Guest Programmer Jason Te Kare talks about the upcoming Matariki Season at the Basement.
The matariki brochure depicts a handsome Jason Te Kare, his head shaved and sporting a moustache that goes up at the ends a little, as if to amplify his smile further. I look up and there he is, with a perfectly good head of hair and no moustache at all. He refuses coffee; he has had two already. He has written a show to be presented as part of the Matariki Festival at the Basement, and he is also in charge of the whole programme, being a bridge between the artists and staff so that things are done correctly. He has also just started a job at Te Oro in Glen Innes after a decade in the drama department of Radio New Zealand National. He has that combination of experience, nerves and adrenalin that comes with ditching the safe job and putting your reputation on the line doing something close to your heart.
As a kid growing up in Glen Innes, he always had the makings of an actor, embracing his Maori identity and heritage from a young age. When he discovered he was Maori, he was stoked and told everyone at school. A year later, he taught his mates the haka. ‘I just went for it, full voice and all the boys – I was normally the quiet kid – looked at me and thought, who is this person? I could always flick a switch and embrace the freedom to be open.’ He also had the sort of upbringing that may not be desirable by all, but is gold to writers and actors. ‘When I was seven my Mum started running a halfway house for runaway kids - before any support from the government. In a 3-bed house there were 36 teenagers. I used to annoy everyone getting up to watch morning cartoons, and there were kids in the hall, in the bath, out in the shed. It was a very colourful place to live in. No-one ever bullied me at school because I lived with the glue-sniffers’.
He looks back at this time in his life as being far more of an up than a down. His Mum might not have understood the Maori culture as a historian, but she understood it in her heart. I ask if he celebrated Matariki as a kid and he didn’t.
‘Matariki is being reclaimed. In the sixties and seventies and eighties, Matariki wasn’t a thing. Since 2000 it has re-emerged as an idea of a celebration.’ It makes sense that the Basement theatre, who are to a great degree staffed by the younger generation, are pushing to make more of the festival this week. Matariki is often described as the Maori New Year, which makes sense for those with backgrounds from the Northern hemisphere. It is a time in mid-winter to finish off the food that won’t keep. It is the time of the winter solstice and marked by the rising of the matariki stars. It is also the time of year when the land is not worked, a time of rest when people can return to their homes and see the relatives they might not see again for another year, and a time to share their stories and set goals for the next year.
Any country with defined seasons has a similar festival – it seems to address a human need whether it is called Christmas, New Year, Obon, or whatever. What makes Matariki a Maori festival though, is the oral tradition. Because nothing was ever written down, the stories told went beyond catching up to include the old stories, the important stories. The challenge is to encourage more people to celebrate Matariki without losing the Maori tikanga and people are very nervous of getting it wrong. And this often puts it in the too hard basket, so the festival ends up becoming an event that looks at all aspects of Maori culture and history, and not specifically Matariki. There were discussions about having a workshop around the treaty of Waitangi as part of the programme. Te Kare argued against. He also argues that while you have to try and do things the right way, ‘Being told off is part of the process because things aren’t always clear between hapu and iwi. As a Maori person I understand that what is in your heart is the most important thing.’
He was always getting told off, apparently, by an old Maori lady at RNZ and his colleagues commiserated with him about it. ‘But she was telling me off because she loved me the most! She wanted me to get it right!’ Coming from English boarding school, this sounded oddly familiar.
So, is there storytelling at the festival?
There is in the pōwhiri that opens the festival on 18th June at 12pm. There will be stories and food and is free, and sounds like it captures more than anything else the spirit of Matariki, with all the artists coming together – though the thought of doing it in the evening around a fire with some Shiraz as well sounds rather heavenly (my English background again). Storytelling also comes through the theatrical programme and the pop-up events, including basket-weaving. I ask about the highlights.
He is very excited about Hine that has been created by Whetu Silver (of the ATC) and explores women’s experiences in a Maori context. Matariki has a deep connection with women’s lives, even the stars are called the Seven Sisters. His new play, Glimmer, also began with an idea about the moon, the magical, and the idea of stories, and was inspired by a workshop held by English playwright Tim Crouch earlier this year. It is the first piece of writing he has done since he left Toi Whakaari 15 years ago. Drawing on Maori mythology and modern science, he creates a new legend, a new story for our times.
When I ask him about who he thinks his audience will be, he is a bit surprised. He has thought more about artists. I wonder if there is a need to speak that is perhaps more important than a need to hear. With his audience in mind, though, he talks about the White Face Crew and their award-winning work – La Vie Dans Une Marionette. All three performers come from different disciplines – dance (Justin Haiu), acting (Jarod Rawiri) and clown (Tama Jarman), and they have created a work that sets the benchmark high. ‘Maori are known as the angry people, and yet these guys are charming, cheeky, clever’. They also bring with them theatrical traditions from many countries and cultures.
It may not quite be the festival he hoped it would be, but it is a good start; it celebrates people, talent, and the commonalities rather than the differences. And maybe in a few years, Matariki may have some non-Maori performers, not to weaken traditions but to make them stronger, because we can then all understand them (at least a bit), and enjoy them and come together. Christmas and New Year don’t fit the natural calendar of New Zealand, give me a winter festival any day. If the Chinese Lantern Festival can bring all types of kiwis together, why not Matariki? Would it weaken tikanga? I don’t know. As Te Kare would say, it is complicated, and we’d get some things wrong, but maybe that would be ok. If you want to start joining in, head down to the Basement this Saturday.
The Matariki Festival opens on Saturday 18th June at the Basement and runs till 2nd July.
cred: Andi Crown