Ngā Wāhine Toa o Maungawhau, Polyfest 1996. Image: Sarah Mariu

Kapa haka got me through high school

Te Matatini starts today, and one kapa haka fan is very excited. 

In 1995, I was an out-of-zone student at Epsom Girls’ Grammar, equally into Tupac, Hole and Anne of Green Gables, and struggling to find a sense of belonging. High school is a tough time no matter what social strata you occupy. The stress of heavy workloads competing with peer pressure and family expectations is overwhelming. You feel all the feelings and are then told repeatedly you’re overreacting about everything.

Most of the out-of-zone girls at EGGS back then were from South Auckland and the hostel was full of students from Northland and the East Coast. Surprisingly, our cultural groups were large and diverse. I hadn’t joined kapa haka the year before, my third form year – I wanted to but my nerves got the better of me and I chickened out. I did it at the beginning of my fourth form year instead.

So feeling old at the age of 14, I headed to my first ever kapa haka practise. From when I finished kōhanga reo up to that point, my school activities had intersected with te ao Māori exactly zero times (thank you North Shore education). I felt like everyone knew what they were doing but me.

Our kaea were Mere Clendon, a towering seventh former, and Keri Pewhairangi (I didn’t know at the time the mana of the name she carried, but she composed beautiful songs like her kuia). We assembled on the school field to learn a waiata-ā-ringa. The most generous thing you can say about my singing voice is that I can hold a tune. I was never going to get a solo, but what I lacked in talent I made up for in volume. Being the first practice, we didn’t know the material well and the new girls were understandably shy. Mere stopped us mid-song and demanded we give more. “I can only hear Leonie!”

The author contemplating that volume alone may not be enough to get to Te Matatini. Image: Sarah Mariu / EGGS yearbook

I was both horrified at being noticed and proud, and vowed then to give my all to this new thing – something my apathetic, hormone-riddled brain had never demanded of me before, not even in any of the billion sports I’d played throughout my childhood. It was the first time I was introduced to discipline as a way of achieving my own goals, rather than as a tool for obedience. We worked tirelessly in our training for Polyfest, often missing classes to practise (we were still little shits, but we were little shits with a purpose). We happily gave up weekends and evenings. The drills were painful but kept us sharp and made us work better as a team (also, nothing like wiri and poi drills to tone the arms). I found my best friend Chantel there, a very gifted singer who later became kaea of the group. The friendships you make last a lifetime, as I discovered a couple of years ago when I reunited with some of the old group for the school centenary.

I especially loved the ritual of doing hair and makeup before a performance, sharing eyeliner and teasing your hair up to get maximum height in your front poof so it peaked over your tīpare just so. While I’m gratified to see the poof is still a thing, today’s Polyfest performers are all contouring and fleeky eyebrows – frankly it’s intimidating.

As hard as we worked, we didn’t stand out on the Polyfest stage. Being an all-girl group has its drawbacks, the lack of a bottom range in choral singing being one very obvious one, although we later teamed with Sacred Heart with some success. Schools like James Cook High and Hoani Waititi were always the stars of the show. But it didn’t matter. For some reason there was never disappointment in not placing. I still felt like I was an inextricable part of something bigger than myself, and belting out those songs and haka I learned 20 years ago while I’m mooching around the house is still one of my greatest pleasures today.

Getting the band back together – Ngā Wāhine Toa o Maungawhau, 2017. Image: Sarah Mariu

The high quality of performance at biennial national competition Te Mataini is remarkable regardless of your experience of kapa haka. When you know just how many hundreds of hours go into being a passable, fine-but-not-amazing group that doesn’t place anywhere at Polyfest, the work that goes into performances at this level seems impossible. Across the board, the vocal skill and power matches any Broadway chorus, there are costume changes that would make Grace Jones proud, the choreography is surgically precise, and transitions happen before you realise anyone has even moved.

It’s not just skill in singing and haka that marks a truly excellent performance – the commentary on contemporary and historical issues within the original compositions is world class. In 2017, Te Iti Kahurangi’s whakaeke (entrance item) ‘He Kau Kawana’, a commentary on land confiscation within Waikato-Tainui and the treatment of hapū as cattle, was one of the most powerful, original performances I’ve seen on any stage. It was a true showcase of the ability of the medium to ignite emotion and pour mamae, rage and frustration directly onto the stage.

Of all these wonderful attributes, I think it’s the rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows that draws me in. Watch the faces of performers during mōteatea and understand that you’re hearing their ancestors channeled through mortal mouths. Te ihi me te wehi of haka is familiar to most Kiwis but really pay attention to how it’s done in high level kapa haka and you’ll understand why the gods have moved performers to rip their own skin and in one disturbing case, tear a nipple clean off. Waiata-ā-ringa and poi are often things of such playfulness and grace that you feel a physical warmth; your whole spirit lifts.

The prospect of spending the next four days watching competition-level kapa haka is bliss. This is my World Cup.

Of course the controversy of the 2017 competition was that five-time champions Te Waka Huia won nearly every aggregate trophy going, but the overall winner is judged solely on their performance on the final day and Whāngārā Mai Tawhiti from Gisborne snatched the win from under their noses. Both groups will surely be bringing their A-game in a fierce competition for the crown in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara this week. I can’t attend so I’ll be glued to my headphones, squealing at my computer and probably crying a lot.

I think giving yourself up to team work and a greater good while also expressing yourself creatively is one of the best things kapa haka can teach rangatahi, and I get why it’s an obsession for so many teenagers. It also provides access to te ao Māori for kids that don’t have the language or ties to their hapū or iwi.

It’s a miracle to me that teenagers survive being teenagers. Sadly, some teenagers don’t survive being teenagers. One thing that helps is having somewhere to belong, and this is where I found that, both on the stage and as a fan. After all, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

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