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A Te Whānau a Apanui kapa haka team, including Rawiri Waititi, compete at February's Mātaatua regional competition.
A kapa haka team from Te Whānau a Apanui, including Rawiri Waititi, compete at February’s Mātaatua regional competition. (Photo: Te Matatini. Additional design: The Spinoff)

ĀteaMarch 23, 2024

Inside the intensive kapa haka training in preparation for Te Matatini 2025

A Te Whānau a Apanui kapa haka team, including Rawiri Waititi, compete at February's Mātaatua regional competition.
A kapa haka team from Te Whānau a Apanui, including Rawiri Waititi, compete at February’s Mātaatua regional competition. (Photo: Te Matatini. Additional design: The Spinoff)

Te Matatini 2023 brought kapa haka into the wider public consciousness, but most people still don’t know how much mahi it takes to compete at the national competition. 

“Watching the best of the best perform kapa haka live on stage, at such a massive scale, is in no uncertain terms, life-changing,” wrote Charlotte Muru-Lanning in The Spinoff’s review of Te Matatini 2023. Last February, Eden Park transformed from a sports pitch into a site to celebrate Māori performing arts. While the bi-annual kapa haka nationals have long been broadcast on Whakaata Māori, last year it was shown on mainstream TV for the first time, with nearly one million people tuning in. 

Paora Sharples, a Māori performing arts tohunga and son of the legendary Pita Sharples, calls last year’s Te Matatini a colossal breakthrough to promote kapa haka to the nation at large. As well as teaching contemporary and traditional Māori performing arts at a tertiary level, Sharples competed at Te Matatini for 32 years, sometimes alongside his father, where their kapa Te Rōpū Manutaki won twice. Sharples even took home a kaitātaki award for best male leader. He has since chaired several Māori performing arts groups, including for NZQA, and now judges kapa haka nationally and internationally, including at Te Matatini. 

He explains that the excellence, professionalism and increasingly elaborate choreography displayed at Te Matatini nowadays proves that kapa haka has significantly evolved since he first competed at the national competition in 1986. Sharples says training to maintain, and exceed, that level of excellence “requires a rigorous and demanding schedule”. Across intensive weekend wānanga, teams typically train for three to four months in preparation for regionals and another several months for nationals. 

Paora Sharples performs at the 2016 Tāmaki Makaurau regional kapa haka competition alongside Te Rōpū Manutaki. They are all dressed in traditional Māori dress, some female wield poi and all performers have moko (either real tattoos are drawn on for the performance).
Paora Sharples (centre) performs at the 2016 Tāmaki Makaurau regional kapa haka competition with Te Rōpū Manutaki, the group his father Sir Pita Sharples founded in 1968. (Screenshot: Whakaata Māori)

You have to be dedicated to train for Te Matatini because “it’s normal over a three, four or five month period to have wānanga every weekend, and you might only have one or two off,” says Sharples. Wānanga, often noho (group overnight stays), are on weekends because plenty of people travel from where they live to where their team trains. For example, Sharples explains that it’s not unusual for Aucklanders to make the long, windy trek down to the East Coast for wānanga.

But months before these intensive weekend wānanga even start, a select team begins composing choreography and waiata. Sharples calls the composer’s pre-wānanga work invaluable since “if you haven’t got the items ready when everyone comes together for the wānanga, then it can cause a few rarus… Because, I mean, at the end of the day, people are giving up their time, people have travelled miles to get there.” While they give up their time to train, kapa haka preparing for Te Matatini don’t get paid for their mahi.

While most of the 5,000+ performers and their hundreds of teams vying for the 50 Te Matatini spots undertake rigorous training, not all do. Just like how the sands of tikanga shift over time, kapa haka training methods also naturally evolve. Shorter practice programmes and, in particular, more online elements are “becoming more and more common, having come out of Covid where we were all online for a year or two,” says Sharples. “It’s not for everyone, though. Others stick to the old regime of kanohi ki te kanohi,” he adds.

Sharples’ former group Te Rōpū Manutaki performs at Te Matatini 2019 (Photo: Te Matatini)

One of the groups trialling new training tikanga is Te Taumata o Apanui, the third-placed finishers from the Mātaatua regionals who qualified for Te Matatini 2025 in Taranaki. Their membership features several prominent Māori figures, including te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi (who isn’t the first member of the party’s leadership to compete in kapa haka competitions). He explained his team’s training methods to The Spinoff via Facebook voice message – a very tāngata whenua way to answer a journalist’s questions – saying their training “wasn’t really rigorous.” 

While Waititi admits that typically it “takes a kapa haka 10,000 hours to get to a certain degree of polish and professionalism”, their newly formed rōpū made innovative training methods work. “Te Taumata o Apanui, we wanted to prove that we could do things differently,” he adds, so they prioritised digital practices on weekdays and a much shorter than usual one-month weekend wānanga programme to prepare for the Mātaatua regionals. “A four week campaign allowed me to be able to do that,” says Waititi, before adding that he’d have struggled to fit anything more into his busy MP schedule. 

He explains that the training tikanga of Te Taumata o Apanui allows its members with very busy lives who can’t commit to a multi-month practice programme – like Cilla and Rob Ruha, Ria Hall, Troy Kingi and Waititi plus his wife Kiri Tamihere-Waititi – “to express our culture in a way that uplifts our people and creates space for our mokopuna” while replenishing the performer’s mental, physical and spiritual ora.

Te Pāti Māori leader Rawiri Waititi leads the Te Taumata o Apanui kapa haka group in their performance at the Mātaatua regional competition in late February 2024. They are adorned in traditional Māori dress.
Rawiri Waititi and the kapa haka group he leads, Te Taumata o Apanui, performing at the Mātaatua regionals in late February. (Photo: Te Matatini)

Te Matatini 2025 in Taranaki will be the ultimate test for Te Taumata o Apanui’s unusual training methods, though qualifying in the first place is a strong start. A good result would legitimise their approach to training, but Waititi says that glory isn’t the goal. “The goal is being able to create a whānau environment that reconnects and continues to connect our people through our language, through our culture and through the many stories that we are able to express.” 

Much like Sharples once was for Te Rōpū Manutaki, Waititi is the kaitātaki for Te Whānau o Apanui. Waititi outlines that being a kaitātaki means not only leading performances but also being a placeholder and repository of mātauranga for mokopuna. “I see my role as just holding space and creating space for our babies to be able to express their artistic abilities in a safe environment.” 

The remaining Te Matatini 2025 regional qualifiers are happening in the following places on the following dates: March 23 in Te Tai Tokerau and Te Whanganui a Tara, April 6-7 in Tairāwhiti, April 19-20 in Te Whenua Moemoeā, and April 20 in Rangitāne and Waitaha.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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