FRANCIS KORA of MODERN MAORI QUARTET: Bringing Back The Old-School Ways
An interview by Sarah Kidd.
There is a subtlety to the music of years gone by; an old school romance if you will. Where Saturday nights down at the local community hall were treasured events and the songs carried stories from one generation to the next. It is the memories and feelings that these events evoked that four Māori musicians are lovingly bringing back with their own twist on not only the classics but with some of their own musical stylings as well; creating new tales for the future generations to come.
The Modern Māori Quartet are currently half way through their New Zealand tour and have just recently released their latest original album entitled ‘That’s Us’. Speaking with member Francis Kora (yes the same Francis Kora who currently fronts the well-loved New Zealand band Kora) and it is evident that the Modern Māori Quartet is a project he is connected with on a very personal level:
Congratulations on the new album and of course the tour! I see that the Modern Māori Quartet are performing twenty dates in total; which is a lot for a little country like New Zealand.
“Yeah, yeah … “
I love the fact that you are really covering some ground and not just the main centres, are there any places in particular that are close to your heart?
“Whakatāne that’s my hometown firstly, but I think all of them! I love the fact that we are going to all of the smaller towns because I think the album reflects that aye. That heartland, rural, uniquely New Zealand garage party sound which the smaller towns, the heartland towns of NZ will connect with in a way which will be awesome”
Do you think that the stage might get stormed with some locals with their own guitars?
(raucous laughter) “I’m expecting that aye! (laughs) I would say sweet, that would be a crack up if they did ten guitars, would literally be ten guitars!”
I can see some of the old blokes might have a go aye – ‘Move aside boy, I’ll show you how it is done!’
(laughs) “Oh man – it’s been like that, I think my favourite shows are the ones where you have got a few hecklers, and you start playing and the whole room starts to sing; it’s pretty awesome”
I think that’s what’s quite wonderful about small town New Zealand; we are not afraid to stand up and get involved or have a bit of a laugh!
“Oh you know that’s the real New Zealand, that’s the real Kiwiana right there”
It’s nice to see that you also have kiwi legend – because she is a legend – Annie Crummer coming along on tour; how did that come about?
“Originally we had performed with Annie on a TV show many years ago called Happy Hour and that was our first experience of performing with her. She’s awesome man, she’s a … she’s a beast! Just years of experience aye, you can’t beat it; there’s talented people and then there’s talented people with a lot of experience.
We are constantly learning from her as well, she’s just an awesome person so we are really looking forward to going on the road with her. Which is good for us because we’ve gotta lift our game as well because man once she gets on stage its like ‘Whoa, far out!’ It’s like an energy ball! She’s bloody good on stage aye, really special!”
I know that the Modern Māori Quartet has been going for quite a while but just for our readers who may not know; how did you guys come about in the first place?
“The group got together just from literally doing garage parties; it would be like a party and a guitar would come out and then the boys would start to sing and James Tito, he was the one that came up with the idea.
We are all Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School graduates, so instead of waiting by the phone for an audition we said ‘Let’s just make something of it’ and then yeah the rest is history. It started off with a $50 show playing for the World Homeless Day and then ended up where we are now which is yeah a hell of a lot of fun!”
And what prompted you personally to join?
“Just the same thing really, the drama background; I just saw where the boys were coming from. The first time I saw the boys I wasn’t actually part of the group then, I was just helping to create the sound for a theatre show that they had created and as soon as I saw the show I just connected with it straight away.
I thought it was something special from that first show where I had ever seen them and fortunately for me one of the members left for Australia to perform in the Lion King for a couple of years and I stepped in and took his place and yeah have had a blast ever since!”
It doesn’t sound like you needed much convincing to join…
“Oh no, I think it’s because we are in each other’s faces all the time too! You know they’re a bunch of crazy guys and just good company to be around, we love to eat … eat and drink too much actually, far out (laughs) the suits are getting tight … the suits are getting tight!”
Fronting Kora which has such a solid heavy sound – Modern Māori Quartet is so very different and yet you strike me as the sort of person who would thrive off of that kind of diversity?
“Yeah, you get to just stretch your muscles a bit. Why I fell in love with the quartet as well is I grew up playing music with my Dad, we used to play at like the RSA’s, local rugby clubs, pubs, the cozy clubs and all that sort of stuff. But the RSA was something that I thought was the biggest memory when I first saw these guys. Dad he’d play like country, waltzes , foxtrots and all that type of music but I suppose it was just that old style that you just don’t see any more; this generation would have no idea what that is.
We used to play music and no one would be dancing; I was eight years old and my brother was ten on the drums and then the duty manager would bring out some baby powder and sprinkle it on the ground and then people would dance! So the baby powder was there so that they could slide their feet doing the waltzes and foxtrots and stuff. You just don’t see that anymore, so it’s nice to do this genre and have a hell of a laugh as well, just cheeky as, but yeah bringing back those old ways.”
The days when people would dress up and the events would be all about community spirit…
“Yeah well that’s it; when you go to small towns the hospitality is pretty next level! It’s exciting for them, it’s exciting for us, but for me that’s where the real heart of New Zealand is. You go to small towns and that’s purely New Zealand.”
Each original song is a collaboration between the four of you is that correct?
“Yes, we had a couple of weeks away, we got out of the city and we went back to the heartland places. Stayed in the Coromandel at Matarikis farm, stayed for a week and wrote the majority of the music there. Then we went to Taneatua which is just outside of Whakatāne and finished the rest of the writing there.”
Now why did you choose to put your hand up to be producer – is that your natural work ethic or because of your experience producing music?
“I just knew the feel of what the songs were about and I tried to capture the style of the music and our own voice within that sound. It was just quite clear in my head I suppose what the picture was, and in saying that I have done a bit more stuff than the other boys in terms of the studio work. That’s a world that I really love, so I took that on board.”
The album has a really nice mix of tracks. There are Motown inspired songs, cultural and even a couple of kinda upbeat pop songs! Which style in particular is your favourite and/or do you have a favourite track off the album?
“Oh that’s a tricky one! My favourite one is ‘Upon a Star’, all those stories are based off the truth, we wanted to tell the truth, so all the events are based off true stories. ‘Upon a Star’ is the story of one of the members; recently separated he met someone else but the person lives overseas, so if they look at the same star, no matter how far away they are they feel together! Very vulnerable track to record that one … yeah, beautiful.
To be honest I love all of the tracks because they just make me feel good, overall there’s just a good feeling of love and joy across the whole album.”
As you were saying the songs tell New Zealand stories with truth through original waiata and “humour, charm and class” – do me a favour and allocate each of those words to each of your three band members.
(laughs) “Humour is definitely James, the class is Matariki and charm is Maaka for sure!”
My favourite track has to be ‘Shine’, it has a wonderful message; a message that so many children in this country desperately need to hear from those around them…
“It’s nice to have something really positive and uplifting.”
Putting out a song or a music video is a very public way of conveying a message and I think that is to be applauded. We need more men like you to stand up and give that message to our children; that they are important and that we are there for them!
So who came up with the idea for the song ‘Shine’?
“Ah me; I’m the only one with a child out of the boys and yeah that was inspired by my daughter Coco-Grace who is in the video clip as well.
The way we love to do things is it’s all just about whanau really, everyone creates together. There is an old saying and I am pretty sure its Fat Freddy’s saying – Fat Freddys Drop – that ‘The band that eats together, stays together’ and that is absolutely true of this band! (mutual laughter) Because the management is Malaysian and they are just incredible cooks; they just love to host and cook for people and you got four and five big Maori boys that love to receive (laughs) the hospitality!”
Nothing wrong with that – food is good!
(laughs) “Yeah. But in terms of family, they are just part of us, part of our stories, all of our stories are just from the heart really, and hopefully that transfers across in the sound and in the way the music feels.”
I also love the cute little reaction video that is doing the rounds on YouTube, whose idea was that?
“Oh far out, yeah that’s actually the aunties of Jess and Ayva; they created a YouTube channel which is blowing up – I think they just started it this year. It was originally recorded for Samoan language week as it was Jess and Ayvas chance to taste the food blindfolded and the aunties wanted to get their reactions from tasting Samoan food.
We thought that was just adorable and that we would love to have them in the video and then they all became really good mates! Now it’s time to start booking play dates to go out with my daughter.” (laughs)
It’s another way of spreading the message through the generations too!
“It’s a nice little twist where it puts the power in the kids’ hands of; listen to us!” (laughs)
So besides bloody good music and four very good looking guys in suits what else does your live show offer?
“I think it’s a very uniquely, New Zealand, Kiwiana vibe; you just don’t hear music like that anymore and there’s a lot of truth in these stories that immediately connects with people. But aside from that, they’ll come out and they’ll have a bloody fantastic time! It’s just such a joyful night, it’s a joyful show to perform – it’s awesome!”
The Modern Māori Quartet have three shows left of their NZ tour – Whangarei tomorrow night, followed by Auckland on Saturday night, with the final show of the tour in Whakatāne on Sunday night. Tickets are still available for all shows from http://modernmaoriquartet.nz/, but get in quick as they are sure to sell out!