Bilingual folk music duo Aro have anchored their music in stories about the unique environment of Aotearoa.

He Rākau, He Ngārara will be Aro’s fourth body of work and is based on research into kōrero tuku iho (oral tradition) from Charles Looker’s iwi and hapū about native trees, insects and reptiles.

The husband and wife duo took inspiration from a kōrero from Ihirangi Heke, the developer of the Atua Matua Māori Health Framework, who explained the different tohu (signals) that Māori look to for changes in the environment.

Charles and Emily Looker have since researched and written albums about manu (birds) and wai (water), and now rākau (trees).

“As there are many native trees and ngārara [insects] in Aotearoa, we sought a method to narrow the list meaningfully,” said Emily. “Considering the place this pūrākau [story] has with tamariki and whānau, including from when Charles was in kōhanga reo, we felt this was a meaningful way to establish this project.”

The couple narrowed their focus to five rākau referenced in the legend of Maui and Mahuika. Kaikōmako, mahoe, patatē, tōtara, and pukatea are the only native trees that can start a fire.

Research for each waiata involved experts from Ngāti Kurī, Ngāti te Ata and Te Ātiawa..

The project also utilises sounds of rākau on taonga pūoro, including pounui, a rākau pūoro.

One of the experts, Te Kapua O’Connor (Ngāti Kurī), is a doctoral candidate in Māori studies at Waipapa Taumata Rau, researching ahikā, the burning fires of occupation.

He has extensive knowledge of the whakapapa of kaikōmako through the stories of Mahuika, the goddess of fire, as a way of understanding ahikā. Kaikōmako, is known to be the best native wood for making fire.

O’Connor said that hidden knowledge about societal values in these stories tells us about the scientific properties of these trees.

In a wānanga with the musicians, O’Connor explained the pūrākau of Mahuika setting the forest on fire out of anger when her grandson Māui had tricked her and stolen her fire and knowledge of fire.

When rain cascaded down upon the wildfires to extinguish her anger, Mahuika retreated to the forest for shelter, particularly to her parents, Tāne Mahuta and Hinekaikōmako.

“That element of Mahuika was passed into the trees that protected her and that’s the way our tūpuna codified fire trees.

“There’s a number [of trees] you can use for firemaking, but to me, it seems that kaikōmako is the central one.”

Mātauranga Māori has been developed over hundreds of years through lived interaction with nature but has been historically overlooked by the scientific community.

“Mātauranga is just doing things in a different way,” said O’Connor.

He said, like te reo Māori and tikanga, aspects of mātauranga have been “frozen through colonisation in error, and it’s been suppressed”.

“So it’s about trying to reassemble and trying to figure out what it means to the minds of people living 200 years ago.”

The Lookers were inspired by O’Connor’s descriptions of Mahuika.

“Given her beauty and her mana, we ought not think of her as old and frail… but rather as beautiful and mesmerising as it is when we watch a flame.”

They were struck by Hinekaikōmako’s unending love for her daughter, despite her setting the world on fire.

On their journey to the recording studio following the wānanga, the musicians scribbled down some words which would form the chorus of Kaikōmako:

Rite tahi ki tō te mate te ngau o te aroha e: love is as strong as death.

Me he ahi āritarita e kore e tineia: the sparks of an unquenchable fire.

“For us, it’s also about a mother’s love for her daughter, like my love for Olive, as her māmā,” said Emily of her 2-year-old. “The melody of this waiata started with a little melody I was humming Olive to sleep with one night.”

“We’re trying to take the meaning of the tree rather than just the facts of the tree,” Charles said. “How can we give tamariki and mokopuna the opportunity to find meaning about this in their daily lives practically?”

Kaikōmako is one of four waiata to be released in He Rākau, He Ngārara which will be available on April 19.

O’Connor is excited about sharing his research with Aro to be written into modern waiata, another way of encoding ancestral knowledge.

“With pūrākau, you never say: ‘This is what this means,’ you say, ‘Here is a possibility.’

“If you’re leaving it open to multiple interpretations, which I think is what good art does so well, you’re creating an artistic piece of expression that stimulates conversation, [and] that is where people discuss it,” said O’Connor.

“That’s what waiata does in so many ways.”