From Aotearoa to Australia, Six60 takes First Nations on a journey of ‘feeling, finding belonging’

Aotearoa/New Zealand band Six60 kicked off their Australian tour unlike any other house show.

As Don’t Forget Your Roots’ thick bassline echoes, Nunukul Yuggera’s Aboriginal dancers emerge from behind the scenes, silhouetted against a smoke-filled red stage.

The sound of the didgeridoo echoes, hauntingly, over a sold-out crowd of 10,000 as a Maori kapa haka troupe marches by.

Singer Matiu Walters begins, first in English, “don’t forget your roots my friends, don’t forget your family”, before changing to Māori, “Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō”.

Fans are in a frenzy when two cultures come together: Maori women deftly twirl their poi (a lightweight ball on a string) in unison, with style and grace.

The ensemble reaches a crescendo with a bountiful display of the Ka Mate Haka.

Dre Ahipene says that Maori understand indigenous protocols. (Supplied: Ash Caygill)

It was an experience that Nunukul, Jagera and Yamatji’s man, Ashley Ruska, will not soon forget.

“Sometimes we only have five minutes to jump in, do a kind of symbolic performance, not being rude or anything, but that’s how it can be,” he said.

“It is very rare that someone asks us to come and participate in the program as well.

A painted first nations man performing on stage with two traditional instruments in hand
Ashley Ruska says that acting alongside Six60 felt authentic. (Supplied: Matthew Clode/Ashley Ruska )

For cultural coordinator Dre Ahipene, the Maori, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have similar “rules of engagement and understanding”.

A tight profile photo of a man with dark features and Maori facial tattoos on his forehead, cheeks and nose.
Maori Cultural Coordinator Dre Ahipene. (Supplied: Dre Ahipene )

Placing indigenous artists alongside their own in every Australian city the band played was therefore a “no-brainer”.

“I could see the people of the culture recognizing themselves in what was happening on stage and claiming the groups and family members who were performing.”

University of Otago on the world stage

The band that brought Ruska’s dance group to their act in Australia, Six60, was born on the rugby fields of the University of Otago in Dunedin in 2008.

Between gaming and studying, the 20-somethings (Matiu Walters, Eli Paewai, Ji Fraser and Hoani Matenga) entertained their peers with versions of New Zealand icons Kora, Katchafire, Shapeshifter and Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Three men sit on a red sofa facing two other men outside a brick building with 660 painted on the wall
The band members lived together at 660 Castle Street while studying in Dunedin.(Instagram: @Six60 )

The students sang hits from the top floor of their apartment at 660 Castle Street, later adopting Chris Mac as their bass player and Marlon Gerbes, who plays guitar, samples and synthesizers.

‘Joy and tranquility’ is the goal

Walters joins the ZOOM call from an iPad in his Auckland living room.

“I need to get this camera up and running,” he says.

Halfway through the interview, a cheerful girl stands up next to the sofa. She turns the iPad over so her 1-year-old daughter, Boh, can say hello.

He’s the unassuming frontman of a band that boasts 1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and yet, at the same time, he’s just a regular dad.

A group of men stand shoulder to shoulder smiling and laughing behind the scaffolding of a stage
(From left) Eli Paewai (drums), Chris Mac (bass), Ji Fraser (guitar), Marlon Gerbes (synths), Matiu Walters (vocals). (Instagram: Six60/James Rua )

Humble and approachable, it’s no wonder Aotearoa loves Six60. Also the Australians.

Selling out shows but not selling their stock, the quintet was determined to make it on their own.

Since 2011, they have produced and released music under their own label, Massive Entertainment.

Your success is incomparable to any other Aotearoa artist.

In 2019, they became the first New Zealand band bold enough – and popular enough – to fill Western Springs Stadium, with 50,000 fans in attendance.

Previously, international heavyweights like the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Eminem were the only ones to pull it off.

‘Feel, find belonging’

Nearly a decade after the release of the hit song Don’t Forget Your Roots, Six60 reinterpreted it as part of the Maori language week in 2019.

The new version, Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō, urges Maori to preserve their culture and connection to the country, wherever they are in the world.

But, Walters admits, it was not an easy process for him and his fellow Maori Eli Paewai and Marlon Gerbes.

Maori dancers and First Nations dancers perform on stage with SIX60 kiwi bands in traditional dress
Matiu Walters says that many young Maori struggle with their identity. (Supplied: Nathan Doran)

This disconnect is common, Walters said, but he hopes the music will give young Maori a sense of cultural pride and enthusiasm for learning the language.

“I think we now represent a lot of young Maori around the world who are struggling between their position in the culture and feeling quite embarrassed to be involved and speak out,” he said.

“We’re happy to take on the role of showing other people that it’s okay and that it’s cool.”

While Te Reo (Māori language) will not appear on the band’s next album, Walters said that Te Ao Māori (Māori worldview) will.

Whānau above all

A lot has changed since their early days playing rugby and covering reggae while at the University of Otago.

Charging

“Now I have a little daughter and I have my own family, that puts a lot of things into perspective,” Walters said.

Walters said that fatherhood has “softened” the band members.

“We think of [our children] and try to write for them and write lessons for them,” he said.

It has also helped calm the inner critic.

“I don’t feel like I’m alone in this anymore and that really helped ground me.

“There’s something so much more important and cool than being at Six60. That makes things so much easier.”

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