Entertainment | Waiata

Tōtara: A song for these times of great loss

The newly released single is part of Aro’s upcoming album ‘He Rākau, He Ngārara’ available in April.

“Kua hinga he tōtara i te wao nui a Tāne.”

“A great tree (person of significance) has fallen (passed) in the great forest of Tāne (in this world).”

Aro’s latest track ‘Tōtara’ was birthed by this whakataukī, and is a song of love, grief and memory dedicated to those special people who’ve lost loved ones.

The song was inspired by Māori legends about native trees and creatures, and is part of their upcoming album ‘He Rākau, He Ngārara’ due for release in April.

Their research was aided by Zane Wedding (Ngāti Kurī, Ngāti Pikiao), a tree expert who’s known for protesting the cutting down of trees in West Auckland by camping in them.

Aro’s Charles Looker says a kōrero with Wedding helped them push through finishing writing this song,

“After our wānanga with him at Tōtara Park (South Auckland), and its significance and why Māori refer to that tree when considering someone of great significance, of a chiefly person, it’s along the lines of following the wairua, I suppose.”

Aro is a duo consisting of Charles and Emily Looker, whose style of music combines Emily’s jazz vocals with Charles’ percussive sounds, with hints of haka chants.

Much of their music and videos in the past are clips that tell stories, rather than specific themes which they take pride in.

Married with two children, they say working and living together has helped them learn more about each other, and they credit their tamariki for keeping their love for one another strong.

“We are quite different in a lot of ways. Most of the time, we’ve figured out ways to work with each other. I mean we threw ourselves into a van after we first got married and lived for two years just touring and writing music, and that was the big make-or-break,” says Emily.

“It was cool, but if you’re ever going to crack, that would have been it, right? And that was great.”

The music video for Tōtara sees actors Miriama McDowell and Dominic Ona-Ariki enter their old house and relive childhood memories of their mother (Roimata Fox), where a tōtara tree stood tall and seemed to be part of their family.

It was funded by Creative New Zealand, with one of the requirements that Aro provide the names of the Māori cultural experts they would use to help better tell their story.

Charles was a big fan of that process, as he feels it keeps Māori stories authentic.

“I do want to start with a mihi to Creative New Zealand because when we first submitted our proposal they checked us on that.”

“I appreciate that there is a step in the process of application, where they’re like ‘Oh, who are your mātanga, who are the elders that you’re going to seek this information from?’ So, all of the stories are informed by people who I’m related to, my whakapapa,” he says.

Their song talks about the tōtara tree, which to them symbolises strength and dependability, qualities reflected in those we honour as tōtara.

“Like the tree, they live on in our hearts and stories,” says Charles.

As the country mourns the loss of Greens MP Fa’anānā Efeso Collins, Aro’s music offers solace and reflection. Charles offered his respects to Fa’anānā after growing up in Ōtara where the late Pacific leader did as well.

Tōtara is now available on all streaming platforms.