Rise issue 07 cover

Creating more than just music

people on the beach

Outspoken political and social activist and entertainer Moana Maniapoto has been part of the Kiwi musical landscape since the early '90s. Her music brings people together right around the globe, and underscores the similarities between us all.

It's been over 15 years since the song 'Black Pearl' went to number two in the Kiwi charts, reminding us that young women are "precious little girls, let me put you up where you belong."

It was a song that spoke to the heart, and was one of five successful singles that Moana and the Moahunters released from their debut album Tahi.

There have been three albums since - Rua, Toru and Wha, and a name change to Moana and the Tribe. A meeting with Nelson Mandela. Winning a major US song-writing competition with 'Moko'. Constant international tours. The release of several documentaries. Being made an Art Laureate. Appearances on television, on panels, in concert, on radio…

Moana Maniapoto is a busy woman. And she's busier still with the birth of her daughter late last year.

"It's a full-on family focus right now. My Dad is going to be 80 this year, so there is this lovely balance between a newborn and my elderly father," says Moana. "Being a mum again after 18 years is a real celebration for us. That's where my headspace is at the moment."

From law to music
The one-time law student, seduced into music after winning talent competitions with a girlfriend while trying to make some loot to put herself through school, says simply that she loves her life.

"We meet some wonderful people and have these amazing experiences which are a lot different from what other bands will have because we've got a very strong Maori focus. We get invited to things that the average Pakeha white boy rock band wouldn't get invited to. We meet really interesting people who are off the mainstream compass."

But it's not just her strong Maori focus that influences the type of people she meets, or the experiences she has, Moana has always had a strength for bringing other talented people together, and for bringing disparate influences into her music.

For example, her latest album Wha features two brief archival interludes - recordings made in the Western Desert by B Company of the 28th Maori Battalion and a second on an unidentified marae - archival material few may get to hear. Her music has always used Te Reo and traditional Maori instruments. She sees the value and power in things that other people have forgotten, and uses her music to give people access to them.

Traditional Maori instruments
"The traditional Maori instruments make a beautiful sound, spiritually they make a lot of sense in a lot of our songs, and I think culturally they are New Zealand's oldest classical instruments," says Moana. "I use them in songs where they make sense. I don't try and force them into songs. They are also instruments of healing and we treat them with respect."

Dismissed by missionaries as tools of paganism, nga taonga puoro (traditional Maori instruments) had almost disappeared from Maori culture. But thanks to the work of exponents Richard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne, many have now been identified and revived.

"I was taught that traditionally some taonga puoro were used to heal. A wind instrument was played over a child's chest when they were congested, and a chant spoken, causing a vibration to come through it," explains Moana. "Other instruments would be accompanied by an aero phonic instrument, making a connection between the physical and spiritual world."

Now, over a century later, Moana and the Tribe are making that connection between the spiritual world and the physical world on stage. At least, that might explain the strong reactions audiences have when they experience the stage show, which includes moving images behind the band.

Strong audience connections
"I have fans who send us gifts and stalk us, and come to NZ because they've been so emotionally blown away by our concerts that they've fallen in love with us and therefore with NZ," says Moana.

"When we played in Russia, people were crying when we were singing. And I'd be thinking, why are you crying? Then they'd get up and say ' we hear your words and we see the images of elderly people and it reminds us of our grandmothers.' They're touched."

As she travels around the world, going to places most rock bands wouldn't think of performing at, like old Soviet villages, Kanak villages in the islands of New Caledonia and reindeer settlements in Samiland up near the Arctic Circle, Moana is reminded that people have far more in common than they have differences.

"Music from my experience does have the power to connect with people. I've had experiences where different people have come up to me and said, 'you make me feel good about being a Maori woman'. And that's not just in NZ either, I've seen it overseas with people who are from different cultures as well," says Moana.

"I think, what on earth are we going to have in common? That's been the biggest eye-opener for me - how much people have in common all over the globe. There are universal values. The kind of music we do is a reminder of the wairua [spirit], of ancestors and generations, and context. Our lyrics are about social, political and environmental issues, and a lot of people feel the same way we do, at least the people who come and see us do."

Kiwi politics
Always outspoken on issues of politics, Moana says she thinks that New Zealand is beginning to mature as a nation.

"More and more Pakeha are understanding what the issue is about," she says. "They get that there needs to be a deeper commitment to power sharing, and decision making by Maori and for Maori kind of strategies. More Pakeha are supporting Maori in determining their own solutions, so there is that kind of awareness now."

Proud of her Kiwi heritage, Moana says she's still shocked by the violence that seems to be coming out of New Zealand.

"Everyone overseas has a romantic vision of NZ, but when I come back and every day there is another act of violence committed against a child or an elderly [person] or teenager over such trivialities… it's so distressing." Moana says.

"When that elderly driver was killed in Auckland, I felt so sick… like many New Zealanders. It could have been my father. He would have lost his concentration just for a minute. His grandchildren would never have thought that their grandfather wouldn't come home that night. It's so sad. Yet, I know there are lots of people out there trying to come up with solutions, strategies that address unemployment, drug abuse, dysfunctional families… My heroes are teachers, doctors and nurses, community workers. Something I would like to figure out is how I could place myself in trying to be useful."

It is a humble statement from a woman who has spent the last 15 years drawing our attention to political issues, gender issues, race relation issues, environmental issues and global issues - all while making great-sounding music. But then, this is the same woman who wishes she had the song writing talent of Bic Runga or Brooke Fraser.

"I'm a very simple songwriter. I'm just not that clever," she says.

Clever or not, Moana Maniapoto has carved out a niche for herself in the fickle world of music, taking a tribe of talented musicians along with her on an incredible journey. In the process, she has challenged, she has entertained, and she has uplifted. In a world that all too often focuses on the ways we are all different, Moana has a way of finding the common ground, and connecting us all together.