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Te Matatini returned triumphantly this year after a four year hiatus. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Te Matatini returned triumphantly this year after a four year hiatus. (Image: Tina Tiller)

ĀteaFebruary 24, 2023

The buzz of Te Matatini reverberates far beyond the kapa haka stage

Te Matatini returned triumphantly this year after a four year hiatus. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Te Matatini returned triumphantly this year after a four year hiatus. (Image: Tina Tiller)

On the last day of prelims at Te Matatini ahead of Saturday’s big finals day, Charlotte Muru-Lanning looks back at how the week has gone so far.

You could begin a story on Te Matatini, often described as the Olympics of kapa haka, 51 years ago, at the inception of the competition in Rotorua, back when it was called the New Zealand Polynesian Festival. Or, you could rewind back through the years that many of the groups, tutors and whānau have spent finessing their bracket. Then there are the weeks and weeks of logistical planning, setup and kai preparation by the hosts of this year’s competition, Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei. Or you could start much further back, with the waiata, haka, mōteatea and other components passed down from generation to generation.

This is all to say that Te Matatini, which we’re already three days into, is so much more than just a four-day competition.

Anticipation for this year’s event has only been heightened by the cancellation of the last event, planned for 2021 – due to the pandemic. This year, with traffic lights in the city lit up to display silhouettes of poi-whirling wāhine, Air NZ flying its first ever te reo Māori flight to Auckland and TVNZ broadcasting the competition for the first time in 20 years, Te Matatini feels well and truly back. And the vibe, to this Aucklander at least, feels sparklier than ever. 

The week kicked off in earnest with Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei welcoming more than 1,000 manuhiri, largely made up of competing kapa haka teams, onto Ōkahu Bay with a pōwhiri. Flanked by hillside mansions on one side and their tribal urupā on the other, the land on Auckland’s waterfront, among a history stained by Crown confiscations and desecration, is an enduring geographical reminder of the resilience of the iwi. 

The pōwhiri hosted by Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei. (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Along the closed section of Tāmaki Drive that divides the moana and the grassy reserve, eager bystanders leaned over the fence to catch a glimpse of the action. Ahead of the pōwhiri, Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei chair Marama Royal said, “for us it’s a huge honour to be the host of Te Matatini; the last time we did this was in 2002”. Under the blazing sun, vivid ochre piupiu bustled past each other, pūtātara resonated, and a sea of umbrellas emblazoned in the yellow and black Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei colours were unfurled by those seeking shade. 

It all came with another type of drama too, which perhaps offered a glimpse into the healthy status of Māori political debate. The marae ātea set the scene for a verbal battle surrounding the issue of mana whenua status in Tāmaki Makaurau between Tainui chairperson Tukuroirangi Morgan and Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei general manager for culture Te Kurataiaho Kapea during their whaikōrero. A kōha left to languish on the marae ātea was met with a hum of nervous whispers among the crowd. As always, at the end of it all, kai by way of hāngi, puddings, chop suey and toroi studded with fresh vegetables was shared (more on the kai later).

Hellen Ashby-Nathan, Moana Te Tuhi, Jessie Moffett, Keisha Moffett and Kyeisha Livingstone enjoy their kai in the shade after the pōwhiri at Ōkahu Bay. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

On Tuesday at 8.15am, the competition stage was opened by Te Tai Tokerau-based kapa haka group Muriwhenua. Over the last two days, 30 groups have taken the stage at Ngā Ana Wai Eden Park: the country’s largest sport stadium, transformed into an oasis of Māori excellence. It’s a fitting location when you consider the vivid similarities between the standards of any elite sport and what it takes to compete at Te Matatini. 

Crowds lured in by the promise of sumptuous chorals and pristine choreography have been treated to exactly that since the start of the competition, from groups made up of seasoned professionals and fledgling performers. Notable among the brackets so far were an extraordinarily jaunty poi by Whāngārā- Mai-Tawhiti, a boisterous haka from Te Iti Kahurangi and a Paramore-inspired waiata-ā-ringa from Te Kapa Haka o Ngāti Ranginui.

Always, there is the kai

All of this kapa haka buzz was digested in between bites of the remarkable array of morsels on offer. There are, of course, pillars of Māori cuisine at Te Matatini: foil-wrapped hāngi parcels, kina shots, half-shell oysters, creamed paua, steamed pudding, fry bread and mussel fritters. And then, there are delectable treats from further afield: Lebanese mezze platters, Cook Island barbecue, coconut-flecked Tongan Ōtai, bowls of glassy Cantonese sweet and sour pork and mounds of delightfully kaleidoscopic shaved ice.

Ahead of an afternoon performance on Wednesday, hosts underscored the significance of the kākahu and adornments worn onstage as an invocation of iwi affiliations, ancestors, the natural environment and each group’s unique identity. This was matched by the adornments of crowd members bringing flair by way of impressive pōtae, eye-catching taonga and seemingly unending pairs of slick sunglasses. 

A serving of rainbow shaved ice in the making. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

The sad meaning of mud

Perhaps one of the most poignant kākahu decisions was that of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa and Rongomaiwahine affiliated group Matangirau, who took the stage with mud covered legs yesterday – vividly gesturing toward the devastation of the cyclone on their rohe. Concerns were raised late last week surrounding the decision to press on with the competition in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle and the impact on many groups and whānau. Te Matatini organisers, recognising the simultaneous need for a moment of light among the gloom, and the very real devastation faced by competing groups, ensured additional travel support, as well as a $10,000 kōha.

Te Matatini 2023 at Ngā Ana Wai Eden Park. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Another fifteen groups will take the stage today ahead of Te Matangirau, finals day on Saturday, where the nine groups with the top aggregate score will compete for the top taonga, Toa Whakaihuwaka. 

Watching the best of the best perform kapa haka live on stage, at such a massive scale, is in no uncertain terms, life-changing. It might seem that the allure of Te Matatini is more often described in terms relating to precise vocals and impossibly polished synchronicity. And that’s certainly a huge part of its gleam. But in practice, Te Matatini feels like a distillation of so much more: cultural revitalisation, dedication, creativity, iwi pride, manaakitanga, kotahitanga. To be in Tāmaki Makaurau this week, is to bask in the glow of kapa haka and more broadly, te ao Māori, in all its magical dimensions.

Keep going!