Te Ao with Moana host Moana Maniapoto. Photo: Māori Television
Te Ao with Moana host Moana Maniapoto. Photo: Māori Television

ĀteaJune 8, 2019

The wonderful world of Moana Maniapoto

Te Ao with Moana host Moana Maniapoto. Photo: Māori Television
Te Ao with Moana host Moana Maniapoto. Photo: Māori Television

Launching next Tuesday, Te Ao with Moana is a new current affairs show for Māori Television that sees singer, producer, writer, te reo advocate and now current affairs anchor Moana Maniapoto fronting a show looking at the local and international issues affecting Māori. If it seems like the multitalented musician is a Jill of all trades, it’s because she is. And it’s infuriating.

In 1991, while the UK was grinding its teeth through their Summer of Love, US groups like De la Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were ushering in an enlightened era of their own. A more conscious hip hop and r&b was emerging, along with a musical exploration of its ties to Africa.

New Zealand was experiencing its own urban music renaissance. Moana Maniapoto burst onto the music scene with her band the Moahunters using a mix of te reo, haka and dance-floor friendly hip hop. Their breakthrough single ‘AEIOU – Akona Te Reo’ used a simple refrain from a children’s song that teaches the pronunciation of vowels in te reo Māori and featured a killer rap verse from Upper Hutt Posse’s Teremoana Rapley.

Not only was it an absolute jam, it was the first time a surprised 12-year-old me had heard popular music made by Māori women. Dalvanius Prime’s poppin’-n-lockin’-on-the-marae anthem ‘Poi E’ had seemed like an age ago and was, dare I say it, a bit naff by the early ’90s. And I had assumed it was a one-off. I didn’t know you were allowed to keep making pop music in te reo.

By the time Moana & The Moahunters’ debut album Tahi came out in 1993, another single had topped the charts. A 1969 Phil Spector hit for Sonny Charles & The Checkmates, in the Moahunter’s capable hands ‘Black Pearl’ became an anthem for mana wāhine and raising up Māori and Pacific women in New Zealand. The record sold gold.

The same year Ngāti Whātua-owned radio station Mai FM was launched, putting te reo Māori on the mainstream airwaves, and bringing urban music to a white, male, rock music-dominated culture. A year later Proud was released – a compilation of smooth hip hop and r&b by South Auckland artists inspired by the DAISY artists of New York’s hip hop scene. Sisters Underground, Otara Millionaire’s Club and the Semi MCs announced a new generation of Pacific musical excellence.

It was a time that felt like a new dawn for Māori and Pacific musicians in Aotearoa.

Moana & The Moahunters were recently awarded the Classic Record Prize at the annual Taite Awards for Tahi, one of four awards celebrating independent music in New Zealand, named for music journalist Dylan Taite.

In the years since Tahi, Maniapoto has travelled all over the globe with Moana & The Tribe, showcasing a sound combining hip hop and dance music with kapa haka. The multi-talented polymath was also active in the the early days of iwi radio, fronting a daily talkback show on Aotearoa Radio alongside a number of future media superstars, including her ex-husband, Labour MP Willie Jackson, Hinewehi Mohi, Temuera Morrison, Pio Terei and Jay Laga’aia.

She has maintained a presence in the media writing regularly for e-tangata and with her company Tawera Productions, who will release documentary series The Negotiators later in the year, which explores Treaty settlements through the eyes of lead negotiators. And now she has been announced as the presenter and co-producer of Te Ao with Moana, a new current affairs show for Māori Television that debuts on June 11.

I sat down with Maniapoto at her beautiful Muriwai home for a meandering chat that took us from her early days as an idealistic law student with a set of pipes, to the multi-media titan she is today. We ate crêpes.

Leonie Hayden: We were both at the opening of the Nelson Mandela exhibition the other night. I reckon that Rugby NZ should have accompanied the opening with an apology. The picking and choosing now of our activist history to sort of suit the ‘isn’t New Zealand great narrative’ is a bit shit. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Moana Maniapoto: I mean, I think that what the New Zealand protest movement did during the tour was amazing but that wasn’t appreciated at the time. It was incredibly divisive politically at the time. And I remember the leaders of the protest movement were struggling to ensure that people that were concerned about apartheid in South Africa were joining the dots back here. That got a lot of people upset. Because they can handle extremist forms of racism, but they can’t handle talking about colonisation or structural racism.

It’s happening again now, right? After Christchurch, people are trying to join the dots between what [the shooter] did and every day, non-extremist forms of racism, and some people just don’t want to hear it.

It’s constant. It’s constant. We slap ourselves on the back but I mean… Moana Jackson’s report [the update to his 1988 report on Māori and the criminal justice system] is about to come out. What’s changed from that first one? Oh nothing. I thought it was good at the Mandela opening that [Renata Blair] talked about people who were pretty vilified, who stuck their necks out and and spoke out at a time when it wasn’t popular and continue to do so.

Did you grow up in a household that valued that kind of activism? Sticking your neck out?

No. My family was very rooted in their culture and their marae, extremely so. When I came out of university – this was the mid-80s – I worked for a trust and it had people like Jane Kelsey and Rob Cooper who were really into decolonisation. I was a bit of a freshie coming out of uni, so they mentored me. I spent two years with this woman, Barbara Menzies, she’s a former nun, researching and looking at colonisation, and we created these journals for schools and I’d do all the graphics.

We looked at religion and spirituality, justice, land, there was 12 of these journals.
And then we tried to give them to schools and a lot of schools wouldn’t take them. I remember saying to Dad: ‘Dad, did you know about this?’

And he goes, ‘I don’t wanna know. I just get too angry and I just wanna deck someone.’ So anyway, Dad would go to the Springbok matches. So I’d say, ‘Dad, why are you going?’ He’d say, ‘Cause if we waste them, we’re showing them.’
I said, ‘What are you showing them?’ He goes, ‘Well if the Māori All Blacks beat them, they’ll know that we’re not inferior.’ And I go, ‘No we shouldn’t be going, they don’t like us there. They don’t like black people; they don’t like you in particular.’

Then I’d say, ‘Can you drop me off at the match?’

So, he’s at the game watching and you’re outside protesting.

[laughing] He’s like, ‘I’ll let you off a block away.’

Nōhea koe?

Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa, but I grew up in Invercargill. I’m very proud of my southern roots. It’s where my mum’s from, down there. It was a lovely childhood. It was in one of those neighbourhoods where the kids are free range you know? Pākehā dominated neighbourhood, but everybody just got on. That was the ‘60s, right? In the ‘70s, things turned a bit belly up. People started to go, ‘Ah, you know that land there? We’d like to have that back now.’ And everyone would want to go, ‘No, you know the old days, we all got along.’ Well, that’s when the Māoris were all shutting up.

So did you move to Auckland to go to university?

I was at boarding school before I came up here to do University to do law.

Why law?

I went to court one day with a guy called Dun Mihaka. He was a very well known activist. He used to use whakapohane, bearing your buttocks, that was his thing. [Mihaka was arrested and charged for bearing his buttocks at the Prince and Princess of Wales as their car left Wellington airport in 1983].

He’d often get arrested and he would represent himself. Me and my mate went to court one day just to support him in Hamilton. Dun started to speak Māori. The judge said, ‘No, you can’t speak Māori, you have to speak in English.’ And he kept trying to, you know, defend himself and the judge kept putting him down. I could see him kind of minimising before my eyes, going from this staunch, verging on arrogant man, to kind of like, deferential and I thought, ‘Shit, what we need is more darkies in here to colour up the system so I’ll go up to Auckland and learn’. Then I got up there and I thought, it’s the system that’s stuffed. It’s not going to work if I go in there and colour it up. So I never practiced. Hugely disillusioned by the whole thing. Learned so much about how it was used during colonisation later when I got into doing my trust stuff with Jane [Kelsey].

So at what point then did music take over?

Music was kind of always there because I was singing in clubs and cover bands and things like that. I did some TV stuff, they used to have all these shows on there and they’d need backing vocalists. Me and my mate used to go and do it.

Then Dalvanius [Prime] came along, he was like, ‘Oh, you gotta do some recordings, better write your own music, write your own songs.’ So I put out a song called, ‘Kua Makona’ which he wrote with someone else and then that got a bit of traction.

There was only a couple of iwi radio around, there was only Te Upoko o te Ika and Radio Ngāti Porou, I think. It was pretty ambitious singing in Māori back in those days. And then I joined Aotearoa, which was a Wellington based band, for two years, but that was a bit of a hōha going down to there to rehearse and things.

Yeah. That’s not exactly close.

I loved it. It was my ex husband Willie and our mate Wyn Osborne who decided we should start up our own band. I think it was Dalvanius who came up with the name Moana & the Moahunters.

I knew all the musos first. Mina Ripia was a dancer and keen to sing. We had met Tere [Teremona Rapley] through Upper Hutt Posse. Jay Dee, Peter, Richie, who produced a number of songs for Tahi, all of them had played with Ardijah at various times. Great musicians. I think Tere might have come and lived with us for a while and I think Mina might have lived with us too. People sort of came and lived with us a bit. Once there was a couple who were both cops, but the house still got robbed, so it didn’t always work out. Someone stole the guard dog.

Yeah, so we put our band together. I’m not quite sure how we ended up with Murray Cammick actually [founder of Wildside Records, Southside Records and Rip It Up magazine]. He loved soul. He was just fabulous and he introduced me to lots of different producers and that was the start of moving out of the covers thing and starting to write songs. One of our songs was the very first NZ On Air funded video, that was ‘AEIOU’. And that’s because Murray went down there and got in Brendan Smythe’s [former head of NZ On Air] ear and goes, ‘Hey, musos need to do videos. You guys should fund them.’ Yeah.

So Murray released your album Tahi on Southside. But not Rua?

By that time Willie, Neil Cruikshank, George Hubbard, and Tim Moon started up a Māori label [Tangata Records], because there weren’t very many. We moved on and that was a little bit sad because we loved our Murray.

Moana & The Moahunters L-R: Mina Ripia, Teremoana Rapley, Moana Maniapoto.

I was on the Taite prize judging panel and it basically came down to Tahi and Rua. I was arguing in favour of the cultural impact that Tahi had for many of us. For me, it was quite an out of the blue experience, you know. It’s like, these are real bangers and these women look like me. I was a kōhanga kid but I sure as hell had never heard te reo Māori spoken in popular culture. The impact of that was phenomenal.

I do have lots of people that go, ‘Oh, I love Tahi, I love Tahi.’ It’s so long ago, I’ve moved on. We’re up to Ono now [laughs]. ‘Can you sing ‘Black Pearl’?’ No. I’m not singing Black Pearl.

It was all a long time ago. But, you know, its quite neat getting the Taite award, it’s a real honor. I was looking at the track listing and thinking, ‘Man, I remember that. I remember when Rasul Muhammad came over here and he said ‘I been writing a song on the plane, sister, we gotta go and record it’. He said ‘do something here’ and I was still trying to do Chaka Khan, you know, howling away. He goes, ‘Hmm, is there anything from your Māori culture you could be doing there?’

So, did you stop trying to be Chaka Khan altogether?

I was never going to be Chaka Khan. I had the hair and the will, but Sister C could sing. I remember I went overseas with Sid Jackson and his wife Deidre and we’re in a Detroit Baptist church surrounded by like 400 Afro-Americans. It was a political meeting, and the minister introduced us. He knew I was a singer, so he said, ‘We’re gonna get the sister up to sing.’ And I had a fricking heart attack.

What did you sing for them?

Well, I was walking up there thinking, ‘Oh my God, all this time I’ve been trying to be black, I feel so dumb’ and then I thought, ‘I’ll sing a Māori song.’ So I just sang ‘Purea Nei’. It’s the first thing that popped into my mind. Well they really loved it. That was one of my little epiphanies.

What does that moment of realisation look like? You come up musically through a culture that is all about African American blues and soul, and then realise that we’ve got our own musical identity.

Well, I always knew we had our own musical identity. We just kind of lived in a parallel universe really. There’s the Pākehā commercial music world and then there’s us and never the twain shall meet. Te reo was not valued. But then I went overseas and had people I respect going, ‘Whoa, this is amazing’. They feel it. That was one of those nights you think, ‘Hey, I think I’ve been ripped off here.’ We’ve been feeling like our stuff is worthless and then you go overseas, and it gets validated, celebrated. So I came back and went okay, lets get a little bit more experimental here.

We were always into hip hop and then we thought that haka and tauparapara have that same percussive feel to it, so why don’t we just pull that in and see what happens.

Moana & The Tribe incorporate taonga pūoro and haka into their live performance, but the contemporary and the traditional aspects each maintain their integrity. Image: supplied

We did a gig with Public Enemy once. They had those dudes that used to come out on the stage and they’d just stand there with their big shades on. I thought, I know staunch. I can bring the staunch. So, this is when we started pulling in our haka team and we were like, you go out there and you staunch up. Do not wiggle a hip, or smile. You’re going to always be doing the tūturu traditional way. You’re never going to be crossing over, break dancing or anything.

And then we added taonga puoro. I knew about these from Hirini Melbourne. He was one of my professors when I was at Waikato University. Then me and Angus McNaughton started experimenting with it. One day I said to Angus, let’s go down to Kōwhai Intermediate and record these kids. Do some stamps, do some pūkana. We taped the bejesus out of it all, go back to the studio, layer it all up. It was just so much fun, just layering up all the sounds. We had like 140 samples at one stage.

So even though you were keeping the haka aspect of it super tūturu, did you ever get criticism from any kaumātua about mixing those forms?

No. And I think that’s because our haka and tauparapara and mōteatea, they had their own integrity. We never twiddled with the notes or did anything that if you stripped away the music, it would sound strange. I was really fanatical that the haka team had their rangatiratanga, and the band had theirs.

Do you feel that parallel universe between te reo Māori music and non-Māori still exists?

Well if you have te reo in it, there’s always an issue, isn’t there? A lot of radio stations say they play more te reo music. They might, or they might just be playing ‘Poi E’ over and over again.

I go and do interviews sometimes with the commercial radio stations when I’m doing my tours. Between the ads, ‘Yeah, amazing to have you in the studio.’ And they’ll put on a bit of ‘Black Pearl’ on, and I want to vomit. They won’t play any other songs. There’s no compulsion either. Even though they’ve got our frequencies and airwaves, there’s no compulsion from the Crown that they have to commit to anything to do with te reo. So, the reo must be saved by Māori broadcasters.

This is a great segue, because I wanted to talk to you about Māori media. E-tangata’s series about the state of Māori media and broadcasting was really great. Did you put in a submission for the Māori Media Review?

No. I took part in the private think tanks that were going on that were hosted by Te Māngai Paho. I did about three of them, and I think we did consider putting one in from e-tangata. From there we decided that we would do the series as our way of advocating.

I rabbited on about the lack of support for written journalism. It’s incredibly frustrating.

The whole framework is stuffed. Māori Television and iwi radio struggle because they are forced into the role of saving the language and they should be given the freedom to be media. Simply media. Because Pākehā media is not forced into that role. And the absent, obvious enabler is the education system.

So, you know, it’s just such a strain. You get these beautiful reo speakers that will come on television who are not trained journalists, and that’s not their fault. And then everything that’s being made is for a very narrow group. They must be talking to themselves half of the time, the real fluent ones. We’re all struggling to have a robust role as advocates. I don’t have much faith that that will change, ’cause it’s a statutory requirement. But to help build a strong Māori media, radio, digital, print so that the Māori voice can get out there, a lot of it needs to be in English.

A strategy that includes English and ties in with education. I don’t imagine the education and broadcasting mandates really have much to do with each other.

They’re in silos. I mean, I think it’s fantastic now that there are more voices around. You’re in there with Spinoff and Stuff Circuit does some great stuff and Māori Television. But everyone is struggling, particularly in the Māori-owned media. Māori Television hasn’t had a fricking boost for about nine years.

Iwi radio, that’s where most of us cut our teeth. I did the first talk back in Auckland for Aotearoa Radio. You end up doing the technical, doing your research, doing your interviews, it was a struggle. I look at RNZ credits and think, really? They do some good stuff but geez, I have a love-hate relationship for them. When Mihi couldn’t even get a front line job there…

I think there needs to be more wiggle room to invest in the people making the content, rather than prescribing what the content should look like. You know, based on your experience and your business plan, here’s some money to execute that however you need to. At the moment broadcasting in te reo Māori is the only form of media that is being funded, with a little bit of gaming. It doesn’t leave any room for people that are embracing new forms of media, they have to wait 10 years for someone to add it to the funding criteria and by that time we’ve all moved on again.

I’m not sure that terribly much is going to come out of this media review. It’ll be interesting to see how the Labour government delivers to Māori media you know, you’ve got people in there like Kris [Fa’afoi] and Willie, who had experience in media. We shall see if they just take us for granted or what.

The first episode of Te Ao with Moana features an interview with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – tune in Tuesday June 11, 8pm on Māori Television.

It looks like you’ve taken things into your own hands a bit. What the heck is Te Ao with Moana?

MTS [Māori Television Service] approached me last year to consider fronting a new current affairs series. I took a fair amount of convincing, having a few projects on the go as you know and not chomping at the bit to go on telly. I’m very conscious of not being a journalist. Then again I think… well, I’m Māori so there’s a point of difference. It’s not like the Māori lens is burning brightly across every media platform, qualified journalists and all. I’m so proud of what our journalists and reporters do across Marae, The Hui and our Māori news teams so I’ll give it a hundred percent on my end to add value to that.

I haven’t had anything to do Māori Television for years. So pleased Shane [Taurima] is CE, there’s such a good vibe within the crew I’m working with, it’s lovely. 

You’re going to co-produce, interview and present. Did you not have enough on? How are you finding time to do this?

I’ve a great team around me led by Colin McRae. Very steadying force. We’re pulling stories together as we speak. Definitely downsizing. Focusing on this current affairs series…and finishing my album…oh, and e-tangata [laughs]. Funny, I was at TVNZ filming our dummy run and who should come along the corridor towards me but John Campbell. 

‘What the f… are you doing here?’ he says. 

I told him and asked for his advice. 

‘Be yourself,’ he said. ‘Just be yourself’.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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