Riki Neihana and Alistair Fraser on remembrance, communication and tribute through music, and their new album, ‘Rangatira’

Article by Ruby Solly (Kai Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) | Photography courtesy of Dylan Cook (@dylanbiscuit)

The nationwide rāhui was a time for many of us to reflect and take stock of our pasts. For musicians, this was an interesting time that prompted ingenuity in order to continue collaborating with each other and has resulted in the blossoming of many new works, often based around topics that sit deeper than our work usually does while we move through the maze of daily life. Musicians Riki Neihana (Ngāti Wai, Ngai Tāhuhu, Ngāti Māhanga, Patuharakeke) and Alistair Fraser (Pākehā) found themselves at the intersection of these two spaces; reflecting on the past and using these to create a musical project, ‘Rangatira’, that serves as a mihi to their friend and colleague Eddie Tutaki whose passing affected the two friends greatly.

Alistair Fraser and Riki Neihana shared Eddie as a mutual friend during their upbringings in Dunedin, though Fraser and Neihana weren’t close until their music school days in Wellington where their connection with Tutaki helped them to find a common thread, even more so after his death. Fraser had met their friend, Ed, during primary school days; “I’d gone through school with Ed since standard three and then by seventh form we were performing together in a band for Smoke Free Rock Quest”. Neihana met Tutaki in his late teens and still remembers the feeling of playing with him during that foundational stage of his music making; “He was such an incredible bass player, very natural in his way with it”. The two agreed; “Super smart, super talented”. So when Neihana and Fraser met at university and realised Tutaki was a connection, they quickly became friends and started their first band in Wellington called ‘Isotope’, in some ways many worlds away from where they are now and in other ways not far from it at all.

While the two friends were finding their way at jazz school, Tutaki was back in Dunedin with his young whanau making his way down in Te Wai Pounamu. But Tutaki had times in a dark place and after an unsuccessful suicide attempt with what many presumed was a path to recovery, he committed suicide at a young age. Neihana remembers this time and how surprising it was to his friends and whānau “It was a big shock to everyone, he was good at convincing us that it was all ok”.

Since then, Neihana and Fraser have gone on to have their own families, music careers, and lives within te ao Mārama. But both acknowledge that they still feel affected by the passing of their friend and fellow musician, and sense his life cut short while they continue forward with their own. Neihana describes the therapeutic side of creating Rangatira: “It’s almost like a whakanoa in a way. It was an impulse, and it was quite simple within that. During lockdown we just thought “lets do something for Ed” and it felt like because of that intention behind it, it felt like everything we played was coming from trying to capture that visceral feeling around grief. Some of those pieces too try to capture that feeling, that finality of death. The brutal-ness of it all and the way he went. I wanted to keep it raw”.

The album itself has an immersive quality much like grief itself, it wraps you in a korowai of sound that is somehow both protective and hurtful in a way that forces the listener to process it as it is received by them. There is no hiding from both the beauty, and the rawness of the playing which are imbued within the tracks with equal measure. Fraser says of the process; “We recorded the album within a certain frame of mind. But when you reflect on it you can see what you were feeling and getting to with it. Being able to go back and re-listen and hear that certain things had certain meanings”.

‘Rangatira’ feels like a journey that takes us somehow not only through a landscape but through a lifetime, and all the versions of that life that could have been. There is a sense of place to this record that feels somehow extremely permanent, and also ungraspable. On tracks like ‘Manu Te Oriori’ and ‘Nanaiore’ there is a sense that there is something behind you that you can’t quite see when you turn around. There’s both an urgency and a timelessness to this record. A sense of a trapped being in time who lives through music and memory. Neihana describes this journey; “It’s like being on a train and going past the landscape of Ed because it was so prominent on the mind. It felt like we were sending out signals to him through the work. It’s a meditation in a way, and it’s a tangi too, for Ed”. Fraser muses too about the feeling of the tracks within the space they travel through; “It took me a while to grasp where Riki had taken it with the production especially of the last track ‘Tāwhiti’ but on listening one night I realized; to me this is despair”. Neihana agrees; “In this case, there’s no happy ending”.

The recording process was completed during rāhui and the pair decided to complete the tracks with minimal editing to show the full scope of emotion and depth within the tracks, their ability to do so while still being able to maintain this depth of conversation through music shows their inherent ability to communicate through this art form. The work itself being somehow deeper than words. Neihana comments on the process; “Basically Al would send me something, I’d send him something, and then we’d have it. I didn’t want to chop it and change it. We needed to keep it how it was”.  The order too has been kept chronological to present that journey through the process of Ed’s life, the journey of the grief, and the journey of the album coming into being.

Being recorded during rāhui though challenging, did afford the duo some advantages. “Because we weren’t playing in the same room there was a certain amount of freedom to do what you need and then see what the other person does with it.” Fraser says; “There were some parts where I played and let it happen, and other parts where I’d be thinking about Eddie more specifically, different parts of who he was”. Being able to experiment in a way where the two were both alone in the creative process, and together, allowed for collaborations such as the track ‘Kū’ which experiments with some parts that follow a different stylistic route allowing percussion and puoro to converse in a way that we might not have heard done in this style before. Fraser explains; “When I was making the kū track I just played it and assumed that it might not be Riki’s cup of tea. But then he did something really cool with it that I would never have heard anyone else do”.  Memories of Eddie’s passing around the millennium  came back into focus for the pair during lockdown when they were able to use this time to reflect. Neihana describes; “The lockdown prompted so many memories around the past and was when Al and I connected with the idea of doing something for Ed. I guess it’s always been in the back of our minds to do something together. It was as simple as that, to do something for Ed and send out those signals”.

Rangatira feels like both a mihi to Eddie Tutaki, and a resource for all who experience grief, in all its facets, depths, and variations. It makes the universal nature of grief personal and somehow the pair have created a record that moulds itself to each listener to provide comfort and the ability to peel back the layers of the human experience on the subject that is often talked around instead of sung through. “We’ve kept all the ugliness in there. There’s parts that aren’t comfortable, and that’s really what defines the beautiful. You’ve gotta have that ugliness and that rawness to let the beautiful moments come through, and there’s a lot of beautiful moments in there. It’s an exploration of grief, of all the parts of it”.


About the author:

Ruby Solly (Kai Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a musician, writer, taonga puoro practitioner, and music therapist living in Pōneke. She has played with artists such as Yo-yo Ma as part of his Bach Project, The New Zealand String Quartet, Trinity Roots, Whirimako Black, Orchestra Wellington, Al Fraser, and Ariana Tikao. She also works as a session musician and has been recorded as a cellist on over twenty different albums. Ruby is a taonga puoro player and therapist with a first class masters in music therapy where she conducted kaupapa Maori research into the use of taonga puoro in acute mental health. As a taonga puoro player and therapist she is privileged to work around the country with people from all walks of life sharing the taonga of her ancestors. She is currently studying towards a PHD in public health at Massey university looking at the use of taonga puoro in hauora.

She is also a composer and was privileged to work as the script writer and one of the taonga puoro players for short film ‘Super Special’ which received critical acclaim upon its release in 2019. Ruby is also a published writer who has had poetry and creative non-fiction published in Best New Zealand Poems, Landfall, Sport, Poetry NZ, Starling, Mimicry, Minarets, E-tangata, The Spinoff and Pantograph punch. She has had poetry published widely across New Zealand as well as in American, Portugal, and exhibited in Antarctica as well as being one of the winners of the 2019 Caselberg Poetry Prize. Victoria University Press will be publishing her debut book of poetry 'Tōku Pāpā' in 2021.