February 22-26 2017
Kia kawea tātou e te rēhia! – let us be taken by the spirit of joy, of entertainment!
I’ve experienced the buzz of a festival before – but nowhere near like this. It’s finals day at Te Matatini, the biggest Kapa Haka celebration and competition in the world. Over 4 days, 47 teams from Aotearoa and beyond, bring us no less than 56 performances. By us, I mean the 50,000 or more people who travelled far and wide to cross the paua gates at Kahungunu Park, Hastings.
We arrive to the inner belly of the park with what is apparently a second wave of enthusiastic audience members – the first having been here since dawn. I immediately notice that the kaupapa of this event begins and ends with whanāu and connection. From the carpark shuttles, to the dozen or so bouncy castles, to the plentiful shaded areas, kaumātua tent, and an array of helpers and thoughtfully chosen stalls – every person is made to feel a part of the festivities. Ahead of us is a throng, thick with bodies, but flowing purposefully towards the stadium. Along with my 6 and 4 year old, (and *cough* moving to block their view of the bouncy castles) I jump right into the crowd. The river of people is wide but excited and respectful, happily giving smiles, making way and chatting to us. There are frequent lane changes to avoid disturbing people who stop to embrace whanāu and friends.
It’s electric. Not like a rock concert’s shock and awe, lightning-type electricity – you know, the kind that, hope as you might, you know will ultimately end. The vibe here is warm and constant, an energy that you know will last. In fact, before even glimpsing the main stage I can feel this buzz of energy going deep, leaving so much goodness in its wake. I realise in that moment, surrounded by smiles, sunhats and embraces, that what I am feeling and witnessing is mauri – the essential outcome of Kapa Haka.
Kapa means to stand in line or formation and Haka, as most kiwis know, is performance dance. Te Matatini is an exemplary display of the forms and performance of Maori song and dance, the core and aesthetics of which are still rooted in ancient tradition and iwi/hapū stories and values. The 40 or so performers within the vast mahau-styled stage command the whole inner space of the stadium. To encapsulate this, the inner stadium gates are shut during performances and the Kapa Haka only begins once everyone is seated. This honours the mana of the rōpū and all that they express through their Kapa Haka. The hush is quick. We’re collectively prepared to give the space, and ourselves, over to the rōpū to fill with their stories and song. In every single performance, these stories are given to us with layers of light, shade, subtlety and thrilling apogee – every. single. performance.
Each team enters the stage in perfect formation and then, with wonderful impact they offer up their whakaeke, entrance song. This is followed by beautifully mournful mōteatea, sung with tearful grace and waiata-ā-ringaringa spirited by actions, wiri and pūkana. Of course, the ubiquitous, ground-shuddering haka features too, bringing to life a moving and terrifyingly real challenge. The symmetry and joy, punctuated by swinging poi is then uplifting and soothing and each team closes their stage time with consummate grace, setting us all back down gently. We are left elated, affected, and awestruck by the journey that has seen us become present and enveloped in the mauri of the acts. Our applause and cheer don’t seem nearly enough of an expression for our gratitude. I’ll admit to having more than one tearful moment at the sheer, overwhelming sincerity of it all.
Layered over the precision and action is highly accomplished musicianship, choral skill and arrangement, stunning and authentic costuming, timely whakataukī and skilful leadership. Everything is performed in Te Reo Māori and although I hardly understood the words, I felt the meaning of them come through the generosity of the performances. It almost seems secondary to me that there are even winners crowned, but it is a significant part of the event. I cheered on as the champions, Whāngārā Mai Tawhiti from the East Coast were crowned, remembering well the fluid performance they gave – one that can only come from a group that is highly invested in their bonds together. As cheesy as it sounds, I came away feeling that we were the winners on the day. Ngāti Kahungunu definitely put on a winning example of event organisation and hospitality – I was so proud to be a resident of Hawke’s Bay. We took so many treasured moments home, as well as a plan for a whanāu roadtrip to Wellington for Te Matatini 2019!