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Television: “A Show for the People” – Witnessing the End of Homai Te Pakipaki’s Māori Karaoke

Homai Te Pakipaki has been a mainstay every Friday night on Māori Television, encouraging people from all walks to life to “bring your keyboard and your mates for a jam”. José Barbosa went behind the scenes during the Grand Final, before the karaoke show shuts down after nine glorious years.

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The first time I watched Homai Te Pakipaki, I was certain I was about to witness disaster. The host at the time – Te Hamua Nikora, he of the bug-out eyes and bald head – pulled a contestant on stage who was more a trembling wad of jelly than a man. He was a little short bloke and looked like he worked in accounts or conveyancing. Sweat poured down his face, his answers to questions were monosyllabic and his eyes darted around in their sockets like trapped bees.

I turned to my girlfriend and confidently announced that if he didn’t collapse from fear during the first bars of the backing track, he was going to crash and burn – possibly literally. Instead he belted out a Tom Jones number with a voice that belonged to a crooner calling down a rain of underwear in a Las Vegas auditorium. The voice that pulsed from the TV was made by an unassuming man with glasses, standing in a building in Newmarket in front of black curtains and fairy lights. And everything was perfect.

For nearly a decade now that’s been Homai Te Pakipaki’s secret; letting the banal transform into the sublime. Contestants, or “Pakis” as they’re called on the show, have long turned up on the steps of Māori Television in jandals, or even farm gear. The 2011 overall winner Chad Chambers rocked up to the grand final in a sports top, trackies and freezing works gumboots. As he reprised his winning rendition of Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ while the credits rolled, someone thrust his infant son into his arms and tear ducts across the country burst.

This stuff happens all the time on Homai. A friend observed that Homai constantly delivers what other shows like X Factor or New Zealand’s Got Talent are desperate to provide: authenticity.

“Those other shows like X Factor, at the end of the day they’re karaoke shows. They don’t like to say they are, but they are. This show was the only one that was honest about it.” Piripi Menary is one of the producers of the show, who originally started as a floor manager. He’s reclining on a couch in Māori TV’s green room with the other producer, Erina Tamepo. He’d been transferred from the live band music show, Coast. “I remember thinking ‘we’re replacing a live music show with a karaoke show?’ I was biting my tongue because I’m a live band guy. But after the first few episodes I thought actually ‘this is quite a cool show’. What flipped it over for me were the people and the fact that it was live. It was dangerous TV.”

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All the time we’re talking, there’s a constant shuffle of people with lanyards walking in, asking questions and leaving. The place is right in the middle of rehearsals for this year’s Grand Final – the broadcast of which is only four hours away. In past years the final has taken place in venues outside the Māori TV HQ. They’ve filled places like the Logan Campbell Centre with over 3000 audience members. Food stalls fundraising for schools and other community groups line the footpaths outside. They’re boisterous affairs, full of laughing and screaming from whānau, homemade signs and jovial joking. You don’t leave a Homai Te Pakipaki Grand Final and head home; you emerge from the womb, reawakened into a society that suddenly doesn’t seem quite as disconnected as it did before.

This year, the final is back in the Newmarket studio. “Budget cuts”, says Erina plainly, “the whole place is tightening its purse strings.” The truth is: this final is to be the last episode. Officially, according to a MTS publicist, the show is to “be rested.” We’re told it could come back after a hiatus, but in the penultimate episodes both the hosts have referred to the final as the last ever. In any case it seems somewhat cruel to deny Homai a last blow out final.

Māori Television’s been no different from other media outfits in that the last year has been about as stable as a spinning plate demonstration in an earthquake simulator. CEO Paora Maxwell’s appointment was mired in controversy. Even before he was named in the job, a petition protesting against his possible appointment was doing the rounds in the building. Labour MP Shane Jones claimed it was a political appointment by the MTS chair, Georgina te HeuHeu, to restrain the Current Affairs department.

Jones argued it was in response to a Native Affairs investigation into improper spending within a subsidiary of the Kōhanga Reo Trust. Senior staff members started leaving the company, most notably Carol Hirschfeld and the head of news, Julian Wilcox. The host of Native Affairs, Mihingarangi Forbes, quit in June reportedly because Maxwell had canned a follow up investigation into Kōhanga Reo, followed closely by producer Annabelle Lee. The phrase “shitstorm” started to be thrown around.

Since then MTS has started a review of its programming. The sports show Code – with 11 years under its belt –has been dropped and now Homai is to end. “It’s been going for nine years,” says Erina, more than a little wistful.

She’s been there, as producer, from the start, ever since management plopped the idea for the show on her plate. It was a basic meal, the only ingredients offered was that it had to be live and the winners decided by the public via text voting. “We never knew if anyone would turn up to sing,” she says. “Some weeks we’d have six singers, sometimes we’d have 11 singers, so it was random. Plus we had new presenters who’d never been on TV before. We’ve gotten more slick, but I kind of miss those random days.”

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To take the edge off the randomness and ensure there was actually someone to sing on the show, the crew would ring around family and friends to rope in anyone who could strum a bit of guitar or belt out a few tunes. That didn’t last long. According to Erina, it only took a few months before it went “ballistic” on Friday nights and you couldn’t move for all the people trying to get in. The show might be over the hump of its glory days, but the Māori TV lobby still gets slammed with bodies prior to filming.

“It’s quite an emotional day,” says Erina. Her son, who worked on the show for the first four years, wrote her a card that made her immediately burst into tears. “I’m not saying it doesn’t need to change, but the sort of show it is, it’s all about kia whakamana te tangata (offering mana and support). So it’s about making people feel real proud about who they are. That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”

Right now rehearsals for the big final are underway. The Pakis who’ve made it so far come from Gisborne, Murapara, Kaikohe, Rotorua, Whakatane. Arihana White is playing around with the crew. She’s the cheekiest Paki by far. “Are you recording?” she asks a camera operator, “because I need to pull my pants up.” “We’re recording and it’ll be on YouTube tomorrow” quips Brent with a massive lean in.

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Ora Taukamu, a teacher from Gisborne, steps up to her mark on the stage to run through her choice of song for the final, ‘One And Only’ by Adele. She leaves nohing in her pipes for the actual recording, tearing the song apart like a lion tucking into a gazelle. The scattering of onlookers, crew, friends and whānau, literally gasp. The show’s online community manager leans over and tells me they’ve had to pull mic levels down so far they’re almost off. “Too much power,” she says in awe.

With the rehearsal done Erina pops out to have a chat with the Pakis. It’s a pep talk of sorts, but she’s doling out some last minute instructions. Mainly she wants a tight show, if they go over duration she’ll have to come back on Saturday to edit the show to time for the weekend replay. “We’ve never been on time,” says a camera operator. “If we’re on time,” replies the floor manager, “something’s wrong.”

The co-host Brent Mio is in make-up. “We get a lot of walk ups, grass roots singers. To me, Homai Te PakiPaki is for those guys. I’m not bringing people onto my show, it’s a show for the people.”

Brent’s immensely charismatic, he rarely gets thrown and can talk the legs off a bathtub. During the live broadcast later that night, music playback on the floor fails. The dance crew Identity are frozen in their starting positions waiting for their track to start playing. Brent slides in front of the camera and fills in time, plucking jokes from thin air like grapes from a vine. He gets the message in his ear everything’s been fixed and throws back to Identity. Smooth as silk.

Back in make-up, Brent’s getting a quick haircut. The Pakis are generally weekend performers with day jobs – and Brent is the same. In a couple of weeks he’s taking his family and moving to Sydney to continue in sales and marketing. He says he doesn’t want to be an old man on the stage. There’s a sense that show business is just another thing to juggle in one’s life, it’s not an all-consuming desire. Although agents often contact Erina and Piripi asking to be put in touch with Pakis, the show itself offers no guarantees. Despite the prize money, there’s no recording contract or stardom waiting at the end.

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The other host Pikiteora Mura-Hita bounds out of the studio control room, followed by a wave of laughter. That’s generally how she rolls. Earlier she busts into the interview with Erina, rocking a newly-permed hair style. “You look good” says Erina. “Yeah, I’m getting mocked for it though. They just jealous ‘cause they know I’m not going to be bald when I’m 60.” She gives Piripi a accusatory glare and the room cracks up. Piki, as she’s known, is a genuine Homai star. She’s got the same thing Anika Moa has. If she gets a bit rough around the edges or mucks things up, the audience loves her even more.

“My English is pretty shocking bro, straight up,” Piki admits. “If everything was in Te Reo it would be good, but it’s really tested my English skills.” Watching the show being made, it’s striking how often her and Mio switch between the two languages, often unscripted. “We try and keep it natural how it goes back and forth. That’s what Homai is. It’s like a party in a shed, only a bit more flash.”

After winning the Grand Final in 2008, Erina asked Piki to audition for a co-host role. “I just loved her personality. She understands about self-esteem issues, because she never used to think she was anything flash. For example we’ve got a Paki tonight who’s so nervous that she comes across as quite aggressive. I’ve got Piki to have a chat with her and bond a bit, so when it comes to being on-air they’ve got a relationship and that person is more loose.”

 

A few hours later and the show has been broadcasting live for quarter of an hour. Arihana is pacing on the stage. She’s on immediately after the commercial break and she’s the first Paki on after an assured performance from last year’s winner Lee Stuart. Piki catches Arihana’s eye from her seat off-stage. “You got this,” she whispers just loud enough so she can hear, “you got this.”

Arihana breezes through her rendition of ‘I Love You I Do’ from Dreamgirls. She’s a tad nervous, but she nails all the notes and manages to emulate Jennifer Hudson’s vocal smokiness.

A couple of days later I’m talking to Ora, the horticulture teacher who smashed the Adele song. They really take care of you on Homai,” she says. “I’ve heard on other shows like this that they don’t really take care of the singers. On Homai they were always making sure we were being looked after, what we call manaakitanga, offering support.”

It might be the Grand Final and it might be the last show, but it feels like any other episode. The only difference is a few more lights, and a guest host in Te Hamua (although he spends most of the time engaging Mio in some good-natured roasting). Homai has got a groove that can only come from having done this every week for nearly a decade.

In the control room, things are mostly calm. The director’s calling out camera cuts to the vision switcher and directions to the camera ops. It’s regular as a heartbeat:

“4 cut. Ready 2. Cut. Ready 4. 4 cut. Ready 3. 3 cut. Tighten up 2.”

We’re about halfway through the two hour show. The director’s assistant who’s been timekeeping leans back in her chair and says “We’re seven and a half minutes over. If anyone cares.” Erina makes a small noise.  “I really don’t want to come in tomorrow.” Half-jokingly she stamps her foot, she’s got a wrap party to orgainse.

Back out in the studio, the contest continues. I’m sitting in the block where Arihana’s whānau are seated. I’m next to a relative who lives in Auckland. She’s having a great time, but she’s also a bit stunned. “I never knew this existed,” she says. We talk a little longer and it transpires that she works in TV. That would seem to point to the strange way the so-called mainstream works in New Zealand. A show Homai can be extremely popular, but almost invisible to a great swath of the population. Somehow the cultures are still stratified, the TV mainstream remains an pasture seeded exclusively for Pakeha.

The Pakis keep ticking along. There’s not a dud voice among them, but I’m struck by how many of them probably wouldn’t get a second look from similar shows with bigger budgets. “We’ve had people rock up with no teeth in their mouth,” says Piripi. “They wouldn’t even get through the door at those other shows. I know because I’ve taken a couple of them through. They get profiled straight away.” It does work the other way though. One of the Pakis, Lilli Latham got through to the semifinals on New Zealand’s Got Talent in 2012 and Arihana has auditioned on X Factor.

Time keeps ticking by. Lilli gives a wonderful performance of ‘Natural Woman.’ There’s a cool middle-aged trio of friends from Whanganui and a stunning Alicia Keys cover from a painfully shy woman called Harata Tau Kata. 10,000 text votes fly in. It’s a good number and everyone’s pleased, but it’s still a distance from their record of 30,000. Erina explains that they used to get people hitching up from the South Island to take part in the show, but that doesn’t happen so much nowadays. Earlier that day, a staff member said that the show’s been getting less people turning up to their Auckland auditions. Being at the final, though, it feels like the show’s got some petrol in the tank. People still care about it.

In the end, it all happens pretty quickly. Ora triumphs with a whopping 22 percent of the votes, that’s at least 10 percent in front of her nearest competitor. Both me and the woman who works in TV punch the air in delight. Ora’s stunned, she’s won $20,000. I’m slightly grumpy there’s no giant cheque.

The hosts close out the show with a massive “PAKI UP!” to camera. It’s the show’s catchphrase. Everyone mills around the stage. Brent gets a microphone and thanks the audience for coming to the last episode. Ora’s getting hugged by everyone and she can’t stop sweating and smiling. Brent and Te Hamua pose for a photo, brothers in arms. A sneaky camera op gets involved.

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Erina appears to be the happiest. “How was the duration?” I yell over the music. “We got it down to 11 seconds!” she screams. They had to drop an interview with a Paki’s family and a post-performance chat with Sons Of Zion, but they did it. Gripped by relief, we hug. Crew and family are mingling all around us, seized with the weird sizzle that people share when something good happens and a big job has been completed. The wrap party is the following night, when presumably speeches will be made and tears may fall – but right now everyone’s just happy to be where they are.

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Upwards in the hierarchies of MTS, a replacement music show is being planned. Pre-recorded – not Piripi’s “dangerous TV.” It may be that kind of TV, whether it entertainment, current affairs or other programming, isn’t something Māori TV can comfortably sustain either economically or politically. It’s received no funding increase since 2008, but still has to navigate a present where the audience is scattering itself online and deliver on its statutory role of promoting te reo Māori. According to Paora Maxwell MTS has undertaken “… a realignment of its strategy to support its vision for Māori language to be valued, embraced and spoken by all New Zealanders.” That includes sacking two longstanding receptionists because they can’t speak te reo. As has been pointed out frequently since the news broke, of the six people on the MTS board only three are Māori language speakers.

At the building in Newmarket, the studio begins to empty of people. I was here a year ago with a cameraperson from Egypt, acting as a fixer for a crew from Al Jazeera who wanted to shoot some puff pieces about New Zealand and Māori. She’d shot some footage of the audience, busy amusing themselves during a commercial break. It was a mid-season episode, but still festive.

She paused a moment to adjust her hijab and looked out at the audience and the crew – smiling, arguing, laughing. “They all seem like family,” she said.

A year later and Homai is gone, taking that big unruly family with it. Friday nights will be quieter, less joyous. Kia whakamana te tangata has left the building.


 Click here to watch the Homai te Pakipaki Grand Final

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