Siena Yates went to her first Matatini this week, and found out why it’s not just a bit of song and dance.
When I was in primary school, I joined the kapa haka group.
I wanted to be one of the cool Māori. Actually, I just wanted to be one of the Māori. Full stop.
I managed a couple of practices, and maybe a performance at a school assembly. But pretty quickly, my lack of reo, tikanga, melanin (and conviction) saw me quietly disappear and blend back into my ao Pākehā comfort zone.
Since then, I’ve been scared of kapa haka. Scared of — and in awe of — the kapa haka kids. In the same way I was scared to enter Māori spaces in general, lest anyone find out how not-Māori I really was.
So, while I’ve always been aware of Te Matatini, I’ve always been a bit scared of it too, and I’ve certainly never wanted to go.
That all changed this year.
Sure, I’ve acquired some of my reo. And that helps. But the real difference is that my reo journey has allowed me to become comfortable in Māori spaces. And walking into Te Matatini on my own, I realised just how true that is.
The moment you entered the festival (this year at Tāmaki’s Eden Park), you became everyone’s “sis” or “aunty” or “kare” — and they became yours.
A complete stranger would mihi to you like they’d known you since primary school. You could fall into comfortable conversation in the line for coffee. You could trade jokes with anyone and communicate with a pointed look or raised eyebrows and “the nod”.
Because it’s one of those rare majority-Māori events, it felt easy. It felt safe. It felt like home.
I remember going to Laneway alone once. I sat on the grass next to a group of people waiting for the next act and tried to strike up a bit of friendly banter since we were right next to each other. They gave me the awkward smile and quick brush-off.
The day I arrived in Tāmaki for Matatini week, I parked my car in a parking building and asked a couple of wāhine Māori for help with the ticket machine. Not only did they help me, but they also invited me to have kai with them.
That was the day before Matatini started, when the Māori speaking-performance event M9 was held, in honour of kapa haka and Te Matatini. There, we were lucky enough to hear kōrero from clinical psychologist Dr Kiri Tamihere-Waititi about how kapa haka is a rongoā for the hinengaro and wairua — a balm for the mind and soul.
Kiri laid out all the ways in which kapa haka ticks the boxes that psychologists say we need for mental healing and wellness. The most important of which is connection.
It was with that kōrero in mind that I went to Te Matatini for the first time.
The first kapa on stage were from Muriwhenua, like me. The second were Ngāti Ranginui from the Bay of Plenty where I’ve lived most of my life. My hoa ako from Te Tohu Paetahi was also the lead wahine of the rōpū.
So, I was fighting back tears from the get-go. And there were more times than I could count that I was tearing up during the performances.
Sometimes that was because I could feel the emotion of the mōteatea. Sometimes because everyone was just so beautiful with their temporary moko that I could envision a future where that could be our reality. And sometimes it was out of sheer pride of being Māori and knowing that this is our culture.
In the days leading up to Matatini, I’d been having a rough time, and I kept thinking that being at Matatini would help. I wasn’t sure how or why, but I knew it would. And it did.
I’ve seen some of the TV coverage of Te Matatini — and, while it was beautifully done, like any live event, being there in person is a whole other experience.
It’s being able to feel the wairua, to feel and hear the reactions of the crowds, not just to the big moments but to the small things too — a particular move, a particular phrase or voice, a familiar face filling up the big screen.
To feel the harmonies vibrating through your body, and hear the sounds of palms slapping chests, reverberating around the arena.
I felt the collective swell of pride and aroha when a young boy stood on his own to haka and mihi to a rōpū after their performance, and the lump in my throat when others stood to tautoko him.
And I felt the pure electricity of being surrounded by whānau members of Angitū when their kapa took to the stage for the first time, not to mention the tautoko as two of the members (Tuhoe Tamaiparea and superstar Pere Wihongi) took to the stage in gender-fluid dress and roles.
I was able to stay in a space where te reo Māori flowed beautifully and unapologetically, whether it was over marketplace sales, having a moan about how long the coffee line was, or having a brag about who’d bought the yummier kai. Even tāmariki complaining about being tired or appealing for another snack, was in te reo.
I got to walk around the marketplace full of pakihi Māori, be loaded up with freebies to take home to my irāmutu, feel the manaakitanga, spend way too much on expanding my Māori-made earring collection, and even get a free massage, a mirimiri, complete with a telling-off for putting myself under too much stress.
I kept bumping into just about anyone I’d ever met in te ao Māori — people from kura reo, old classmates, old workmates, past interviewees, and of course, the celebrities of te ao Māori.
And each night I’d to go to bed with the sound of haka echoing in my ears.
Through blistering sun and pouring rain, we sat together and celebrated not just kapa haka, but everything kapa haka stands for.
Before I learned more about te ao Māori, I, like many others in New Zealand, thought of kapa haka as not much more than a bit of song and dance, usually rolled out to impress some tourists.
But now I know better. It was, as Dr Kiri said, about connection. And there was no doubt that we needed it. After four years without Te Matatini because of Covid, we were able to share mihi and sorrows for our whānau affected by the flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle, share kōrero and whakaaro about the big issues in te ao Māori, make political statements, send out calls to action.
And, as well as all that, it was also a bit of song and dance — something to lift wairua amid trying times, to fill the ngākau, and to celebrate our culture and our people.
Of course, like most things, there’s an extreme level of privilege to being able to go to Te Matatini in person. There’s being able to afford tickets, making it to Tāmaki if you’re not already there, and skipping mahi on a weekday.
Thankfully, whānau were able to watch the TVNZ livestream, and I saw many people making video calls so their whānau could watch a performance live. And quite a few of us wound up walking our whānau around the marketplace so they could do some shopping via video call.
My sister and I exchanged thoughts over performances via text, I sent pictures to friends who couldn’t make it and wanted to know what it was like, and shared videos to friends overseas who wanted to learn more about kapa haka and Matatini. And I watched people on socials bonding over the fact that they weren’t there — sharing memes and commiserating over the “whaumau”.
The point is, even when you’re not there, you’re connected.
That’s the power of kapa haka.
I was always scared that, if I went to Matatini, I would feel out of place and inadequate. And to be honest, while I did feel at home, I did still feel a bit inadequate.
I don’t know much about the ins and outs of kapa haka. I don’t know the songs everyone knows. I don’t know what it is that makes or breaks a performance. I can’t always understand or keep up with all of the reo. I don’t know the in-jokes. I don’t know which tricks are the fancy ones because they’re all fancy to me.
I heard other people making educated criticisms here and there and had no idea what they were talking about. I have a lot to learn.
But what I do know, and what I think what matters most, is how the performances and how being at Te Matatini made me feel.
Emotional. Proud. Powerful. And connected.
This piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri, and Tainui) has written for Stuff, the New Zealand Herald and WOMAN magazine. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty. She’s a graduate of Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme, a full-time, full-immersion reo Māori course, which she completed last year.
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