The morning of my interview with Hinewehi Mohi (Ngāti Kahungunu/Ngāi Tūhoe) is a little chaotic and when she calls I’m frantically trying to close the door and answer the phone at the same time.
It feels like the ringing goes on for ages until I answer and when I do I get a chirpy “Hi it’s Hinewehi!”. I’m surprised because despite being a bit of a household name she’s incredibly unassuming.
If you can imagine chatting with a neighbour over the fence our conversation is a little like that except your average neighbour wasn’t the first person to sing the national anthem in Māori at an All Blacks test.
It still has a real sense of gravity to it.
This year will mark 20 years since Hinewehi Mohi stood in front of a packed rugby test match in Twickenham Stadium in England and sang ‘God Defend New Zealand’ in Māori.
What followed was an unpleasant attack on Mohi from New Zealand’s media. She was forced to defend herself on Holmes and on talkback radio.
Mohi does not shy away from the topic of the national anthem, but speaks about it softly and is very considered around how she approaches it.
“It is, and was, quite devastating if I’m brutally honest. Devastating because I, naively, didn’t realise the extent of the anger.”
Mohi says she’s tried to avoid talking too much about the anthem in the past. Despite this, the outcome of her performance that day is undeniably powerful. After Mohi’s famous omission of the English verse it wasn’t long before it become customary to sing both the te reo and English versions.
It seems a little like Mohi ‘took one for the team’ per se, as if someone needed to break the ice and perform the anthem in Māori for the first time and she was the one brave enough to do it.
Mohi manages to maintain a surprisingly upbeat persona when discussing this period and despite the criticism she faced, there is no hint of resentment, not even so much as a sly comment about the media, who came after her in 1999.
What is unmistakably strong, however, is Mohi’s enthusiasm for the direction of te reo Māori in New Zealand. It’s hard not to get excited by her optimism.
Where I half expected her to give Kiwis a strict imperative to learn more Māori, she’s far too benevolent to ever alienate those of us who don’t speak te reo, even graciously complimenting my own rather clunky pronunciation of a particular Māori word.
“It’s a really important part of us and no matter what your background I think if you’re a true New Zealander then you should be able to share and celebrate and enjoy the uniqueness and the beauty of our culture and that includes Māori. I would encourage anyone and everyone to embrace it and get into it because it’s a part of all of us.”
Mohi gives off the sense that te reo is something to be shared and sharing becomes something she brings up time and time again throughout our conversation.
When Mohi performs in the Tōku Reo Waiata concert as part of the Auckland Arts Festival she says she wants people to be entertained first and foremost. But like anything Mohi does, there’s more to it than that, a deeper purpose.
She talks about honouring the past, good and bad. She juxtaposes the sadness of her grandparents who were discouraged from speaking Māori with the greatness of the Māori language petition, delivered to Parliament in 1972 that asked for active recognition of te reo Māori.
When she performs in the festival the audience will hear a medley of songs from her 1999 album Oceania.
Oceania was made with British musician Jaz Coleman (Killing Joke), who Mohi says had a real affinity with waiata. The album, which fused Māori harmonies and dance beats, went double platinum and sold overseas.
She describes making of the album as “cathartic”.
“At that time I was a solo mother with a special needs child and so I was able to use the music to share and express the overwhelming feelings of having a child who had all these challenges and also express how my daughter had inspired me as a person and how I connected to her.”
When Hinewehi Mohi performed at Twickenham in 1999 she bravely shared her authentic voice. Communicating through waiata, Mohi continues to trailblaze for Māori. Tōku Reo Waiata is an awesome opportunity to see this Kiwi icon in the flesh.
As the centrepiece of the Auckland Arts Festival, Tōku Reo Waiata is a one-night musical celebration featuring some of the most well known Māori voices in the country including Stan Walker, Annie Crummer, Hinewehi Mohi, Moana Maniapoto, Maisey Rika, Rob Ruha, Tami Neilson, Seth Haapu, Maimoa, Whirimako Black, and many more. Saturday 16th March 8pm, Auckland Town Hall. Tickets $15 - $65.