It’s no surprise that Dale and Pio should hit it off in this interview. They have so much in common. Not just their blue collar background and their mileage in Māori radio and television, but their warmth and musical talent on stage. Their focus on family and kaupapa Māori. Their friendship. Their risk-taking irreverence. Their sharp eye for injustice. Their knack, so naturally, of simply being good company. Take a look here at how they got along in this conversation.
Kia ora, Pio. I know that you were whangai’d as a youngster. So I wonder if you might tell us about that.
Tēnā koe, Dale. Well, I was legally adopted when I was born, by Dalton and Hoana Terei. And I was really blessed to have them as parents. Dalton was from Whangape, from Ngāti Haua. And Hoana was from Panguru. She was actually my birth mother’s aunty.
My birth mother was unwed at the time. Not an unusual story. It was very hard for younger women in those days because of the shame of all that stuff. But I’m sort of pleased it happened. Dad was in his late 40s when he adopted me. And I had lovely, loving parents. They still live in our hearts, that’s for sure.
We didn’t have a lot of cash, bit like your whānau, Dale. Everyone was blue collar in those days. Dad was a driver for the power board. But we were busy. We were playing league. We were boxing. We were playing music. We had a Holden station-wagon so we could get everyone in.
And when I look at a lot of our people who’re struggling today at all sorts of levels, I realise how lucky I was to have loving, intelligent parents who knew the kaupapa of raising children.
Did you make contact with your birth mother through the course of your life, Pio?
We’re actually very close now and, through my half-siblings, there’s been an outpouring of gracious aroha to me and the kids and to Deb. You just carry on.
When there’s whakapapa and bloodlines involved, things can happen quite normally. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 20 years with Gemma, who’s my birth mum. She’s turning 80 this year, so that’ll mean a big birthday hui up in the Far North.
We all know you as Pio. But perhaps you have some other handles.
I’ll start with my middle name. That’s Keith. And I wasn’t too rapt about that. Do you know any Māori guys named Keith?
I don’t know where that came from. But then I felt good when a Scottish guy told me that Keith is a “very strong name”. And I said: “Okay, bro. Thanks.” But Pio isn’t a Māori name, either. E hara he ingoa Māori.
It’s an Italian name because all of us come from Panguru or Whakarapa and that was a stronghold of Catholicism around the time of the Mill Hill fathers, and Whina Cooper and Tamaiti Peita. Everyone was taking names from the Bible. And Pio — now don’t laugh, Dale — is actually short for Pious. Or God-like. So you’re not just talking to another bro from Te Atatu’s rugby league club.
Well, there you go. I’m not surprised, because you’ve always come across as a guy with a strong social conscience, ethics and morals. But I’m assuming this came from your upbringing as well as your holy name.
There was church every Sunday, but I think you learn so much from the actions of other people. Dad was a hard man but never hard on us — and he was really strong in his beliefs around things Māori. He came to Auckland and worked in the ‘60s and I watched how he carried himself. He never got angry. He hardly judged people. He was just quite staunch in knowing who he was.
Mum was always about karakia and kindness. I suppose the thing that sticks out for me was just knowing that we’re as good as anybody that walks the planet, being Māori. You don’t have to be anybody else. My feeling was simply: “My name’s Pio Terei. I’m Māori. And I’ve got a space and a place in this world.”
And that’s just the way we thought. It wasn’t arrogance. It was: “Nah, I’m meant to be here, bro.” Some of our kids don’t have that. In fact, a lot of people don’t have that identity thing. That confidence.
Through your years as an entertainer, we’ve seen your range of talents. But I imagine that, early on, you had a guitar.
Dad’s style was to nurture any form of interest or talent. I remember going home once with a budgie. A budgie. A month later, I had an aviary. And soon I knew all sorts about budgies, peach-faced love birds, cockatiels and quails. That’s what my old man was like. He kept encouraging.
I always used to sing when I was a kid, ever since I was a baby. I’d get the hose and sing Beatles songs. If the old man got hōhā, he’d turn the hose on, to stop me. He bought me a ukulele. So we started off tutu-ing with the uke. We were the radio in the car. I’d sit in the back playing three chords. As you know, if you know three chords, you know 3,000 songs. So I’d play the ukulele.
Then I graduated to a guitar which was a gift from an uncle, a fulla called George Hokai from Whangape. In those days, they had Black Diamond guitar strings. They weren’t strings that were soft on the hands. I was learning how to play on this old guitar with strings that you could fence cattle with.
We had a wind-up gramophone and the old man came home with this record. It was Guitar Boogie Smith, the famous song played so beautifully by our koroua, Ben Tawhiti. Day and night I’d learn how to play that song. When I was younger and I was playing the guitar in my room, my old man would come in and turn the light off.
It was like a Māori version of Karate Kid. He’d turn the light off. When I first objected, he’d say: “No, you don’t need to look. You just play.” And, I have to say, I know where most of the chords are without looking at them now, because I did a bit of Stevie Wonder on myself and played without seeing.
Dad wasn’t a musical person at all, but everything I did, in sport or music or anything interesting, my dad was there to support it. He’d do deals. He’d do deals with his mate to get me an amplifier, a set of drums and stuff like that. By the fourth or fifth form, I was playing in bands in school. Just playing covers.
People would ask: “Bro, is your band any good?” And I’d say: “I don’t know if we’re any good, but you gotta book us a year out.” We were working all over the place. Rugby league clubs and stuff like that. But it gave me the foundation to own a stage, like entertainers do.
I was blessed enough to have some talent, but when you’ve got somebody else who recognises and unconditionally supports your talent, some good stuff’s gonna happen. And it has over the years.
It definitely has. But you were a good salesman, too. That’s a skill in its own right. In fact, you spent more than 10 years in the car trade. What makes a guy good at that caper?
It’s a bit like being an actor. And you learn by listening and watching. I’ve seen a lot of newbies coming into the trade. They’re not listening to the people they’re talking to. They’re thinking about their next question. And there was an American style of selling that pushed people into buying cars they didn’t want or need. But it’d be a sale.
For me, it was a matter of finding out what people wanted. Finding the right vehicle for them. Mostly, I was in light-commercial, so it was utes and trucks. Dealing with commercial, small one-man-band sort of businesses. So they weren’t emotional purchases.
Then you made a move into Māori radio. How did that come about?
Bro, I was importing trucks from Japan and I’d had enough. Deb and I had no kids at that time, and I thought: “Man, I need to change gear.”
I’d always admired, and still do, guys like Tem Morrison and Jay Laga’aia who were on Aotearoa Radio in the mornings. And I thought: “Wow, I want to be in that family.” And I got a job selling advertising for Māori radio, which wasn’t easy. It was like swimming through shark-infested custard. It was a tough gig.
But I knew somebody was going to get sick, and I learned how to use the switchboard. And then, sure enough, Tem got sick — or I think he went on a tour with Aaron Neville. And when he took off with Aaron, someone had to do the breakfast show. Which left midnight to dawn free. So I got on to midnight to dawn. Then, later, when Tem went to Shortland Street, I got on to breakfast. And that’s how that happened.
Then, with radio under your belt, as well as some work on stage, next thing you’re into television with the Pete and Pio show.That’s morphed into numerous programmes. Some have been exceptional, I’d like to say. But tell us about your first foray.
It was pretty daunting because I used to write songs about the politicians. And I’d take the mimi out of Winston, Jim Bolger, and all those guys. Then Brendan Butt heard me. He’s one of our Māori whānau and one of our top comedy directors — and he asked me to come in for an audition. And that led on to me teaming up with Peter Rowley in Pete and Pio.
Then there was the Tutu skit series, which was touching on some of our history and looking at colonisation in a humorous way. Some would’ve seen it as quite risky turf. When you thought up the idea, and then pushed it forward, did it feel like it was a little risky?
No, bro, because I was naive. Ignorance is bliss. But, when the show went on air, I found that they just wanted the laughing court jester doing gags. Like: “Where did you get your bag?” “I pinched it.” Which I still find funny. But that’s not my sort of comedy.
If there was a Billy T fan club, I’d be the chairman. He was so good. But that style wasn’t for me. I would do this stuff about Pākehā bringing disease here. Pākehā only having one God and that’s why the world’s bad. It’s because God’s overworked.
I find those things funny. But we got hammered — which is really cool. I think the show was ahead of its time. The second series — and I don’t know how we got a second series — was actually pretty well received and was one of the highest rating comedy shows in the country. Still is. And I think the show would probably do better now, because we can laugh at ourselves as a nation.
But, when I started doing that, I think a lot of people out there in middle New Zealand thought that I, as a Māori, was rising above my station. Basically, we were taking the piss out of Pākehā — and that wasn’t so appealing to them. They thought it was okay to take the piss out of Māori because “yeah, yeah, Mowrees are like that aren’t they?”
People say we should be one nation. I want us to be one nation, but I never want us to be one people. Because if you become one people then you don’t have those special things that you bring to the table as a Māori, as an Irishman, as a Sāmoan.
So the belief I’ve grown up with is to really celebrate your uniqueness and bond together under one nation. But I don’t want to be a boil-up that just becomes diluted.
There’s no doubt that you’re having a wonderful career. But life isn’t smooth in that television world. There are ups and downs. Moving channels a few times. And perhaps hurt feelings and a bruised ego, too.
Sometimes you move to protect yourself. I’ve outlived many a commissioner and CEO of television networks. They’d come in with a definite idea. You have to do this and you have to work with that. But, once people start telling you what you have to do, nah, I’m outta there, bro.
They’d tell me: “Oh, but it could cost you your career.” I remember leaving a certain channel in the early days and hearing them say: “That guy will not work in television again.” But, 15 years later, I’m still in television.
Of course, you set up the next deal before you close the door on the first one.
One thing, though, is that in our business, it’s harder if you’re a one-trick pony. But, if you can act a bit, sing a bit, and do a bit of comedy, then you can cover a wider area. Even more if you have te reo. And my reo is getting better and stronger all the time. I’m really enjoying that journey.
When you look back on quite a body of work now, what programmes are you most proud of?
I think the second series of Te Tutu. That’s the one that rattled the cage. Now, of course, I’m doing a lot more “edutainment”. I did Te Araroa Trails which played through Air New Zealand, which I’m really proud of.
It’s a bit like Heartland which Gary McCormick did some years ago. And people go: “Aren’t you just doing the same thing that Gary used to do?” But New Zealanders have changed and our country continues to evolve. We need to keep travelling around it to see what’s going on.
I’ve just finished a series called Off The Grid with Pio. I’m excited about that. I’m going to go back to Mitimiti and build a tiny house. I want to get all our whānau who haven’t got a flush toilet into composting toilets, growing their kai, and living off the whenua. Things are still busy for me.
I’ve watched your work with great pride. There’s a natural ease you have with people and there’s the comedy focused work as well as Te Araroa Trails, Off The Grid with Pio, the fishing shows, and so on. You come across as though you really enjoy meeting good people — and the humour doesn’t ever seem forced in those programmes.
I forgot about Tangaroa. Seven seasons going around New Zealand and the Pacific eating other people’s fish quota — and getting paid. That has to be the best job in the world.
Along the way you’ve watched and worked with some talented people. So no doubt you’ve been noting and storing away what’s made them class acts.
I used to hear stories about Sir Howard Morrison, who wasn’t the easiest man to work with because he was so on to it. It was the prep before he went on stage and all that stuff. But I learned a lot from him and the way he’d own a stage.
I also loved Prince Tui Teka. He was the king of Māori humour. And, as an entertainer, there was so much he could do: play the trumpet, play the bass, do adolescent humour — and get away with it. You just fell in love with him.
Then there was Billy T James. He was a product of the showband era. The multi-skilled Māori entertainer. So, huge admiration for him.
And I’ve got a lot of time for Temuera Morrison. Tem’s one of those guys who can sorta show off without annoying you. I know the real Tem. He’s a beautiful man. He’s one of those people who I look at and go: “Yeah. You’ve done your mahi.”
Clearly you see humour playing a big part in life as well as in entertainment. It has a role in getting serious messages across to all of us.
I see humour as the gravy on the meat. The meat is the kiko, the information and the topic. But humour is the gravy or the garnishing. And no doubt our old people have been doing this for a thousand years or so.
Perhaps they’d be arguing about where some tūpāpaku was gonna go, and they’d be telling stories. But, in the back of their head, they were going to change the course of that hui. They were masters at it. And, when we’re looking at the issues of today, humour, nicely timed, can just kick the kaupapa right into touch.
And one major kaupapa for you has been positive parenting. It’s been part of your life now for maybe 10 or 15 years or more. I sense that it means a lot to you. Can you tell us about your commitment to this area?
As you know, we’ve been through a crisis, losing Teina, one of our three sons. The Parenting Place helped me survive this very dark time for my whānau. It’s a place of aroha and wisdom. I’ve been there 17 years. I don’t work there full-time because I’m doing my other bits and pieces.
But we’ve kept developing programmes and I think we’re now the biggest supplier of parenting education to Māori in this country. And there hasn’t been a drop of any help from the government. But, kei te pai. Because, if the government get involved, they’d be telling us how to do things — and, too often, that doesn’t work.
But I’m passionate about parenting. When you look at suicide, alcohol abuse and all those things, we can actually provide a buffer or sponge for the whānau by good parenting. If a kid is told that he’s awesome and is reassured that he belongs and is injecting love into this family that loves him, well, he’s going to have something called resilience.
When we lost Teina, we had to crawl out of a black hole. But I had the philosophies of te ao Māori and the Parenting Place. When you’re trying to crawl out of a black hole and you’ve got nothing to hang on to, you’re just going to fall back in. But I was able to utilise my experiences and my aroha, and the aroha towards me, to survive that time — and to continue to survive it.
But parenting is huge. Dale, you’ve got a bloody awesome whānau. Your three kids are fantastic. They’re like Karen, their mother. But, as you know, each of them needs a different type of nurturing. And not every parent understands or can deliver that. If we can bring those skills back into our culture, it can have an effect on those sad things like suicide, boozing, and not treating our wāhine as taonga. But we’ve got to start right back at parenting.
That’s why I feel so strongly about it. But I’ve seen change. I may sound like a preacher, but I’ve seen change. I’ve seen people really turn their lives around.
Can we talk a moment about your wife, Deb, and the support she has provided? What does she mean to you?
She’s the rock, really. Like most women. It’s her sense of humour and her intelligence. And the skill she’s had in bringing up three Māori-Tarara men — Jack, Dalton and Teina — and supporting me while I’ve been an absent father quite often as well.
And, of course, she’s now in a situation where she’s lost her baby. All we can do is watch and nurture her, and that’s what we’re doing as a family. And that’s what her friends did. She’s in Aussie with three of her bestie Māori girlfriends now. I’m just so pleased she’s there because there’s a different sort of aroha that she’ll get from those girls. Different from the aroha I can give her or the aroha Jack and Dalton can give her.
It’s pretty tough watching the people you love go through such a tough time. But I suppose my job as a father and a husband is to create a platform of love and safety for my family to re-grow. That’s what I say to my boys: “Hey guys. Let’s sit and work this out. Where to from here? Your little brother would want us to blossom. He’s watching.”
So how do we, as a team, create that platform, or that mahinga or mara, for these guys to grow for this new chapter of their lives?
If you look back at our history, you learn that Māori men were incredibly gentle — until they went to war. It’s then that they became the warrior. You see the same thing with Michael Jones who was one of our great All Blacks. Talk to him and you’ll see what a beautiful, gentle man he is. But when he went on the footy field, he went to war.
For some of our whānau, it’s clear when it’s the right time to be a warrior. For others the line is fudged. I tell my boys: “You can be a warrior of football. Or of broadcasting. Or a warrior of the violin. You can do all these different things. And you can choose where you’re going to put in your maximum effort.”
And, when we’re nurturing our kids, and our grandkids, and whoever comes within our space, it’s important to help them lift their sights and see that anything is possible.
I had a little fulla over here the other day, a little Pākehā boy. He’s one of Deb’s mate’s kids. We were watching TV, something on David Attenborough. He’s about six — neat little kid. I said: “Andy, imagine what it’s going to be like when you go to Africa.” He said: “Am I going to Africa?” I said: “You can go anywhere you want, mate.” “Can I go to Africa?” I said: “Son, you can go to Africa. You can be one of those photographers.”
As Māori dads, it’s our job to turn on those dreams. We have the ability to do that. It’s part of that whole parenting thing — and I think it’s going to be me for the rest of my life. “Edutainment” through broadcasting. Our parenting thing. And catching some bloody decent fish, mate.
That’s a wonderful set of goals, Pio. And thank you for your kōrero. There’s one final issue, though, that I’d like to raise with you. When Teina died, both you and Deb recognised there are things we can do that we don’t. We’re talking bone marrow, blood, to help combat leukaemia. What would you like us to do as Māori adults about that?
As Māori families, I believe we should have the conversation about donating blood and bone marrow. We really do need help. I’m past the age of 45, as you well know, well past. The magic time for a donor is 18-45. And it’s the ultimate koha.
Some of our whānau believe — and I totally respect this opinion — that their blood is tapu to them, to their being and to their soul. I remember talking with one of my cousins and saying: “Bro, how can you talk about your blood being tapu and your body being a temple when you’re on your second bottle of Lion Red? If you want to treat your body as a taonga, then look after it and I’ll take you off my blood donor list.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you look at this fulla, Maui Tikitiki, when he fished up the North Island, you’ll see that he used his grandmother’s jawbone to create life. That seems to me to be using somebody else’s body part to create life. So maybe it’s in our DNA and our whakaaro to do that.
As it is, we, as Māori, are going into hospital, getting livers, getting heart transplants and stuff and not doing our share of donating. And I think we need to. Let’s keep it fair.
Sadly, we all have a checkout time. I wonder what you’re hoping people will remember about you?
There’s no question about that. I’d like people to remember that I was a Māori. For me, being Māori is like wearing the All Black jersey. (Actually, I could’ve worn the jersey, but I pulled a hamstring in the ‘80s.) I’ve been proud to be Māori and, hopefully, much of what I’ve done has been positive.
As Māori, we’re unique. I don’t think I’m better than anybody else, but I think I’m bloody just as good.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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