If you've ever seen the haka, otherwise known as the traditional Māori war dance, it's almost more surprising that metal bands haven't been incorporating it into their approach for years, than it is that a New Zealand trio of teenagers is winning international attention by finally doing so.
Originally conceived as a way for native warriors to intimidate opponents before battle — typically by stomping, grimacing, groaning and jumping, with eyes wide open and tongue splayed out as if demonically possessed — the haka aligns with the empowering, cathartic, tribal and generally badass nature of heavy music like few other things do.
For brothers Lewis and Henry de Jong, ages 15 and 17, respectively, incorporating the haka, as well as New Zealand's indigenous language Te Reo Māori, into the thrashing groove-metal of their group Alien Weaponry has personal significance. The sibling bandmates are proud descendants of the Ngati Pikiāo and Ngati Raukawa tribes, and their great-great-great grandfather, Te Ahoaho, lost his life during an 1864 battle in which 230 Māori warriors defended their fort from the well-equipped, 1,700-person British army.
Alien Weaponry's single "Rū Ana Te Whenua" (translation: "The Trembling Earth") recounts the story. Other songs, too, serve as earsplitting history lessons, with venomous lyrics highlighting the injustices perpetrated by New Zealand's colonial government throughout the 1800s, and the resulting trauma that has been passed down through generations. "Raupatu," for instance, is a blistering cut condemning an 1863 law that enabled the government to "confiscate" several million acres of Māori land for itself.
Alien Weaponry's spirited embrace of their heritage has turned them into something of local heroes — they've won numerous New Zealand music competitions and cultural awards — but now they're primed, like a new millennium Māori Sepultura, to win over a devoted fan base worldwide.
In February, they signed to international metal label Napalm Records (they're the youngest musicians to ever grace its roster), which will release their debut album, Tū, in June. If they break big, the trio — Lewis on lead vocals and guitar, Henry on drums and their 15-year-old friend Ethan Trembath on bass — can look back and remember that it all came together at "circus school."
In 2012, the De Jong family relocated from Auckland to Waipu, a seaside town known for its glowworm-infested caves, nudist beaches and abundant surfers, and when he wasn't rocking out with his older sibling, Lewis could be found at a weekly class held at a venue that teaches kids the ins-and-outs of fire-spitting, unicycling and other super-child friendly activities. ("We don't really have health and safety there," he says).
It was there that Lewis met Trembath, who was eight years old at the time, and formed a fast friendship. Hanging out at the former's house after Circool Circus one day that year, the boys picked up some of the instruments scattered about the "band room" stocked by the De Jongs' father, Niel, a professional audio engineer. "Ethan was the only kid whose arms were long enough to reach the end of the bass guitar," Lewis explains, "so we kind of abducted him."
Besides lending the fledging band its first instruments, Niel de Jong has played a big part in Alien Weaponry's development — he served as the group's manager until its recent signing to German music agency Das Maschine, and he always went out of his way to teach his sons about Māori history and culture.
"When we were going on road trips as a family, our dad used to point out locations and tell us stories about what happened at certain places at certain times," recalls Henry, who points to "Rū Ana Te Whenua" as a song that grew out of those experiences. "It's like, what a cool subject matter: This battle where it's, like, 5-to-1 odds, outnumbered," he enthuses. "The Māori were defending their land, but they had nowhere near the amount of people that the British Army had, and yet they still outsmarted them, and won that battle!"
While celebrating the history of New Zealand's indigenous people in their music, Alien Weaponry have made history in their own right. They may not be the first metal band from New Zealand to attain major recognition (that honor belongs to Wellington's Shihad, a locally successful thrash outfit formed in the late Eighties that Dave Grohl once declared "the best live band in the world"), but they are the first group, of any genre, to take the top prize in New Zealand's two most prestigious youth music contests: Smokefreerockquest, a long-running event attended by roughly 24,000 fans per year, and its culturally oriented offshoot Smokefree Pacifica Beats, where performing in Te Reo Māori is far more common.
That the group seized victory by playing metal — a style that surfaces rarely, if ever, in either competition — made the accomplishment all the rarer, particularly with regards to the latter contest. "When we entered Pacifica Beats, the organizer contacted the guys from Rockquest, telling them there must be a mistake," Lewis remembers with a laugh. "The guys were like, 'No, they've entered Rockquest, as well — it's right.' It was that weird for them to have this metal band entering."
Such incredulous reactions to Alien Weaponry's crossover moment reflect the subtle social stigmas associated with metal fandom in Māori culture, which the group describe in terms of "Whakamā," a psychosocial phenomenon endemic to the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. The term, which lacks a Western equivalent, refers to the intense feelings of shame, inferiority and disconnection the Māori suffered during European colonization in the 19th century, a form of intergenerational trauma that lingers to this day.
"Quite a lot of Māori have actually been quite 'Whakamā' — kind of shy or ashamed — [because people] don't really typically see Māori as metal fans," explains Lewis.
Nevertheless, he says, most of the public reception to Alien Weaponry has skewed positive. What's more, the band's emergent role in the Kiwi music scene has already produced promising results in the fight against heavy-metal Whakamā. "I think there's been so many Māori metal fans coming out of the woodwork after we've done our thing going, 'Oh, oh, oh, I listen to Slayer and all that stuff, but I was a bit scared to admit it to everyone,'" Lewis says, "so I feel like we're making people come out of the metal closet, in that sense."
When those closet fans do come out to shows, they sometimes announce their arrival with the haka. "Something that happens quite a lot at school events and stuff, if you're having like a music event or anything, if there's a Māori artist that goes up and performs, quite often people jump up and do a haka," Henry explains. "They jump up and do a haka to that person in support of them." (The drummer goes on to compare it to applause — "except, you know, way cooler.") Today, the haka is a common site at Alien Weaponry concerts: "You see the eight people standing here doing one haka, and then the 10 people there doing another one, all at the same time," Henry reports. "Which is really cool."