Oct 23, 2023

Review of Girl in A Savage World

Theia X Te Kaahu – Girl In A Savage World

22nd October 2023
ToiToi, Hastings, New Zealand.

Review by Rosheen Fitzgerald, photography by Andrew Caldwell.

Like a superhero, Em Walker leads something of a professional double life. Except both of her personas – Theia, alt pop goddess; and Te Kaahu, ethereal te reo queen – are equally fabulous. Though on the surface these projects are worlds apart, they have more in common than might first appear. She is nothing but authentic in either language. When all the pop production is stripped away the Theia tunes grab the heart with just the same intensity as the Te Kaahu ones.

Girl in a Savage World brings these two elements together for the first time, sharing who she is, musically and as a person, in her entirety. The title comes from the lyrics of Theia track, Pray 4 Me, but is reminiscent of Tusiata Avia’s 2021 book, The Savage Coloniser. Both outspoken artists play on the meaning of ‘savage’, a term historically thrown at the feet of indigenous people. By contrasting the behaviour of colonisers with their own mana, they reflect the term back on their oppressors and the world they have created.

The stage is set, quite literally. The audience assembles on the apron, at the same level as the performers, looking out through gauze at the auditorium beyond. She’s so close we can see the details of the print on her custom Canary Canyon frock.

It’s an intimate setting made all the more so by the depth of her kōrero. She shares so generously of herself, not just her music but her personal experience, going deep into each song, touching on the challenges of growing up queer and mouthy in a conservative christian whanau, of swimming with the sharks in the music industry, and the thorny topic of colonialism.

She opens the space with the eponymous Te Kaahu O Rangi in stunning acapella, raising our collective hairs and setting the tone for the evening. The title of her te reo project was named for her grandmother, who passed shortly after she catapulted to fame. The name translates to hawk of the heavens, but is layered with meaning, the kahu being a regal symbol embodying the qualities of leadership. She frequently sees these birds, emblems of the spirit of her tipuna, watching over her, and so avian imagery abounds throughout her oeuvre.

For what it’s worth, Theia was a name no less thoughtfully chosen. Theia was a heavenly body, an alien planet, that crashed into earth millenia before life began. Its impact created the moon and our world as we know it. Her Greek goddess namesake is the divine light that makes precious metals shine. Lofty aspirations for a pop singer, but if anyone can live up to it, it’s this girl.

The show will be divided thematically, beginning with Turangawaewae – a sense of belonging coming from having your feet planted firmly in place. Roam, Theia’s breakout 2016 hit, fits the bill, its chorus declaring ‘everywhere I roam is home.’ It’s a track that gives her ambiguous feelings, given it catapulted her to fame and into the pocket of record labels who tried to guide her towards the more vacuous end of the pop spectrum. Now that she has firmly asserted her creative freedom, producing work independent of a label since 2019, she can revisit the song and appreciate its nuances.

Waikato, a homage to her awa, and Taupiri, the maunga where her tipuna are left to rest, complete the opening set, a pepeha in four songs that firmly assert, ‘This is who I am. This is where I come from.

The middle segment is themed Politics and Religion. Typically, the things you’re not supposed to talk about are dragged into the light so we can look at them in all their ugliness, and begin to heal. Much of the Theia work deals with conflicts of identity, of reconciling her whole hearted love for whanau with their repressive faith that clashes with her queerness.

She treats our ears with pared down versions of two unreleased Theia tracks – I Need an Angel and Holy Water – from her debut album, dropping in 2024; followed by Pray 4 Me. She leans into the chorus, ‘I’m just a girl living in a savage world,’ her voice soaring to impossible heights, her dulcet tones thinly veiling the power beneath.

Having expressed her admitted religious trauma, she comes to reconcile it, picking apart the nuances of the gifts of faith and its role in the rangatiratanga about which she is clearly passionate. Pai Maarire speaks to the faith based on goodness and peace established by Māori in response to invading colonisers who purported to rule by divine right. The confluence of politics and religion. Her self penned hymn, He Hiimene closes the segment. Written in the style of the music that was the silver lining to a church childhood, but unapologetically te reo, rather than a translation of a colonial import.

The final theme, fitting for a band that is 100% wahine and 75% takatāpui, is Female Empowerment. She starts with a lesbian love song, E Hine Ē, though she impresses that such is its gentle admiration that it could be considered a universal ode to all women – mothers, daughters, aunties and friends. It’s a clement start to what becomes a rather righteously wrathful end, though delivered with such sweetness and femininity that we can’t help but listen to the message. Not Your Princess sees her give the middle finger to the music industry whilst simultaneously producing the kind of saccharine pop hit that made them salivate. Recent release, Dollhouse, is a ballsy pot shot at a patriarchy that wants to keep women pretty and silent. And in a just for us by request special, Crucified by U is a delicious juxtaposition calling out religious hypocrisy and institutional abuse of power – strong words sung gently and delicately, a steel fist covered in a silken glove.

She closes the space as she opened it, with the short concluding track from Te Kaahu O Rangi, He Maimai Aroha, an affectionate farewell as one with which we might send off our dead. Then in response to riotous applause and standing ovation, the traditional encore and the only cover of the evening, Kiwi Weka. Penned by her great grandmother, this Waikato classic tells of the American soldiers who landed briefly like sea birds, and the wahine Māori who, like flightless birds, stayed at home to tend to the children left behind.

In contrast to the vocal stacking, the electronic drum tracks that usually accompany her pop tunes, here we have been treated to Theia taken back to basics. Just two musicians play bass, acoustic and electric guitars. Her voice is augmented by a single backing singer. The simplicity of the offering allows the depth of her creativity to shine.

An aura of magic lingers in the air in the space vacated by this incredible voice, this musical powerhouse. Not a soul is left untouched. There can be no doubt that the greatest potency comes not from a shout, but from a whisper.

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