Hinewehi Mohi has many admirers — for her distinctive, pure and beautiful voice, her songwriting, her advocacy of te reo Māori, her courage in coping with breast cancer, her commitment to her family and especially to her daughter, Hineraukatauri, and her work in developing music therapy for those with special needs. And that doesn’t cover all her achievements. Here, with Dale, she touches on some of the milestones in her life.
Over recent weeks, Hinewehi, with all the television focus on the All Blacks and the Rugby World Cup, we’ve been taken back a few times to Twickenham, one of your old haunts, where you set disapproving tongues wagging — and many hearts swelling with pride — when you sang the New Zealand national anthem in Māori.
That was 1999. But, although that’s now 16 years ago, that bold move of yours is still fresh in our minds. And I suppose it’s something that you reflect on, from time to time.
In a way, it was a huge step for me because I’m probably the least activist person in our entire family. I’m not comfortable with confrontation.
But, in another way, it wasn’t so huge for me, because I had sung the anthem in Māori before. That was for the Kiwis, the New Zealand rugby league team. This time, leading up to that All Black test match (against England), I was in London because I was there promoting my first album. That was all in Māori, so reo Māori was on my mind.
And, when I was asked to sing the anthem, I thought: “Well, I should sing it in Māori as a way of showing how much we love this land, and how I can best represent our country — and also to make a point about the importance and the priority of te reo Māori.”
I thought at the time there might be a bit of an issue, but I didn’t know to what extent it would catapult. Of course, it was a huge audience, with Twickenham packed out and millions more watching on television.
That was exciting — and I felt really proud. Then, afterwards, I mentioned to some English friends that there could be a little bit of a backlash seeing I’d just stuck to the Māori version.
And there was that backlash, too, especially from those who don’t see reo Māori as a priority — even though most of them claim to love the haka.
I still wonder what the reaction might have been if I’d sung it in English as well as Māori. Perhaps there would’ve been the same horror. Perhaps it would’ve blown over and there would’ve been little discussion and no change.
But, even though I have no regrets about my decision, the response was disturbing. Not from my family and friends, of course. They all thought it was normal and awesome. But I was told that on talkback radio it got nasty.
I’m grateful, though, that eventually there was a positive outcome — and we can all share, and celebrate, our national song in both languages.
Thank you, Hinewehi, for being that young woman (still in your 30s then) who stood her ground and who, in effect, was saying I love my reo and I love my land. So, among all the other wonderful things you’ve done in your life, you’re still admired for those moments on what was really a global stage. Not bad for a Hawke’s Bay girl?
Well, I haven’t lived in Hawke’s Bay for 35 years. And I have a whānau network, my support base and much of my work here in Tāmaki Makaurau. But I still refer to myself as a Hawke’s Bay girl. That’s where my papakāinga is — and my heart. And, hopefully, we’ll go back and live there at some stage.
We have all sorts of ties with that part of the country. Like with Frasertown near Wairoa where my grandmother was married at 16, had a son (my dad) at 17 and was widowed at 19. And then she met Joe Mohi from Pakipaki near Hastings. So our connections shifted from Kahungunu ki Wairoa to Kahungunu ki Heretaunga.
Then my grandmother had five girls. Boom. Boom. Boom. So it was a busy household. And my father — the only boy in that family — was married and became a dad at 18 and moved out to a farm in Flemington near Porangahau in Central Hawke’s Bay. And I came along a couple of years later.
At what stage did you become immersed in things Māori — and in performing?
It started when I went to St Joseph’s Māori Girls College. That’s where I really learned a love for performing in the kapa haka. It was called the Concert Party in those days. But I spent time going back to Pakipaki and with the whānau. Māori wasn’t spoken in the home, but it was always an underlying force in terms of our direction and our understanding of tikanga.
Then I went to Waikato University where I studied there under some great tutors — leaders and lecturers like Timoti Karetu, Wharehuia Milroy, John Moorfield and the late Hirini Melbourne. It was the glory days for us in terms of learning and just expanding our minds. And, when I come to think of it, that was where I developed the confidence to sing the national anthem in Māori at Twickenham.
What about your name, Hinewehi? Do you have other names?
I’ve always been Hinewehi Mohi, which is kind of unusual because in the 1960s, when I was born, it wasn’t really that fashionable to give your kid a Māori name — and no other name. So, I don’t know why that quite came about because it was before Dad (Mike) decided to learn Māori. And my mother (Kerry) is Pākehā. But, it’s a tīpuna name from Wairoa. We’ve got four Hinewehis in our immediate family — two of us with Hinewehi as a first name, and the other two as second names. It’s a tīpuna name that I’m really proud to carry.
What about the dynamics? Many of us have grown up in cross-cultural families — and there’s not always support from both sides. Did it put any pressure on you as you were growing up?
Yeah. I think so. Especially when Dad started to learn more about his Māaori side, and going to the marae. We were lucky to be close to Porangahau. Dad used to play rugby there and we spent a lot of time with the Scia Scia family. (We used to call them the See-ah See-ahs because we didn’t know how to pronounce their Italian surname in those days.)
The whole experience was really enlightening for Dad in terms of identity and understanding and appreciation of who he was and his heritage. I think it was quite difficult for my mum. She was really supportive but they’d got together way back in their high school days in Napier. They were young so the marriage didn’t survive the years. They still spend time together because there’s mokopuna now, and shared mokopuna bring families together. Even if the relationships don’t stay together whānau will always provide a thread and a connection.
Dad had help learning Māori from Bub Pomana who was paraplegic. In those days, disabled people were housed permanently in rehabilitation facilities. Dad would bring his mates home from Pukeora for parties — which was an experience that held me in good stead later on when I became the mother of a child with special needs.
You’ve mentioned your time at Hato Hohepa — and your experience there with kapa haka. But, as you know, some of our Māori boarding schools have folded, and others are having a tough time. For you, though, what did you see as the benefits from your years there?
It was great for me, because the school gave me some security when my parents’ marriage fell apart. And that was when, as a teenager, I was trying to figure myself out. I thrived on the discipline actually. That’s the sort of the thing that makes or breaks people. Some people, as I was, are well suited to that kind of lifestyle. I needed that strictness and that foundation.
Georgina Kingi was amazing, and she continues to be amazing. She’s in her early 70s now. She’s still principal of the school and is an incredible role model. She’s a very strict disciplinarian and I think that the girls who thrived on that will always hold it dear to their hearts. It was important getting us through those years.
But, because it’s expensive, there’s a lot of pressure on bigger families. I remember that, when I was at St Joe’s, the Nuku family in Whakatane had four girls there at the one time — a year apart from each other. And, at the same time, they had sons at Hato Petera. So, that was a huge commitment to ensure that their kids would get a solid education and appreciation of who they were as young Māori.
Hato Paora continues to grow. Debi Marshall-Lobb, an ex-St Joe’s girl, is the principal and she’s awesome. I think she has wonderful qualities to pass on to those young men — learning and being together.
Turning now to your career as a singer and to what I suppose must be your disappointment at times that mainstream radio in New Zealand has been so unresponsive to reo waiata — and that you were forced to take your music overseas before it was appreciated here.
I just think we need to explore other platforms promoting and supporting song-writing in this country. Digital platforms are vast and exciting. Young people aren’t listening to the radio much anyway, so we need to tap into the different ways that people are enjoying music.
Another big part of your life has been your daughter, Hineraukatauri, who’s nearly 20 now, and who’s been battling with cerebral palsy all through her life. I imagine that has been a challenge for you both.
Oh, she’s taught me so much. Taught me so much about what’s important, about priorities and about acceptance and appreciation for others. I’m really grateful to her for all that she’s taught us as a family. She’s a brave, wonderful and gentle spirit. She has so many challenges but she’s gracious with everything that is presented to her.
And this prompted you to direct your energies into establishing the therapy centre that bears her name. It has become something quite wonderful. I guess when we look back at the start of it all, you might not have anticipated just how meaningful it would become.
It’s wonderful to be able to share the gift of music therapy and music making, particularly with children, with the disabled, because the families are often so isolated and lack support from their family who maybe don’t know how to help. Music opens up pathways for communication and engagement so it’s been an incredible project. I hope that it can just grow and meet the demand of those who want to connect with the rest of the world — and families who need something uplifting and exciting, and who want to see their child grow and develop.
It’s been a wonderful success. And I imagine that your husband, George, has been a really valuable ally. Perhaps you could tell us a little about meeting him, and the blended family that you two have.
I met George at a film and television award ceremony in the Town Hall in Auckland. It was through Pio Terei, who’d been to Rutherford High School with him. Then, when Debbie (Pio’s wife) met him, she thought: “Oh. He’d be great for my friend, Hinewehi.”
I was with the other members of the Māori department of TVNZ, as it was in those days. But Debbie brought him over and introduced us. She rang the next day to say: “Oh God, my friend. I don’t know if he’s an axe murderer but I gave him your phone number.” Then he phoned. And, luckily, he wasn’t an axe murderer and we’ve been happily married for 15 years — with a total of five adult children, including Hineraukatauri, and also our whāngai, Rahia, a teenager, my sister’s girl who’s been with us since she was a toddler.
As well as your commitment to your music and to your family, there have been television productions taking up a good deal of your time and energy — like Moteatea. But what stands out for you?
Oh, I really loved Moteatea and I want to repackage it so that it’s more accessible to people and so they can learn those traditional waiata, and then carry them on within their iwi and whānau. Iwi anthems is another one. And I’ve just finished a series called Waiata, which is now on Māori Television. That was my most favourite project ever.
Because it’s all about performance and expressive motion through music which transcends boundaries. I think that’s exactly the same as how music therapy works, so it’s a beautiful thing.
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