TEEKS wrote his first song when he was around ten-years-old.
If his memory serves, it had something to do with birds and mountains. The melody consisted of two main chords on the guitar (he thinks he probably made them up) and his younger brother, seven at the time, earned a credit at co-writer.
For most artists, this would have been the starting point: the moment they realised that music was the life for them, the beginning of a spiral. However, TEEKS – real name Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi – isn’t like most artists.
Despite growing up to the sounds of Bob Marley, Elvis Presley and Stevie Wonder (“that’s what my dad listened to on a perpetual cycle”), the Kiwi wasn’t ever interested in the music world. It wasn’t until years later, when he joined a school band, that things really began to take shape.
“That was the moment I first experienced what it really felt like to sing on stage in front of an audience,” he says, recalling the moment. “I can’t explain the feeling to you but it was nothing like I had ever felt before, and it made me want more.”
Good job, too. Today, TEEKS counts himself as one of New Zealand’s most exciting young voices, with a debut EP (released in June of last year) that backs up the claim. On top of that, he recently collected the gong for Best Māori artist at the VZNMAs, a moment he was able to share with his family.
The New Zealander was brought up on Kapa Haka, a Māori tradition that entangles song and dance as a way of storytelling. For him, the performing arts (see: music) was always about sharing ideas and knowledge, under the umbrella of narrative. Take, for example, his tracks ‘Never Be Apart’, or ‘If Only’: laidbare confessionals shared with a confidence that defies his years.
See, for TEEKS, language is at the forefront of everything. Despite his recent success (and there’s been a l0t), he still makes time to teach the Māori language when he’s at home.
“Our language isn’t just a language it’s a world view, you get to see the word how we see it through our eyes and that I can tell you is such a gift. My ancestors fought so incredibly hard to keep it alive, to have it recognised as an official language and allow us to carry it on. I’m proud to be part of that revival.”
Recently, in a interview published on Dazed, Taika Waititi and Ruban Nielson declared that New Zealand is a place where Polynesian and Māori people are subjected to deeply entrenched racism. Though he’s a proud New Zealander, TEEKS is quick to join the debate.
“What makes it worse is most the racism in New Zealand is underlying”, he explains. “Or, people are just so incredibly ignorant that they actually don’t believe they’re being racist, or even better they don’t believe racism exists in our country at all. That’s the sad part.”
“New Zealand today is very multicultural, and we need to learn how to celebrate that. While, at the same time, remembering who’s home everyone moved into in the first place. Just like most my friends I was born and raised in a Māori world but I’ve also had to learn to walk in the western world. It’s necessary to survive. If people did the same and took the time to learn about each other’s cultures I think things could be different. ”
For the singer-songwriter, who’s busy working on new material, it’s an exciting time to be an artist in the country. However, more specifically, it’s an exciting time to be TEEKS. Young, intelligent, hungry and intensely likeable, he has everything in his locker to make ripples outside of his homeland. And we have no doubt that he will.
“When the time’s right the times right but I’m hoping to have something out towards the end of the year,” he says, conclusively. “No promises, though.”
Words by Niall Flynn