One of the absolute highlights of the Auckland Folk Festival this year were Aro, the husband-and-wife team of Charles (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Te Ata, Te Ati Awa) and Emily Looker (nee Rice). At that event Charles provided vocals and guitar, while Emily “just” vocals, and I was blown away by the mingling of their voices, in both Te Reo and English, and how they made their stories so wonderful and real. Their last EP, He Manu Anō, is an absolute delight, so it is fair to say I was really looking forward to this one. While I knew that the weaving of their voices would be a major highlight, I had no idea we would be given such a wide variety of musical styles, yet always rooted in their own distinctive sound.
When Emily works solo, as Emily Rice, her music tends to be more electronic and soft jazz, and some of those elements have been brought through into Aro, but there is also room for an electric guitar at one point which definitely caught me out as that was not a sound I expected. They effortlessly move between pop, RnB, electronic, jazz, folk, singer-songwriter and more traditional waiata to create something which is both very modern, yet incredibly rooted in the tradition. One never knows where the music is going to lead, and the instruments are there just to provide emphasis and support to the wonderful multi-layered vocals.
Charles has a very light voice, yet packed full of emotion, while Emily rises above, and while I have described them in the past as providing vocal gymnastics, it is far more fitting here to describe their voices as fluid, which at times can be like a rippling brook, raindrops, while at others they become the vapours from the waterfall as the mist rises in the air, intermingling and redefining so that there is always timeless constant motion. There is a languorous and relaxed feel in all that they do, so that even when there is a beat it never feels forced or hurried, like a gentle forest stream just babbling along with the dappled sunlight on its surface. There is a huge amount of space within the songs, so that each instrument is clearly defined, and one can wrap oneself in the vocal layers like a gossamer cloud.
Modern, yet ancient, commercial, and inviting yet also way out in left field, this is a beautiful set of songs, and I can’t wait to catch them on tour later in the year (Covid willing).
10/10 Kev Rowland