What prompted changing the name of your band from the Moahunters to The Tribe?
I got divorced in 1998, so folded the band after a big tour of British Columbia. My girlfriend Ngaire Wilson took me, and a couple of others from my band, up to Florence. We played some acoustic gigs. Sol de Sully visited me in January 2002. He had been a fan for a long time. He asked me if I wanted a shot at trying to crack Europe. “Could I get a band together, a new album out and airfares to get to Germany in June?” I said yes before I had any idea how to do all three.
We decided the band name was simply going to be Moana, easy for international audiences to remember. It was sweet-as for Italians because I shared my name with the most famous porn star in Italy! My line up included two guitarists – Cadzow Cossar and Teina Benioni, Richard Nunns (taonga puoro), Amiria Reriti and Trina (vocals), Hone Manukau (rap) and Scotty Morrison and Paora Sharples (haka). It was still very funky but a different feel to the big band sound of the Moahunters.
Halfway through the tour, Pirate Records was threatened with a lawsuit for releasing our albums under the name Moana. A German media company held the trademark for the name. We had to think of a new name on the fly, it was a nightmare. Burning down the autobahn in-between gigs, pretty knackered, Tribe was the best out of a really stink bunch of names we came up with under pressure.
There would only be a few artists who have toured as extensively as you – what are some of the more unusual?
Some of the countries we have really enjoyed are Borneo, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Scotland, Kanaky, China and Hungary. We have done heaps of concerts in Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and been twice into Korea, Taiwan, Norway and Canada – and the Chatham Islands rates a special mention.
You obviously thrive on the live performance, but touring isn’t always a glamorous experience is it?
The worst time was this year. Our band was part of a big international collaboration of two bands (mine and Breabach, Scotland) and eight Australian indigenous vocalists and performers. Our father died while we were in Scotland, so Trina, my five year old daughter Manawanui and I returned home for his tangi, leaving our band up there to try and continue on. I taught Casey Donovan (a former Australian Idol winner) to sing the lead on one of my songs. Then our drummer Mickey was hospitalised in Glasgow with a very serious condition and the rest of our band had to leave him there. It was the longest and most emotional week ever.
Another low was crashing our nightliner on the autobahn last year, taking out five cars and causing a traffic standstill from Stuttgart to Munich for three hours. We are all still nervous on bus trips.
Two days into our first big European 36-gig tour, our Italian promoter cancelled 10 gigs in Italy, signing off the email with sorry for the inconvenience. The financial implications were horrific – no fees but all the expenses. Sol told me to get the band out of Switzerland, go to a more inexpensive country until we figured out a solution. I called the NZ Embassy in Rome and explained the situation. In 24 hours, it was all back on. Bless our diplomatic core and the stroppy Italian wahine who suggested to the promoter he was verging on creating a diplomatic incident, so do the honorable thing – what your father would do. He did.
A highlight from that tour was we heard that Major John Waititi was receiving an award on behalf of the 28th Maori Battalion from the town of Faenza. We offered to play a free concert to the town if they got us there. The town council bussed us from Rome and we were shown around the town by former soldiers who wouldn’t let us buy a coffee saying, ”We owe your people.” We played on a big stage to a packed town square – and it was hugely emotional for the entire audience, but also ourselves. I get a bit emotional now just thinking about that.
One night, the phone rang. It was NZ ambassador to Russia, Stuart Prior. Would I be open to taking my band up to Moscow that weekend to play in a swish club booked out entirely for the private party of a wealthy businessman? Um, hell yeah!
After being served caviar in a lounge overlooking the Kremlin, we were trading vodka shots with a former KGB General while Boney-M played Rasputin live on the stage. Surreal. And, with all that straight vodka, we freshies from NZ had an incredibly messy time of it afterwards. The businessman has since flown us back and forth to Russia and into the Cotswolds, for another party. He and the ambassador have become very good friends to our band.
In 2011, we were way up north inside the Arctic Circle in Norway at an achingly beautiful place due to play at the Riddu Riddu festival on the Saturday night. That morning, I was woken by texts from NZ asking if the band was okay. I had no idea what they were talking about. Then a film crew that was coming to interview me about our concert said they heard news of a massacre near Oslo. As the news came in throughout the day, everyone was in shock.
We found out the daughter of one of the festival organisers was missing on Utoya island. The festival was cancelled and we went into a building and just sat quietly together. Then the organisers asked all the artists if we wanted to sing a couple of songs each for a spontaneous memorial concert and they would just open up the gates and invite everyone onto the grounds. It was the hardest gig I’ve ever done. We left the following day for Taipei, but it took us days to snap out of it. 69 people were killed.
Last year, we returned to Riddu Riddu. We had a tangi when we met up with the festival organisers. Trina and I met the young girl who had survived. She was shot four times and showed me the scars. She survived by looking at her watch while hiding and telling herself, I’m going to live for one more minute, then repeating that every minute. It’s a powerful lesson to learn from a survivor.
What makes for a great Moana Maniapoto song in both English and te reo? Are they two different creative mind-sets?
My best kind of te reo song uses traditional Māori vocal styles as opposed to western vocal melody styles. To me that moteatea style has so much soul and passion, and its the best for interpreting the poetry of te reo. Vocally, its more like channeling than simply singing. It feels natural to get more experimental with arrangements and song structure, referencing the poetry of the lyrics a lot more. It’s perfect too when working with Paddy Free because he loves the drone, and the drone is what Māori singing is all about.
When I write in English, often I keep trying to polish the English lyric, but with Maori, I don’t usually muck around with it.
Who are some of the most significant artists and composers that you consider have contributed to a musical heritage in te reo?
Dalvanius, Hirini Melbourne, Ngahiwi Apanui, Hinewehi Mohi and Neil Cruickshank (Tangata Records/maorimusic.com)
Many of your songs carry a message. How do you research historical and ancestral authenticity for the songs you write?
I’m inspired by stories or events around me. So if something piques my interest, I go on a hunt. I’m lucky to have some wonderful people in my life who are very generous with their knowledge – Patu Hohepa, Hec Busby, Scotty Morrison and Professor Wharehuia Milroy with regard to this last album. Scotty and I collaborate on te reo songs, he is my Pou Ārahi reo.
In my research about the ocean, I got obsessed with a story about Te Korokoro o te Parata, a taniwha that was evoked by Ngātoroirangi which almost capsized the Te Arawa waka. These men all came back to with different perspectives on the story. Hec could even point to a geographical location near the Kermadecs, a whirlpool where whales feed on fish thrown up from the currents converging. He suspects the whirlpool is the metaphor for the taniwha. Its like being on a mystery trail following the clues.
The latest version of the Tribe is a formidable line up of incredible musical and cultural pedigree. It must be quite a challenge keeping such an awesome band together?
It is hard to hold a big band together, especially as all the musicians play with other bands. And for a lot of people, it’s hard for them to take a couple of months out of their lives to tour offshore. I came up with the concept of the Tribe – having a fairly fluid bunch of performers with myself, Trina and Cadzow being the anchor. It takes the stress off all of us.
I have six warriors because all of them are top line performers who double as broadcasters, aspiring politicians, teachers and carvers. Kemara Kennedy and Laurence Kershaw are the main ones now and both live in Rotorua.
Mickey Ututaonga is a legendary drummer and a great vocalist. It is such a pleasure to take him offshore with us because not only do we get to show off his talent, we watch him have fun. My sister Trina is also based in Rotorua and she is a lovely singer.
Onstage, Paddy and I work closely together to help bring our recorded songs to life, ensuring that all the musicians bring their talent to the table. In the early days, Cadzow was a one-man band. Now he has Paddy, Mickey and Marika Hodgson (bass) so it’s wonderful. Max Stowers is my other bass player and Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper plays off and on.
We run our band like a government so everyone has a ministerial role – Minister of Finance, Maori Affairs, Trade & Enterprise etc. At the end of the day, I’m the boss. We try to have regular hui where everyone gets their say and we can debrief on anything on or offstage. I usually take my little girl away with us too and the band is lovely with her. She can sleep through a sound check and usually wakes up when theres silence.
For any band, I think clear communication and mutual respect is absolutely essential – and having fun on and offstage. And I have a great manager, Sol de Sully, who continually challenges me to keep up with the play and be fluid enough to fit whatever is happening on the live music scene.
Working with electronic producer Paddy Free has proved an inspired collaboration. How does the creative process work between you?
Oddly enough, this is the first album I have written specifically for live concerts, so it was a lot more focused approach because we were thinking big stages, big audiences. Mostly, I come up with the song concept and feel I’m after. I usually have most of the lyrics and vocal melody sorted and sometimes, a bit of a groove. I play it on the guitar or just sing it to Paddy. Then he works out the beats, and starts riffing off what I’ve given him – putting in a bass line and some chord progressions. We record some vocals and start building vocal arrangements there and then in the studio. I take it away after the session and work through it a bit more. And Paddy adds all his awesome stuff meantime.
We agree on which other musicians we need to record, I build up all the vocal harmonies and we throw in everything we can think of, we get totally immersed into the song. I find it hard to move off a song onto others when we get into the zone.
Paddy likes a slow burn so the song can start off at over six minutes. I often have a clear idea on the song structure but he prefers to throw everything into the mix and not be defined by an arrangement. Then we step back for a while and work on other stuff.
I can listen to a recording for a few months and suddenly think, Let’s kill that third verse. Paddy and I get quite ruthless towards final arrangement time and we have some lively discussions but we just keep on and on until we are both happy. Paddy is incredibly focused and I had so much respect for and trust in him as a musician, producer and person that it was easy to collaborate.
Your new album ’Rima’ refers to many of issues close to your heart. What are some of the messages that you are putting across?
My daughter just turned six and so I’m more acutely aware than ever about the world that she will be inheriting. So there are songs that explore our relationship to the ocean, to the land. There are other songs that celebrate strong, stroppy, wonderful women, and another I wrote after my son graduated from university. I was inspired when his mates got up and performed a massive haka for him. Don McGlashan and I were approached by my husband Toby and his co-producer Julian Arahanga to write a song about the Treaty relationship for the Treaty House so that was a real challenge but a very pleasant one.
What is the most potent and universal message you want to put across in your music?
People have more in common than we do different. Our survival as a species depends on our ability to accept that we are simply one part of the eco-system not separate to it or master over it. We are accountable to our ancestors, each other and our children.
Do you find it hard to say difficult things that need to be said, in such a way that your multicultural audience won’t take offence?
I try to be inclusive and hope people, no matter what culture, recognise something of themselves or their own culture in what I am saying. Hopefully we are a mirror, not a window.
Do you see the current landscape of Aotearoa as more embracing of our cultural identity?
Definitely. It wasn’t very nice being Māori and singing in our language when I first started recording. Now there are so many more opportunities to learn and speak the language, to see Māori reflected in the media, in government, the sciences – everywhere. There is still a lot of institutional racism and a lot of cherry picking from Pakeha as to which bits of Māori culture are acceptable. Some things havent changed.
Do you have any issues about the opportunities for Maori music to gain the same breadth of exposure as non-Maori?
The term Māori music is a double-edged sword because it’s such a broad label that covers multiple genres, just as NZ music isn’t just one thing. So the negative is that my band is sometimes seen in NZ as more of a cultural act than a band with a cultural element to it. Offshore, we get invited to play at rock, reggae, jazz and world music festivals – here in NZ, its mainly arts festivals and the Outstanding Woman.
You’ve played with an incredible roster of local and International artists – who would you consider made the biggest impression on you and why?
Youssou Ndour. He came out into the Town Hall to watch us sound check – I mean, who does that? As an artist, he painted another picture of Africa to us onstage with his songs and his korero, saying Africa wasn’t all deserts and jungles and starvation and war. After his concert, he left his fans to tell us how much he enjoyed our show and how we would meet again. Not only talented but he acted with such grace, I will always remember that.
The Neville Brothers met us at the airport in New Orleans with a second line brass band playing us into the terminal. Aaron paid all the tips for the baggage because we were such freshies, we didn’t know about that. Their mothers cooked for us. Over the years it’s always been like catching up with family. They have no airs or pretensions.
I liked how Aaron loves gospel, Cyril is a reggae buff, Charles loves jazz and Art is one of the godfathers of funk. Put ’em altogether, and they pumped out a really cool sound. As well, they have played with so many legendary musicians so we got the gossip on a lot of them, like Chaka Khan and how she…
Your worst professional experience?
Once two musicians didn’t turn up for a flight to Moscow. One told me had injured his hand and couldn’t play – only a sister of mine snapped him performing in Raglan that same weekend. He set the cops onto me while I was in Moscow because I still had his passport. The other just didn’t turn up to the airport. He never called me, never emailed. I have never heard from either of them since, which was very hurtful.
It put a lot of stress on Cadzow to rehearse a new bass player (who couldnt speak a word of English) plus I had to fly in other musicians from England and Germany to fill the gaps for the gigs. It cost me thousands and thousands of dollars and because I trusted everyone, I never had a written contract and couldn’t take them to the Small Claims Tribunal. Since then I always sign a written contract with every musician before each tour, even my own sister.
What’s the most important thing you can pass on to a young musician intent on a career as a professional musician?
Learn about the business side. Keep your feet on the ground. Dont believe the hype.
The music business is a place where one learns from ones mistakes – is there one that you learned more from than other mistakes?
Always be very clear at the outset of any recording or concert project so theres no confusion about expectations, particularly when it comes to money and particularly with good friends. Write it up and have everyone sign.
What are your personal favorite songs that never fail to brighten your day?
Tera te Auahi is a lament from our iwi of Tuhourangi-Ngāti Wahiao but it has such a hypnotic lilt to it that its like being swept up into an ancient vortex. Every time I hear it, I convince myself I need to learn it. Never Too Much (Luther Vandross) – soul, baby! You Oughta Know by (Alanis Morrisette) – nailed it. Welcome (Kingfisha), slippery, cool. Alive (Sa Ding Ding) cos my daughter just loves that. French Letter (Herbs) – summer sounds and university days.
What’s the best book about music that youve read?
Ngā Mōteatea (Apirana Ngata), full of beautiful old waiata and poetry in te reo.
The best advice you ever got was…?
Be nice to people on the way up, you’ll meet the same ones on the way down.
What would you consider is your proudest creative or cultural achievement?
Having incorporated aspects of Māori traditional performance into contemporary dance music. And that after five albums and hundreds of concerts, people still buy our albums and come to our concerts.
How do you define success?
Success to me is defined by the quality of your relationships and living your passion with integrity.
Main photo left to right: Reweti te Mete (haka), Trina Maniapoto (vocals), Daniel Grosse (driver), Michael Trinkl (Pirate Records), Moana Maniapoto, Stuart Page (film/lights), Pete Hoera (bass), Paora Sharples (haka), Rangi Rangituknoa (haka/vocals), Toby Mills (film/road manager), Cadzow Cossar (guitar)