Tangiwai Ria, MNZM, and her husband George have won three national titles with their kapahaka group Waihirere. This year, she was a finalist at the Matariki Awards for her contribution to Māori performing arts and community.
Tangiwai shares her story on Te Ahi Kaa.
Gisborne-based kapahaka group Waihirere has a long-standing connection to RNZ.
One of the group’s first tutors was Te Kani Te Ua, whangai father of the late broadcaster Henare Te Ua, who hosted the programme Whenua on RNZ.
Their next tutor during the 1950s and early 1960s was Bill (Wiremu) Kerekere, who ended up leaving Gisborne in 1962 for a new job setting up the Māori programmes Unit at the then New Zealand Broadcasting Unit.
Tangiwai Ria (Te Whakatōhea, Te Aitanga a Mahaki) took over the reins in the early 1980s and led Waihirere to three of their five national titles.
What was your first experience of Kapahaka?
We used to crawl around the ankles of our parents as they did the haka, no different to today’s generation I would imagine, because that’s what happens in my crowd when we prepare. Pa life was our way of life, everything to do with the pa, mahi whakapai nga whare, te wharekai, te whare tupuna, mahi manaaki… and you know through all of that for us, haka weaved a whole lot together. Music and singing was a huge part of it as I reflect I think that for me the focus was music, it existed everywhere in my young life.
Describe the early days of Waihirere. Who were the early composers?
Waihirere was similar to most other small Māori settlements. We were all related, and if you weren’t related through whakapapa we were related anyway. In our community there were no more than ten houses, a marae, a beautiful scenic reservation with a beautiful bush area with a waterfall at the end of the road. My school years leading on and into the years ahead they were jammed packed with haka.
The group itself was born from an idea with Nen Wehi’s uncle Te Kani Te Ua, his bother Panapa Tuhoe and alongside was another relative Ani Taihuka and all of the Kaumatua of that time, during Kani’s time it was about the way of life. So when I look back and research…for me it was about [how] Kani and them haka was used as a framework to inform and educate our hapu…and it was about helping to uplift the people.
What was the secret to winning five national titles?
Hard work, and that’s no different to what Bub would say either, Waka Huia would know all about that, is you can’t get there without doing the miles, while you are getting new people, there’s people with skills who are leaving for whatever reason and so for us because we are country…we really scratch to keep our numbers up and when I say numbers I’m talking 40 as long as I get 40 who are highly emotional about what they are doing, then I’m happy with that. If I can get 50 then I’m really rich, it’s a lot of work.
I sit on my feet and think why the hell do we do this for? A lot of hours, a lot of money!
It’s hard to keep numbers up we’ve got to really work hard, there was a time when George and I would keep pretty things close to our hearts…everybody’s got their own winning edge and that’s critical, if you want to be able to pass over capabilities for your group to stay in amongst the top…you have got to have something that is uniquely yours.
What is your tutoring style?
I have some really brilliant young people around me, so I would sit and say come on you teach this [and say] how would you teach this? And away they’ll go, and then I’ll come in and add a bit of the tikanga side into it, and the emotional or the look, or the body movement. So that’s the other thing we’ve forgotten, back in the 1950’s our whole bodies talked not just your eyes…there was a lot of feeling and a lot of connection going on there, and your pores opened and they felt the emotion…that emotion was a part of the whole message.
What changes have you seen in kapahaka at Te Matatini?
What I see coming off the stage at Matatini, I love it, I think it’s fantastic, what scares me though is what is happening on the school stages, when you see women who think they are men, when a haka wahine is done, it’s well, I don’t know how…where that is coming from, who is teaching it? I really think that Matatini has a long way to go, I thought Matatini at the beginning of this year was fantastic in Kahungunu.
What is your role in Waihirere today?
My role is pulling context together, mostly I’ll round things off, I work with whoever wants to sit down with me. George and I usually determine the context of the numbers… through to the musical stage. It might be a whole different crowd so you’re working with around 20 people at a time with bracket of Matatini, which is really awesome because the skills go wider.
Tangiwai is a tutor at Te Wananga o Aotearoa Whirikōka campus in Gisborne, she teaches Te Kunenga o Te Ao Tikanga course. In 2016 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to her community and performing arts.