BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talks to Moana Maniapoto – formerly of the Moahunters, now together with the Tribe – about the challenges of representing ‘Maori music’.

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MOANA MANIAPOTO has been saddled with being one of the key figures of both Maori music in New Zealand, and New Zealand music in the World Music “genre”. Part of this is due to her public visibility – musician (the high-profile Moana and the Moahunters, and now Moana and the Tribe) TV presenter, documentary-maker, radio host and, back in the day, one-time Law School graduate. She’s released her fourth album with the Tribe, WHA (following Tahi, Rua and Toru aptly), and is as eclectic as ever – everything from Alistair Galbraith to pre-European waiatas are employed. It’s also her first entirely full Maori-language album, and the album is a stirring mix of introverted and expansive sounds, an album rooted to the land, but also looking much further than our shores.

She chose singing solely in Maori “just for a bit of a change, I’ve always had a bilingual kind of approach. I’d put some songs out there in Maori and just kind of felt right. Some of the songs originated in Maori and a couple were translated from English, and it felt cohesive.” The songs flowed well in Maori too. “It’s a really beautiful language, a melodious language even when it’s not sung. It’s round with lots of vowel sounds, there aren’t any words which don’t end in a vowel, so it’s very pleasing to the ear.”

Maniapoto had an unconventional entrance into music, playing at clubs to fund her way through university. But she admits “my family always had a guitar and a ukulele.” She’s managed to continue making music for nearly two decades, because “I’m very passionate about it. People come and see us perform and buy our CDs. I guess I’ll keep doing it until that stops. There are always new countries to visit and to take our music to.” Part of this has included playing at the United Nations and playing in some big music festivals around the world.

However, she is forced to be the representative of ‘Maori music’, and this seems to be an exotic term even in New Zealand. It’s almost as if that broad essentialist label is “world music” in New Zealand, and artists who delve into Maori issues are forced to carry the burden of being representative of all Maori. There’s also a struggle for visibility in this country. “Well I think we struggled for some kind of visibility when we first started to record. We just forever seemed to be advocating, or protesting, to make the New Zealand music industry notice there was something out there that was rooted in this land. People kept on going on about this ‘New Zealand sound’ and ignoring Maori music. Now it’s gone to a space where everything’s chucked into the ‘Maori music’ category. You can have an artist like Whirimako Black who’s got a very strong jazz and blues feel to her, and other musicians who are jazz or reggae or classically based, and we’re all chucked into this Maori thing. I think it’s a double-edged sword being labelled, it’s just as silly saying New Zealand music or Pakeha music.” Anything that’s vaguely Maori often seems to get ignored during New Zealand Music Month too. “It does, New Zealand Music Month doesn’t mean diddly squat to me. It’s just another month. I’m a full time musician, so every month is New Zealand Music Month to me. I think some New Zealand music is crap, and some Maori music is not too great either, all music has its good bits and bad bits.”

Her album starts with a particular waiata, which had meant a lot to her. “That particular waiata is sung regularly on my marae, it’s a popular well-known pre-European waiata. I wanted to introduce the album making that reference back to traditional style Maori singing, and end the album with a classical arrangement or treatment of that waiata. I thought that’d be a nice sort of bookend.”

There’s also the occasional dub influence in the album too, reflecting in part her travels, and her early musical background. “I see heaps of it when I’m overseas, it’s all very chirpy and happy, I quite like it. One of the first bands I was in was a reggae band, there’s a lot of dub groups in France and Germany, and big bands with twelve people on stage. Myself and the producer Mahuia [Bridgman-Cooper], we just kind of like the freshness of it I suppose.”

“I think we struggled for some kind of visibility when we first started to record. We just forever seemed to be advocating, or protesting, to make the New Zealand music industry notice there was something out there that was rooted in this land. People kept on going on about this ‘New Zealand sound’ and ignoring Maori music. Now it’s gone to a space where everything’s chucked into the ‘Maori music’ category... it’s a double-edged sword being labelled, it’s just as silly saying New Zealand music or Pakeha music.”


The lyrics take a wider Pacific focus, placing New Zealand within a larger sphere, for example paying tribute to the peace covenants of the Moriori, and casting a critical eye towards the awful colonial legacy in East Timor. “We have travelled a lot, and there are lots of our experiences that are reflected. There’s a lot of commonality between Maori and lots of groups around the world. People have more in common than difference. Though you can celebrate those differences too. Watching East Timor go through its turmoil, I was very touched with what happened over there. My friends who were Moriori, listening to stories of them being told their people are extinct, where as children at school they were being told that their people don’t exist. I’ve listened to people in their forties and fifties very traumatised about trying to defend their right to exist.”

Her album also includes a tribute to the great leader (and her uncle) Syd Jackson. Jackson’s contribution to New Zealand society was considerably downplayed at his death. His mainstream media obituaries over-played the “activist” label, and ignored his social significance. “He’s someone I’d consider a mentor and a leader, and a very clear and strong thinker, someone with a lot of compassion and a huge intellect. He had a very clear vision for how he wanted New Zealand to be, I think he’s just hugely influential not just for Maori but non-Maori in New Zealand because his leadership led to a lot of changes. He pushed for legal aid in the courts when there was none, he led the sporting boycott of South Africa when there was none, he pushed for equal pay for women.”

She also ended up working with the great Alistair Galbraith, a fellow Art Laurete on WHA. Galbraith played the glass harmonium on the album. “He’s just lovely. I met him because he’s an Art Laureate. I didn’t know of him or his work, we shared a stage as part of the Laureate onstage panel. I was just fascinated by the stories he told – the glass harmonium, he’s really, really well versed and knowledgeable about these particular instruments that originated from Europe, I could have listened to him all night. We had a bit of a jam session on stage, so it started off a little bit hairy and it ended up pretty choice.”

Being part of the World Music scene (meaning she can share a stage with everyone from Bob Geldof to ‘pygmies’) also helps promote certain cultural aspects to a global audience. This is especially given that globalisation and cultural appropriation have placed non-white cultures under the threat of exploitation. “There’s a third wave of colonisation which is knowledge based, image and design based, where companies want to create a point of difference in the market, so they look for things that are exotic. We’ve seen hakas and mokos used by big companies around the world – I’m very proud of Maori elders and young Maori who have challenged those companies and said ‘this is not on’, because they’re so used to getting away with it. I think what I can do is represent a contemporary, traditional mix of music that’s strong and has a very strong identity and that’s totally sourced from this country. It’s not bastardised or over-romanticised or exoticised for foreigners. We talk about New Zealand, how it is, its warts, we don’t play the over-romanticised, dusky maidens, that kind of carry on. We have to kind of watch that. People have a very romantic view of New Zealand too. In my band we’re very clear about what’s right and wrong, on about what traditional elements we include in our music, we’re strong about that and don’t compromise.”

WHA is a compelling addition to that burgeoning CV. She’s someone who doesn’t seem easily bored, given her extensive accomplishments. “I’m easily distracted I think. I like creative things and my partner [Toby Mills] is a documentary maker, so that’s very similar to music except you’re telling stories through visuals. It’s hugely intensive too – I tried to do an album and a doco at the same time, and realised very quickly that you can’t. All the things I’ve been involved in, they’re about telling stories. I don’t have time to get bored. I love what I’m doing.”