Moana Maniapoto

Moana Maniapoto has now been welcomed into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. That puts her in the company of Herbs, Bill Sevesi, the Topp Twins and a select few others who have “shaped, influenced and advanced popular music in New Zealand.” She has been an especially popular choice because of the range and appeal of her work over the last 30 years — not just as a singer but also as a songwriter, te reo Māori advocate, political activist and as a gifted columnist. Here, Dale Husband, one of her many friends, chats with her about the awards night last week and about her unusually versatile career.


Kia ora, Mo. Now there you were, centre stage at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards and being induced, abducted, inducted and indicted, or whatever it was, into the Hall of Fame — and having to be composed enough to make a coherent speech, too. Quite a challenge, I imagine.

It was the most nervous I’d ever been about making a speech. I was terrified about missing out people in my roll call. But, when I walked into the Vector Arena, I was surprised at how warm and embracing it felt. Not intimidating at all. Then again, APRA had kindly let me pile a lot of my own whānau and friends in, so that figured.

Hinewehi Mohi was a third former at Hato Hōhepa when I was a senior and we’ve gone through so much together over the years. Gosh, she was even at my son’s birth. Well, Hinewehi started blubbing as soon as she began introducing me. So that set the rest of us off.

She touched on stuff I hadn’t thought about for years and dropped in bits of my songs. I could have gone home after her kōrero and felt honoured enough. Then she threw to this video montage that APRA had put together. I couldn’t believe everyone pulled it off in secret. Mum, my son, his dad. All of them.

My son is always full of advice and he told me: “Don’t go on and on. Don’t get all political. Don’t be annoying. And don’t cry.” I did all of those.

Can music or a song really make a difference?

In my speech, I talked about how Maranga Ake Ai by Aotearoa really affected me. It was the first time I heard New Zealand music really speak to me. I wanted all those songwriters there to know that when you don’t hear your own language on the radio or see yourself on TV, you start to believe that your culture (and, by extension, your people) has no value.

So, when we started the Moahunters, I was on a mission to make Māori visible through our songs. Here’s Moko. That’s us. The Treaty won’t go away. Be very clear on that. Walk the Talk of our Ancestors. Take that. Titokowaru. We have our own heroes, thank you. Listen to us haka. Listen to our reo. We are here. We’re not going away. We are proudly, unashamedly Māori.

With every music video, we shoved as much Māori into the faces of every New Zealander that we could, because it was about us seeing ourselves and feeling good about ourselves and, at the same time, we were making a point. We were challenging the Crown, challenging Pākehā, with our lyrics and images. And Māori across every sector — health, education, justice, media, film and so on — were doing the same. They still are.

But the industry itself was a problem, wasn’t it?

Yes. We’d call out the music industry and commercial radio on their racism. I know it used to drive the big bosses of the New Zealand music industry nuts because they just wanted to get on with their lovely awards, and here we were coming along like a bunch of party poopers saying: “Where are all the Māori? Where is our reo across all the categories?”

We called for a boycott by Māori musicians one year and Emma Paki stood with us because we were sick of them treating Māori in such a tokenistic way. Black Pearl and Kua Makona had given me a profile and therefore a platform — and the media picked up on it because there weren’t many young Māori women with a high profile. We pushed for two new categories, Mana Māori and Mana Reo, and the awards lot ran with those for a number of years.

Let’s turn to those who’ve contributed to that success.

Well, we grew up in a household where, every 10 minutes, Dad would pick up the guitar. Or the ukulele. He had a sax under the bed he’d pull out once in a blue moon. And he could jump on a piano and play any song. His brothers could, too. I don’t know what it was about that generation. They couldn’t read a note but they could play nearly anything.

Dad was a kapa haka gun and loved conducting choirs as well. So, in terms of music, he and his brothers were the most important influence on me and the rest of us kids. And then there was Georgina Kingi at Hato Hōhepa — she loved vocal dynamics and sweet singing. Right up our father’s alley.

Okay. That gave you your start in music. But who got you heading down the political track?

It all kicked in when I moved to Auckland for university, which was quite a hot bed of activism. Jane Kelsey was my law lecturer and became a lifelong friend and mentor, and David Williams was another influence. I got to know Rangi Walker, Hone Kaa and Patu Hōhepa when I met Willie Jackson and his whānau.

That meant his dad (Bob), mum (June), his uncles, Syd and Bill Nepia, and all the others. So, the Jackson family helped politicise me and shape my thinking. I was also in Kia Mohio Kia Marama Trust, which monitored what the government wasn’t up to with te Tiriti.

We would analyse policy, break it down, and then send it out to all the NGOs. Donna Gardiner, Jane Kelsey, Barbara Menzies, Rob and Judy Cooper, Joy and Rua Rakena and Annette Nyman. That was us, Māori and Pākehā, a real tight group. Still are. Actually, they sent me to the Philippines twice in the 1980s to study human rights under FLAG (Free Legal Aid Group) and that was a character-forming experience.

At the same time, Willie and I were going to Ngāti Raukawa and learning te reo — and I was the daily talkback host on Aotearoa Radio, interviewing the likes of Erima Henare, Dun Mihaka, Winston Peters and Jenny Shipley. So the ‘80s were a very significant time for me.

You had, if I recall correctly, an interesting connection to The Nation of Islam.

In 1988, I travelled to the US with Syd Jackson and Deirdre Nehua, and we flew to Detroit with Minister Louis Farrakhan and Rev Al Sharpton — and the following year I returned with June Jackson. We stayed in Harlem with the Nation and were guests of the minister onstage at the Washington Armoury. And he’s been out here, too. It’s been a long relationship and that helps fire you up.

I finished my speech the other night by quoting Al Sharpton, who said in that Detroit Baptist Church: “You’ve got to stand for something. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” It’s such a powerful call to action.

I know that te reo Māori remains important for you. But there are challenges in all directions, aren’t there?

I think everything comes back to how flawed the current constitutional process is. As it is, there’s no clearing house for any bills or international treaties to determine compliance with te Tiriti — or to assess and deal to institutional racism. If there was Crown compliance with the Treaty, we’d get some movement on lots of issues — and te reo is one of them.

Take, for example, the issue of the TPPA where there’s a huge risk that Māori interests would take second place to international corporate interests. The Crown and Māori should be working together. Conferring. Listening. Respecting. Responding. But the Crown leaves Māori and iwi out of the process — so we’re not having the input or the impact that the Treaty demands when it comes to content.

In view of the way that the Crown operates, should we, as New Zealanders, be making a bigger fuss? Should we be organising protest marches and finding other ways to show our opposition?

I think people are feeling burned out. There are so many issues on the go. So many fires to put out. And it’s really difficult to know where to put your energy. And some of us who feel passionate about a lot of things are fairly stretched.

Mike Smith told me that he made a conscious decision to just focus on environmental issues. And I’ve always admired that. If you’re going hard on one kaupapa, and doing your best to make a difference on one kaupapa, then perhaps that’s the way to attack things.

Despite the challenges for us in Aotearoa, it’s not all doom and gloom is it? There’s also magic occurring, almost daily, in our Māori world. There are reasons to be optimistic.

Yeah. That’s true. Journalists are often asking me about the social or political activism in my music. “What comes first?” is the usual question. If you’re Māori, you’re a walking, breathing political statement. You are born into a whole series of responsibilities and expectations from the Māori and Pākehā worlds. It’s not easy being Māori but there’s so much beauty in it too.

Just telling our own stories in film, like Toby does, or through contemporary music — that’s a political statement in itself when those stories aren’t represented in mainstream media. Scotty Morrison and I have written songs about our navigators and sailors, our soldiers and their courage. About our Māori-speaking children. About Moriori. So, there’s that side. Celebration and inspiration.

Then there are all those people I know who’re outside the music industry, who’re great thinkers and visionaries. Like Linda and Graham Smith, Moana Jackson and Mason Durie. Colossal intellects and very clear and very kaupapa-driven. And, when we travel, we see how other indigenous people look at Māori for leadership with our language revitalisation and our initiatives in health, education and media and film. Look at the talent we have, especially with Taika Waititi and Cliff Curtis.

Pākehā don’t realise that Māori are often seen as the rockstars of indigenous movements. Having said that, there are loads of Pākehā who understand that what’s good for Māori is good for everyone. They share common concerns and values. Some become mentors. But even at the school where Toby and I send Manawanui, there are Pākehā teachers who’re fluent in the reo and speak Māori to our kids all the time. What a sea change that is. And the musicians who talked to me about my speech afterwards were really genuinely affected and wanting to “do something”. So that openness and trust is exciting.

You, Toby and Manawanui live in Muriwai which is one of the many beachside communities that are mainly Pākehā. But perhaps it’s more accommodating to Māori issues than many other areas.

We started up a Waitangi Day festival out here which morphed into a wonderful community event where we’ve been able to bring the local marae and our surf community together and talk about important issues. Like the fact that “every day is Waitangi Day.” As with any community, it’s got its challenges. But I really love it here.

Now. Music. It plays a big part in many of our lives. But that’s especially so with you.

This award meant I had to look back — and I realised that my songs track what’s been going on within Māori circles and society over the last 30 years, because I’ve been writing about it. Fiscal envelope. Moko. WTO protests. Mining. Lots of kaupapa. I really love the recording process, the experimenting and musicality. With Paddy Free and Scotty, it’s a very trusting and respectful relationship, and I’m really proud of our songs.

When you look back across five albums of work, some of them made airplay, but a lot of your best material didn’t. That’s to be discovered in the future. You’ve put them down and they’re now immortalised. It’s a pretty heady concept, if you think of music that way.

Actually, I don’t listen to my early albums because there’s the odd song that makes me cringe.

My manager and friend Sol (de Sully) bought me a remake for my birthday, so a song that started as Timor/Whaura has now been redone with a German producer and a Jamaican dancehall artist, and that’s taken it to another level. However, we have always been part of a niche. It’s not like Māori have gone out and bought our albums in truckloads — and they’re not doing that with any other Māori artist either.

So we’ve made most of our money from live gigs, and we aren’t just playing at “world music festivals” either — thanks to Sol. We’ve played on the same bill as Nick Cave, David Guetta and Blur. We’ve done jazz festivals like the famous Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. We did a big gig for the UN with four other acts, including Bob Geldof. Big reggae and rock festivals, as well as clubs, universities, theatres and private parties around the world.

We’ve collaborated with DJs, hip-hop artists, classical musicians and tribal peoples too. And our success on the live circuit hasn’t been in spite of the language. It’s often been because of it. Yet apart from Womad, we don’t get invited to the big festivals here.

You must be really pleased with some of the musical collaborations that you’ve enjoyed across those decades.

Dale, as you know, I started off playing in pubs and clubs with my mate Aroaro Tamati (nee Hond). Then on those TV variety shows that were all the rage in the 1980s, like the Richard Eriwata show. But we were performing all around Auckland.

When Willie and I married, he had me singing on the club circuit. So much so, that one day Tai Abrams, the ex-SAS head of a big security team, recruited him. Two Māori and about 10 giant Tongans.

So while Willie was out dealing with tow truck drivers in some rough-as bars, I was singing covers in a two-year residency at Club 21 on Queen St. That place was pumping.

From the stage, I could see musicians sidling up to the owner Johnny Tabla, trying to pinch our gig. I was meeting amazing musicians who could duplicate anything. And some of them came into both my bands — like Teina Benioni, John Diamond, Simon Lynch, Pete Hoera, Brent Turner, Max Stowers, Richie Campbell and Cadzow Cossar. And they sort of swapped between my band and Ardijah.

Then, of course, there was Dalvanius Prime.

Yes, indeed. And it was Dalvanius who told me: “You have to stop singing other people’s songs and write your own.” He was a wonderful creative mentor. He and Willie had a kind of love-hate relationship. Well, the hate bit was to do with the dogs. But they would plot my career, those two.

And there was Hirini Melbourne lecturing at the University of Waikato — and being inspirational to many people, including Hinewehi and me. I recorded a couple of his songs and collaborated with him on Te Pō, which was a thrill.

Hareruia Aperehama invited me to Rātana Pa once. And him and his brothers set up a PA on their lawn and played for me. He’d say: “Pick a couple of songs you like. I want you to record them.” So we recorded Bird in a Tree, Prophecies and Calling You and collaborated on Tahi. I really enjoyed working with Ruia because he was so versed in mōteatea and could play anything. He was like Scotty. Very generous with his knowledge and talent.

Mina Ripia and Teremoana Rapley (former Moahunters) made big contributions to A E I O U which started off as a jingle on Aotearoa Radio that Mina wrote. And then we built it into a big song and Teremoana did the rap and Stuart Pearce all the beats, so it was a massive team effort.

What about the Tribe?

It’s been going for nearly 14 years now. My sister Trina is a great vocalist and so organised, just like our mother. She’s our Minister of Finance on tour. Man, anyone comes up to her to ask for an advance — phew. She’s tough. Even I have to sign receipts. And there’s my best mate, Amiria, who keeps tabs on everything. But it’s me and Sol who plot everything. He’s been such a rock.

And you might like to mihi to Toby Mills, your man, especially for his images and for the contribution he’s made to your music in later years.

Toby is a producer-director which is perfect because, when you’re on the road, you need a bossy type to organise everybody. And he has a loud voice like a director should have. But he’s also creative. And he’s a perfectionist in his filmmaking. He and his mate Stuart Page would create these amazing video backdrops for every song, featuring landscapes, artworks, archival footage. He’s making new ones now for our gigs in Finland.

Then there’s Hikurangi, your lovely son, who you share with Willie J. I know that when couples split up they sometimes don’t remain comfortable with each other. But you and Willie still get along. And now you have the good fortune of having an adult son and your small daughter (Manawanui) with Toby.

They’re both wonderful fathers and they’ve both been very supportive to me over the years. I’ve seen other husbands get jealous of their wives in the spotlight but that never happened to me. And I’m really lucky I’ve got these two great kids who seem pretty switched on despite my lifestyle — or perhaps because of it.

Where do you think Māori music is heading?

I think we can track the development of Māori music alongside the growth of iwi radio and the internet. When I started, maybe there was Te Upoko o Te Ika and Radio Ngāti Porou. But, through the ‘90s, more and more iwi stations came on air. So our waiata have had funding support as well as air time.

But imagine what it would be like if we had airplay, as we should, on commercial radio, too. I reckon every radio station that gets a frequency or licence to operate in New Zealand should be obliged to broadcast a certain percentage of music in te reo. I’d argue that it’s a Treaty obligation.

I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Māori music recently because I was judging the APRA Maioha award. I loved the songs in the finals — Ihi, Kirsten Te Rito and Rob Ruha. And, at the event, a young band called Soccer Practice performed a brilliant version of Tahi.

So I’m thrilled at the genres represented now in te reo. There’s no excuse for limiting what they broadcast to Pākehā. There’s now quality reo Māori music to fit every format.

Who are you listening to these days?

I thrash Louis Baker, Pitch Black, Pacific Heights and Jakob at home, and love Swamp Thing live. None of that music is obviously Māori. I’m kind of moving myself back into more funky electronica, the darker sounds with more traditional vocals in it. Brooding.


© E-Tangata, 2016

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