This New Zealand Band Is Trying To Save Maori Culture One Head Banger At A Time

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is kind of sad. Did you know that nearly half of the world's 6,000 or so spoken languages are endangered? That's according to the United Nations. Well, in New Zealand, a group of teens is trying to save their endangered tongue through - wait for it - thrash metal music. Here's NPR's Ashley Westerman.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: The first vocals of Alien Weaponry's song "Ru Ana Te Whenua" sound like a battle cry...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RU ANA TE WHENUA")

ALIEN WEAPONRY: (Singing in Te Reo).

WESTERMAN: ...Because that's what it is. It's based off haka, a traditional war dance of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. And it's sung in the language, or Te Reo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RU ANA TE WHENUA")

ALIEN WEAPONRY: (Singing in Te Reo).

WESTERMAN: Seventeen-year-old drummer Henry de Jong says the Maori haka and metal suit each other.

HENRY DE JONG: The music really goes with, you know, that kind of aggressive style of vocal delivery. And so for us to be singing in Maori and doing it in this kind of haka style, I think it works really well.

WESTERMAN: He'd know. Via Skype, Henry says he and his 15-year-old brother and bandmate Lewis have been speaking fluent Maori since they were very young. Meanwhile, the two were also being raised on metal bands - thanks to their dad - bands like Metallica and Rage Against The Machine. So when the two formed Alien Weaponry in 2010, Henry says singing in Te Reo about Maori issues is just what they decided to do.

DE JONG: It's a very common thing with metal to actually voice your opinions on politics, on unjust actions and kind of slightly controversial topics.

WESTERMAN: Topics like the suppression of indigenous people's rights. Their single, "Raupatu," literally means land confiscation. Let's hear a little bit of that with an English translation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAUPATU")

ALIEN WEAPONRY: (Through interpreter) According by the treaty, the full possession and chiefly authority over their lands. Full possession and authority over their communities and land. Full possession and authority over all things of value to them.

ALEX MOULTON: If you watch their music videos on YouTube, if you don't understand the language, you're not going to have any idea what they're singing about unless you put the closed captions on.

WESTERMAN: Alex Moulton is a music reviewer. He says Alien Weaponry has been well received, winning a prestigious award for exceptional songwriting in Te Reo and playing at festivals across the country. He says their use of full Te Reo with metal is a first.

MOULTON: You know, a lot of the other bands will use it, but it's sort of like a special part of the song whereas the rest of the lyrics are all in English.

WESTERMAN: The band is also winning over pro-Maori language activists, people like Tania Ka'ai, a professor of language revitalization at the Auckland University of Technology. Since the 1800s, Te Reo Maori has been in sharp decline, an impact of colonization. Ka'ai says after a Maori cultural revolution of sorts in the 1980s, the language began to claw its way back.

TANIA KA'AI: The language is used in the modern day, in the home, in the community, in traditional Maori spaces but also between people having, you know, a cup of coffee.

WESTERMAN: Yet, the latest census data showed that only 21 percent of Maori even speak the language. That's down from 25 percent in 2001. The Maori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand's population, and Ka'ai says it's important to keep pushing.

KA'AI: Because then we can then shape our future. We can have control over our destiny. That's how we can survive as minority.

WESTERMAN: For Alien Weaponry, band member Henry de Jong says they're going to keep doing their part to keep the language alive.

DE JONG: Give young people kind of the inspiration to actually learn the language and, you know, keep it going.

WESTERMAN: This means finishing up their first album, which they aim to put out early next year. Ashley Westerman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "URUTAA")

ALIEN WEAPONRY: (Singing in Te Reo).

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