – but they never stopped longing to embrace each other again.

And, without their parents' guidance, many of mother earth and father sky’s children used their freedom to hurt each other.

A model of a Maori warrior from the late 1800s.

As chance would have it, my favorite band at the time I first read about the Maori was New Zealand’s Crowded House. The title track on their fourth album was “Together Alone,” a song about father sky longing to be reunited with mother earth.

It is an ambitious production that features a Maori choir, Cook Island log drummers and a Salvation Army-type band. The song starts out very slow and simply and then builds to an amazing complex tapestry of unusual (to the western ear) melodies and rhythms.

I really like the female Maori solo voice - the phrasing is so different from any western music.

Here are the lyrics, including the translation of the Maori chorus:

Together alone
Above and beneath
We were as close
as anyone can be

Now you are gone
far away from me
As is once
will always be
together alone

(Maori chorus)
anei ra maua (here we are together)
e piri tahi nei (in a very close embrace)
e noha tahi nei (being together)
ko maua anake (just us alone)

kei runga a Rangi (Rangi the sky-father is above)
ko papa Kai raro (the earth mother is below)
e mau tonu nei (our love for one another)
kia mau tonu ra (is everlasting)

Together alone
Shallow and deep
Holding our breath
Paying death no heed

I'm still your friend
when you are in need
As is once
will always be
earth and sky
moon and sea

The song’s performers include the Maori (choir), the Cook Island representatives of the Maori Pacific migration (log drummers), early white settler influences (the Salvation Army band) and contemporary New Zealand elements (Crowded House) - all combined in a way that represents the cultural mix that comprises New Zealand today. Brilliant.

You won’t see this type of musical creativity on American Idol.

Watch the first third of this link to see part of the making of this song on You Tube.

As a result of my interest in 1800s era Maori/New Zealand, I wrote a screenplay, “Yankee Maori”, and have adapted it for a large graphic novel project. The story is based on real people and events. The title character was an American who joined the British Army, was shipped out to New Zealand where he deserted and joined the Maori in their fight against the British and colonials. A fascinating historical figure who most Americans know nothing about. Here are a few panels from the graphic novel by the fabulous Enrique Alcatena.

*During that same time period, similar conflicts were occurring in North America as the US military and settlers expanded westward and confiscated the lands of the native Americans tribes.

**The Maori name for the islands we call New Zealand is Aotearoa

***Lego’s Bionicle line of toys and games used a lot of Maori and Polynesian names and language. Maori activists were incensed that a toy company was using their language for commercial purposes and feared Lego was trying to legally secure the rights to those words. After initially contesting the maori claims, Lego eventually acknowledged its insensitive use of the words and made changes in the Bionicle line’s names.

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