Māori and Tamil waiata brings communities together

Wilbur Sargunaraj helped compose 'Whanaungatanga'. Photo / Supplied

This article was first published by RNZ.

A song about kinship that blends Tamil, English and te reo Māori is forging a new cross-cultural connection between Indian and Māori communities in New Zealand.

The cross-cultural project is spearheaded by Canada-based musician Wilbur Sargunaraj.

Titled ‘Whanaungatanga’, the waiata features several Māori artists, including Amba Holly, Horomona Horo, Alien Weaponry bassist Turanga Morgan Edmonds and the Ngāti Awa kapa haka dancers.

“I want to see people building bridges across cultures,” Sargunaraj says. “I want to see them dialogue with each other.

“My work basically involves helping people come together using cultural intelligence. The most simplistic definition of CQ [cultural intelligence] is how we work effectively with people from different cultures.”

Born in Canada’s Alberta province, Sargunaraj’s family moved to India when he was four years old.

After spending almost a decade in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Sargunaraj returned to Canada and became involved with the indigenous communities.

Sargunaraj first visited New Zealand in 2010 and developed an interest in building connections with the Māori community.

“It was a short transit after my tour of Australia,” he recalls. “I really wanted to meet the indigenous community in New Zealand because much of my work in Canada involved working with indigenous communities. However, due to the brevity of my trip, I had to put that on the back burner.”

Fast forward to 2020, Sargunaraj’s curiosity about Māori culture grew, leading him to further research and engagement.

He was invited to Iramoko Marae in Whakatāne by its chairman, Pouroto Ngaropo, a visit that laid the foundations for the musical project.

Pouroto Ngaropo is chairman of Iramoko Marae. Photo / Supplied

Ngaropo says waiata traditionally carry a deep spiritual significance, going beyond simple greetings.

“This song represents how our culture interweaves at all levels, linking the past, present and future,” he says. “It’s about the unity and profound connections that bind us together as a community and as a people.”

He believes New Zealand can benefit from more cross-cultural initiatives such as ‘Whanaungatanga’, as they help to break down barriers and build a more inclusive society.

“Celebrating and sharing our diverse cultures enriches our collective identity and strengthens community bonds,” Nagaropo says.

“It also provides our youth with valuable opportunities to learn from and engage with different cultures, broadening their perspectives and instilling values of tolerance and empathy.”

Sargunaraj is fascinated with Māori words such as “aroha” (“love”), “manaakitanga” (“hospitality”), “whakaiti” (“humility”) and “whanaungatanga”, which signifies “kinship and connection”.

“I was working on cross-cultural relationships, and ‘whanaungatanga’ really stood out because of what the word denotes - kinship, connections and looking out for each other,” he says.

Turanga Morgan Edmonds from Māori band Alien Weaponry collaborated with Canada-based musician Wilbur Sargunaraj on 'Whanaungatanga'. Photo / Supplied

Edmonds was initially surprised by Sargunaraj’s suggestion to incorporate heavier guitar riffs into the song.

“But once I heard the track, the fusion of so many styles instantly stood out to me,” Edmonds says. “The song embodies the essence of kinship and togetherness.”

Edmonds says the cross-cultural waiata reflects the universal nature of music.

“Regardless of where you are from, music is something we can all relate to and, by fusing cultures through music, you in turn connect those cultures and peoples together,” he says.

“When Wilbur contacted us and told us about the project, it really connected with what we wanted to do and we decided that we will be a part of it.”

Anthony Clyde of Whakatāne Sound Project, which helped Sargunaraj to record ‘Whanaungatanga’, says such cross-cultural collaborations “opens doorways and breaks down barriers”.

After recording the song, Sargunaraj returned to Canada for postproduction work on the project.

The video was officially released on YouTube on 14 June.

“It is not about the numbers, clicks views or likes,” Sargunaraj says. “The most important thing was the long-lasting relationships and friendships that were forged between Māori, Pākehā and New Zealanders during this project.”

Sargunaraj is planning to return to New Zealand in October for a live performance at Auckland’s Diwali Festival.

“The Arasan NZ Trust, an organisation that promotes Tamil heritage and culture based in Dunedin, has jumped on board to become a sponsor for a live performance of ‘Whanaungatanga’ at the Diwali Festival in Auckland,” he says. “All the performers are looking forward to performing this amazing waiata on stage.”

By Blessen Tom of RNZ.