From Johnny Cash to Brahms: a wonderful collision

Amelia Hall with Orchestra Wellington. Photo by Jun Yamog via Facebook
Ray Ahipene-Mercer. Photo by Caren Wilton. Used under Creative Commons BY-SA.
The cultural evolution of Ray Ahipene-Mercer. By James Littlewood


Ray Ahipene-Mercer thinks fast, talks faster, and lives life faster still. Closing on seventy, his achievements are both diverse and significant. He’s worked as a professional musician, releasing two high-charting singles in 1969 and 1970 with his band Dedikation. In politics, he’s run too many campaigns to list, in such diverse realms as water purity, marine species protection, the restoration of te reo Maori place names, and many more.

In 2007 he became the first Maori since the 60s (and the second ever) to successfully campaign for a seat on Wellington City Council. His recent appointment to the chair of Orchestra Wellington has met with refreshed ‘first Maori’ stories, but that’s an aspect of his new gig which he’d rather play down.

His day job? A luthier. He was in the middle of selling some of his hand-made guitars when I rang him up for a chat.

You're clearly something of a polymath. Is there a grand plan or do you just have a problem saying no?

No, no it's this wonderful unfolding world. The wonderful world of art and people, and all the idiosyncrasies and all that, has just been a continually unfolding panorama of art-related and political things which were unplanned in my life, and I'm just cruising with it.

My life’s gone from Johnny Cash to Brahms. It's fascinating. I guess I've managed to not let the mind get locked into one aspect of anything. There's two sides to every story. And even dealing with politics, I've come to understand that the left/right paradigm is overly simplistic. I came to work with some very good people from the right, and also trying to work with some mostly unpleasant people occasionally from the left, despite the fact that that’s the background of both sides of my family, the Maori and the British. While it's indicative of where people are coming from, it doesn't tell the whole story.

Now the clumsy point I'm making is to try and keep open and honest and consider the facts and - at times - put the emotions to the side. In my case it's just been this fascinating world since I came back to live in this country in 1991.  There's been this wonderful collision - can I call it that?

Photo: Caren Wilton. Used under Creative Commons BY-SA

There's quite a bit of media coverage about you being the first Maori to chair Orchestra Wellington. How important is that aspect of it to you?

No, it's actually not that important to me. It's interesting and it's a fact, but I've got to tell you: every day I wake up now I become a more global person, I'm veering away from all forms of nationalism. I'm very comfortable with my Maori heritage and ancestry, and feel good about it. But I don't assert it as something that’s as unique, that even accidentally it can convey some kind of superiority or something.

I wonder how many Maori there are running mainstream major arts organisations?

Yeah, I don't know. But this was the same as what happened when I was elected to the Wellington City Council. I was the first Maori politician to get elected to the council in something like forty years. There'd only been one other. That was way back in the day and indeed for some reason it didn't last very long, not even a full term. I think maybe, maybe for some Maori it's helpful for them to identify that oh, Ray did this so maybe I could do it.

Now I'm not promoting that, I want to be clear on that. But I'm thinking if there is something that's unique about it, more than just interesting, it may well be that people can feel that they can enter this world and be part of this world too. And certainly with election to council as almost the only Maori but not quite, and now we've got Jill Day and it's great.

Why do you think there aren’t more Maori in arts leadership? What does it say?

The processes that enable people to speak to these roles, I think is the daunting thing for some, not actually the position. Maybe for some Maori, entering into those processes is so unfamiliar, as indeed it is for most non Maori. I had an apprenticeship already as a spokesperson for the clean water campaigns and environmental stuff.

So I had my grounding there already and maybe some other indeterminate factors. I got strong support from friends. But I think it's more the processes rather than the final outcome, that is the issue.

Do you think enough rangatahi are doing what they can to build an embedded culture, similar to that?

I think there's some, more and more. You know when I read the regular Ngai Tahu publication, Ngai Tahu are one of my iwi, they devote considerable sections of the pages on who's just graduated from the University, who's just done this, who’s just won a scholarship, who in the sporting world has done this. And so yes it is happening, though not as not as visible as you think at times, but there's definitely momentum there which is increasing slowly but relentlessly.

Kids were doing somersaults in the aisles ... and here was this sheer, split second response to something that made them feel good.

I’ve read that Orchestra Wellington is committing more outreach programs. Is that part of it?

Oh absolutely, absolutely. Look, there was a wonderful concert. One of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. Best, well, you have to watch that word, eh. Orchestra Wellington played out at Taita in a stadium where it was free. The Lower Hutt City Council put on free buses so that people from places like Wainuiamata, you know, some of us forget, some families don’t have cars. They can’t afford them.

There was a woman who got off the bus, before the concert started, and she said to me “if it hadn’t been for this bus, my family and I could not have come to this”.

They had something like eighteen hundred people at that concert. It was packed to the gunwales. There were people of incredibly wide range of ethnic backgrounds who you would normally never see at a classical concert at the Town Hall or the Michael Fowler Centre.

And kids were doing somersaults in the aisles, and the conductor came on with a Darth Vader helmet on, and the orchestra playing some Star Wars themes, and here was this sheer, split second response to something that made them feel good.

Can you imagine that at the Michael Fowler Centre, at a concert? It was extraordinary. But really, it’s absolutely predictable, because it’s about accessibility.

Now, you can’t do that for every concert. But what you can do is establish some ground work that has within it some patterns of things which you can stretch out and do. Outreach is critical.

What are you looking forward to most for the orchestra?

At the end of my time, I’d like to look back and say yep, I worked with a bunch of people that managed to make the music accessible to a much wider range of our people.

It’s not as if classical music has an easy ride there, is it?

No, it hasn’t. But you know, it’s an evolving process. and it’s a bit like [some other well known arts institutions]. It’s a bit intimidating, they’re frightened, it’s unfamiliar, you’ve gotta talk quietly, you’re not on your phone, it’s all those things, and culturally for some people from different backgrounds, it’s very unfamiliar. It’s the same as we don’t go to the mosque. And so it’s providing the opportunity without forcing people. It’s enabling. I hope that with the other people who make decisions in the orchestra, we can better enable our diverse peoples to explore and participate in the audience and the music.



Written by

James Littlewood

14 Jul 2018

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