Moana Maniapoto: Sounds political

by James Belfield / 14 October, 2016
Moana Maniapoto has been announced as this year’s inductee into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. She talks about her success abroad and the struggle to get Maori-language music played at home.
Photo/Steve Dykes
Photo/Steve Dykes

Moana Maniapoto’s elevation to the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame might rise a few eyebrows – and none more so than her own. The Apra award places her among some of the best-known Kiwi artists, such as Shihad, Hello Sailor, the Exponents, Herbs, Ray Columbus and Bill Sevesi, and she is slightly startled at being only the fifth woman (behind the Topp Twins, Shona Laing and Toy Love’s Jane Walker) to receive the accolade.

In fact, when she first received the confirmation letter from Apra’s New Zealand director of operations Anthony Healey, she thought she was in trouble. “I actually thought he was growling at me because he said he didn’t usually write letters, so I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve plagiarised someone’s lyric,’” says Maniapoto.

When she nervously opened the letter and saw what it was, her first instinct was to decline gracefully: she didn’t think she had a track record that warranted the Hall of Fame. “In the sense that I don’t sell truckloads of albums. And I’m still recording and performing and there’s this little feeling of wondering whether this is my retirement push. But when I reread what Anthony had written, he had very cleverly pre-empted every tiny bit of opposition I could think of.”

She accepted, recognising the award as an opportunity “to celebrate with a whole bunch of people who have been really helpful”.

At 55, Maniapoto has already clocked up a number of accolades. She was the first non-American winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 International Songwriting Competition for Moko, is a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and received the Tohu Mahi Hou a Te Waka Toi Award in 2005 to acknowledge the success of Moko and her contribution to Maori music.

But despite Apra’s induction announcement describing her as “one of the most significant voices in Maori music” and having been “at the beating heart of the nation’s music scene for four decades”, it’s still quite rare to hear her blend of te reo, politics, waiata, haka and more westernised musical styles such as electronica, dub, reggae and soul in the mainstream.

Moana Maniapoto: a career based on authenticity.
Moana Maniapoto: a career based on authenticity.

She has enjoyed exceptions, notably 1987’s Kua Makona, produced by her mentor Maui Dalvanius Prime – the man behind the Patea Maori Club’s Poi E – and Black Pearl, a 60s soul anthem co-written by Phil Spector that took her to No 2 in the charts in 1991 as Moana and the Moahunters. But the two Moahunters albums (Tahi and Rua) and, since 2002 as Moana and the Tribe, their two live offerings, best-of album and studio albums (Toru, Wha and Rima) have struggled for airtime.

“I often do interviews with radio stations and they’re patting themselves on their backs and saying, ‘Haven’t things changed?’, and I’m like, ‘Well, actually not that much.’ There’s not a resounding response to Maori language on mainstream radio. Even when I was going over old videos and trying to find original masters recently, I’d find little headlines popping up saying, ‘Moana says radio is racist’, in 1994 and I’m thinking, that’s 1994 and it just hasn’t changed.”

Despite the struggle, Maniapoto doesn’t want to be labelled a “moaner”. The one-time law student – who sang in clubs to pay her way through university before singing turned into the preferred earner – has always enjoyed activism, citing the likes of Jane Kelsey, David Will­iams, Syd Jackson, Ranginui Walker and Rob Cooper as influences.

“I was at uni in the 80s and that was pretty volatile – we seemed to march every five minutes and I loved it,” she says. “I was pretty fresh and green and surrounded by all this brain power, so that really shaped my thinking. So when I formed my band and started writing my own songs, it was quite natural to deal with politics. Even now with my family and my friends, all we talk about is politics. That’s our thing, that’s our drive – we might talk about sports and family … but we always get back on to politics.”

That activism – she now prefers the term “artivism” – continues to permeate her work. The night before we talk, she was at Auckland’s Mt Albert Community Centre performing for a fundraiser for Free Gaza; she’s just published an article in E-Tangata magazine urging Education Minister Hekia Parata to rethink plans for cyber schools. She suspects that the Hall of Fame might have come about not just for her music, but “as a package thing – what I do informs the music”.

Moana and the Moahunters.
Moana and the Moahunters.

She’s still incredibly proud of songs such as Tahi, which was inspired by a taonga puoro workshop with traditional Maori instrumentalists Richard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne and includes samples of haka slaps, poi beats, rhythmic traditional hand games and chants; A-E-I-O-U, her first attempt at songwriting that started life as a two-line jingle at Aotearoa Radio but was then rejected by mainstream radio as, she says, “foreign language music”; and Treaty, which responded to the mid-90s fiscal-envelope policy to limit settlements to $1 billion.

But since 2002, Maniapoto’s main inspiration has shifted from fusing Pakeha western music with traditional Maori music, towards finding synergies (a word she uses frequently) between music from a range of cultures. After initial problems with some promoters thinking her music wasn’t “authentic enough” and didn’t pigeonhole easily into a specific genre, she has led her “Tribe” as far afield as the Arctic circle, the rainforest of Borneo, Taiwan, Korea, Russia, Hungary and North America, where the live act of mixing traditional Maori elements with invited local performers has proven immensely popular.

“We haven’t had commercial success in New Zealand because of the strong Maori element, but offshore has given us opportunities to meet all these different nationalities and to go into communities that conventional pop stars would not get into – and that’s been really enriching.”

Her career dispels any thoughts that life as a musician is all red carpets and rock-star parties, from the 90s political activism with one-time husband Willie Jackson to the hard yards of organising international tours alongside manager Sol de Sully. She has her own festival in her home community of Muriwai on Auckland’s West Coast, has been working with the British Council to grow a mentoring system for music managers, and is helping to organise a fundraiser for her daughter’s primary school.

“It’s not the easiest career,” she says. “People ask me what I’d say to young people wanting to get into the industry and I’d say, ‘Do something easier, like brain surgery or running a Third World nation.’ The bit of the iceberg you see is the touring and the recording, but below that is all the management and the organisation stuff and the admin and keeping the band together.

“It’s about authenticity and that’s why we’ve been able to have this connection with such a diverse range of cultures and people, and even different sectors like business and visual arts and education, because when you’re being authentic, people respond.”

Photo/Steve Dykes
Photo/Steve Dykes

The beat goes on

Moana Maniapoto still sees herself very much a “work in progress”. She’s just embarked on a sixth album, which aims to bring together artists from around the world to collaborate on a collection of karakia written by Scotty Morrison. She’s already involved Celtic multi-instrumentalist Megan Henderson, Sami singer Mari Boine from Norway and a First Nations Cree singer from Canada, and is looking for artists in Korea and Taiwan.

“It’s all about experimentation and collaboration, so we’ll see what we get when we mix Maori and Gaelic, or Maori and Sami. It’s just an idea in my head now – we’ve got no money so we’re just putting it out to the universe.”

Before that, Maniapoto plans to release two new tracks. The first is a reworking of Timor (originally called Whaura, from 2008’s Wha) called Fire in Paradise, which has been remixed by French reggae band Dub Inc and includes vocals from Jamaican dancehall’s Skarra Mucci and a video shot on Auckland’s West Coast by Maniapoto’s 25-year-old son, Kimiora.

She has also been working with Kiwi dub and electronica wizard Paddy Free from Christchurch’s Pitch Black and will release a karakia called Huakirangi.

And for anyone wanting to catch her live, she’s planning to come to a woolshed near you in April.

“Me and my sister and my mum went on a roadie last year and I really got the feel for a lot of smaller acoustic gigs,” she says. “So Arts on Tour are putting together a month-long tour in April through all these little places like galleries, pubs and theatres – even a woolshed, which is cool because I haven’t been in one since I was a kid.

“It will be an intimate thing and give us a lovely connection to the road – and we’ll be able to get hot pies … that’s one thing about touring Europe all the time: no hot pies.”

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