Māori music is at the very heart of the Auckland Arts Festival this year, with Tōku Reo Waiata taking centre stage as the centrepiece festival show. A celebration of Māori language, artists and song, the show encourages the audience to singalong – if you can get over your whakamā, that is, given the calibre of the artists up on stage.
Three of those artists are Hinewehi Mohi, Moana Maniapoto and Tami Nielson. Here's what they told us about the special upcoming night of waiata Māori.
Tell us about Tōku Reo Waiata. What can audiences expect?
Hinewehi: There is an awesome line-up of some of favourite Māori musicians/singers/songwriters. Hopefully we will have a diverse audience of New Zealanders who share a love for te reo and waiata Māori.
Moana: Good vibes, great songs and a few laughs.
What has your own journey with te reo Māori been like?
Hinewehi: I first started learning Māori when I was about 10, when my Dad wanted the whole whānau to learn with him. Then I went to St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College and we sang and twirled poi all the time, I loved it.
After that, I went to Waikato University because a whanaunga Lee Smith (who was part of the group that took the petition to parliament in 1973 to make Māori an official language) suggested Waikato as the best University for Māori. It was at the time, and I was mentored by lecturers like Sir Tīmoti Karetu, Prof Wharehuia Milroy and the late Dr Hirini Melbourne.
By the time I sang the National Anthem in 1999 at Twickenham during the Rugby World Cup, I thought everyone from Aotearoa New Zealand loved te reo and tikanga Māori as a unique and rich part of our heritage. I was wrong and the outcry against the Māori version of the anthem was significant. Twenty years on, I think things have changed but sometimes it still feels we take 2 steps forward and 2.5 backwards…
Tami: Growing up in Canada, I wasn’t exposed to Te Reo until I moved here 10 years ago. I was immediately taken by the fact that it is woven throughout New Zealand culture in a very practical way, spoken nightly on the evening news by presenters, that every important event begins with a presentation in Te Reo. Compared to the First Nations languages in North America, which are rarely heard except on reservations, it is a breath of fresh air and down to the tenacity of the Māori people and Te Reo supporters, fighting against much opposition to keep it alive.
I love that my sons come home from predominantly pākehā school speaking Te Reo, teaching me to count to 10 and that Kapa Haka is their highlight of the school week.
Learnt basic reo at St Joseph’s Māori Girls College (bless, Dame Georgina Kingi), and McKillop College (bless the nuns for their effort there). Still couldn’t hold a conversation in Māori with my 80-year-old Koro.
My first ever recording was with my mate Aroaro Hond-Tamati. Kāore he Wahine was a song we sang at St Joes. This is pre-iwi radio. Dunno what we were thinking. That was followed by Kua Makona (Dalvanius/Ngamaru Raerino).
Attending the total immersion wānanga hosted through Ngāti Raukawa for a couple of years absolutely changed my life. It gave me the confidence to give the reo a shot, even though at the first wānanga I did say “He kapu ti koe?” (You are a cup of tea?) instead of “He kapu ti māu?”
When my son came along, we were primed and ready. On a mission. Part of a movement. I spoke Māori only to him until he was eight. Doing the same now with my daughter who is ten. It’s not easy, I tell you.
Am onto my 6thalbum now, it’s all in Māori. Have to say I’m not hardcore. I love composing in English too.
Why do you think some people feel threatened or uncomfortable around te reo Māori?
Moana: Early on, some were terrified Māori were plotting an overthrow. Others, including Māori, feel embarrassed when we are in the presence of flash speakers. Understandable.
Tami: People are always afraid of change and I think many see it as a threat to the way things are- it's not comfortable to change bad habits, especially when they benefit you.
Personally, any fear I feel about speaking Te Reo is looking like a fool for mispronouncing or causing offense by butchering a beautiful language, like I do when touring foreign countries overseas.
Hinewehi: People don’t always understand about how important te reo Māori is as the cornerstone of our culture. It’s a vital part of heritage in this country.
What is the role of music in breaking down the barriers?
Moana: Huge. I call it the soft diplomacy. Take a subject like Te Tiritiand use rhythms and melodies that can draw people into the story. Art creates a safe and fun space to explore critical issues.
Hinewehi: Music has an amazing way of transcending boundaries. When I used to travel overseas promoting my music, I heard that a lot. Without understanding the language, they could feel the emotion and were genuinely moved by it. Music has the power to unite us.
Tami: In my fight for human rights and equality, I’ve found music is a powerful way to deliver a message and is more disarming and can therefore be more effective when people receive it with an open heart.
Moana and Hinewehi, you’ve been staunch advocates for Māori music for a long time. Have there been any experiences that you’ve had over the years as wāhine Māori musicians that have made you raise your eyebrows?
Hinewehi: We went to St Joe’s and were taught to perform by Dame (Miss!) Kingi, so we had a staunch role model. She’s still an inspiration to us.
Moana: Jeez, how much room have you got? If it’s just in terms of te reo, here’s a few…
Being told early on in my career by a radio programmer who was American, that they won’t play “foreign music.” Scrapes over the years with NZ Music Awards.
Being told that if we didn’t change the name on my self-titled album, a German company would sue us for infringing their trademark of the word Moana.
Being asked by a promoter in Greece just before our band was to perform to make the haka “less scary, nicer.” Yeah, that went down well with the boys.
On a nicer note, getting the Maioha Award up and running through APRA (with no fight at all) is lovely.
And when the former NZ Ambassador to Russia Stuart Prior rang me after a concert to tell us students at the University of Humanities (Moscow) had staged a protest insisting they wanted a Māori Language course there, that was a nice surprise.
Tami, why do you feel that it’s important to be involved with this production? What role do non-Māori New Zealanders have in revitalising te reo?
Tami: As a First Nations Ojibwa, I was completely honoured to be asked to participate. I’m also utterly in awe of the Māori music royalty I’m sharing this stage with- you don’t get any better than this line-up! I just hope I don’t faint from nerves.
What’s your favourite waiata Māori?
Hinewehi: ‘Poi E’ is a fave. I love how it connects us all. And it reminds me of my dear friend Dalvanius who taught me a lot about the industry and that even if you can’t speak te reo it’s a part of all of us. He used to say, “it’s te reo Māori that’s the hero, not us.”
Tami: ‘Te Ahi Kai Pō’ by Ria Hall. It is so incredibly powerful – both her version and Teek’s cover of it at the Silver Scrolls moved me to tears.
Moana: 'Tangihia' by Tama Waipara. It’s beautiful. Evocative.
Do you identify as a feminist/womanist?
Tami: Definitely. I would hope every person identifies as a feminist, as its meaning is, “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” If you aren’t a feminist and don’t want your mother, sisters, daughters, partners treated as an equal and not less than anyone else, there is something fundamentally wrong.
Hinewehi: I see myself as a Māori woman who loves my country and culture. I dislike discrimination in any form, against women, Māori, indigenous people, people of colour. Being a mother has influenced my music.
Moana: “I’m a black pearl, I make my world!” Mana wāhine.
I’ve always been an advocate for reclaiming that traditional Māori concept of balance, where male and female relationships were utterly complementary.
The Auckland Arts Festival’s Tōku Reo Waiata will hit the Auckland Town Hall on the 16thof March. Tickets can be purchased here.
This content was sponsored by the Auckland Arts Festival.Support Villainesse