Tīmataka: Opening the WORD Christchurch Festival 2023 with style and soul

The WORD Christchurch Festival opened last night with a memorable evening of storytelling, immersed in the sounds of taonga pūoro. The scene was set with tables of traditional instruments laid out on the stage and the audience was quietly buzzing with anticipation.

Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) began the night with a reading from her latest book The Artist. She told the creation story of Te Wai Pounamu, when the world was sung into being:

‘The world is sung into being
Not for us
But for itself
The song’.

With a beautiful soundtrack of taonga pūoro, she spoke of the creation of the land, the arrival of different iwi, and the conflict this land has seen. It felt like a fitting opening to the festival, to acknowledge where we are, and all the lives intertwined with these lands. Although this story is familiar to me, I heard it from a fresh perspective, feeling the emotion behind the words.

She was then joined on stage by Ariana Tikao (Kāi Tahu) and Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Koroki, Ngāti Paoa), who welcomed us into this sacred space. The trio combined forces in many of their readings, with Tikao and Solly playing taonga pūoro, bringing to life the words spoken on stage. It’s also worth mentioning how they looked on stage, with the women dressed in red velvet and Brown describing himself as ‘a thorn between two roses’, they made a stunning trio.

Ben Brown shared stories of his childhood, again connecting us to the land with a visit to the Pā harakeke. He drew chuckles from the audience as he spoke of the strength of both harakeke and his mother. His second piece, a farewell poroporoaki to his sister, was heartfelt and intense while still containing elements of humour. It felt like we were invited into his life for a moment, getting to meet his whānau and hear about these important relationships.

One of my highlights was Ariana Tikao’s performance using her loop pedal. She layered different instruments to create a rich, rhythmic soundscape for her words. She spoke of moving topics, including the Christchurch earthquakes and the birth of her moko, but finished on a lighter note with ‘Christchurch, a springtime seduction’. This short poem, written at last year’s WORD Festival about how she was seduced to move back, was instantly relatable and humorous to many in the audience.

The trio finished with a performance called ‘Whakatuwhera’, combining beautiful waiata with spoken word. As Tikao and Solly harmonised, Brown spoke powerfully about the breath, life force, and women’s voices. I reflected on how these themes ran through the night: Stories about and by powerful wāhine. Stories about birth, beginnings, ūkaipō. I hope these are themes we continue to hear through the rest of the festival as we reflect on who we are, where we are from, and our connection to this place.

Hear more from these authors at WORD:

Summoning Whakapapa: Friday 25 August, 5-6 pm. Ruby Solly and Ariana Tikao discuss discuss writing family histories and the protection of whakapapa with Helen Brown (Ngāi Tahu).

Unruly memories: Friday 25 August, 6-7.30 pm. A guided tour of The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora, with poets sharing their recollections and reactions, featuring Ariana Tikao.

Confluence: Saturday 26 August, 8.30-10 pm. Pasifika and Māori excellence, on stage in Ōtautahi and styling up for a celebration of island connections, featuring Ruby Solly.

Explore books by Ben, Ruby, and Ariana


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