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Cruising with The Koi Boys

When a trio of Maori singers was selected to perform in TV singing competition The Voice Australia, they took their name from their regular venue, the Koi bar, and became The Koi Boys. The Koi Dining and Lounge Bar was where Gisborne man Matai Smith met the singers.

Having worked in television as a presenter, producer and director for 23 years, Mr Smith saw the potential for a documentary series about the singers’ lives. His original concept was for a light entertainment, “shiny dance floor” series. What he eventually produced though was a behind-the-scenes, warts-and-all look into their lives — the tragedies and tantrums as well as the triumphs.

“In 2016 they were on Voice Australia. I was like ‘wow’. They didn’t win the competition but they won the hearts of thousands on Australians. For three Kiwi boys — Maori boys, particularly — that was quite a feat.”

The band’s elimination from The Voice sparked outrage on social media. The Koi Boys were clearly crowd favourites — and they caught the attention of the Universal Music Group.

“This was unprecedented in that Universal took on an act that didn’t make the finals on The Voice. Universal approached them because they made such an impact.”

Once signed up, The Koi Boys had 10 days to record 10 songs. The trio’s sound taps into that of showbands such as the The Howard Morrison Quartet — but they have their own Koi style, says Smith.

“Their blend of harmonies work really well together.”

Danny Faifai’s voice is a husky baritone, reminiscent of that of Barry White, Kevin Keepa’s silky, pop star voice has an extensive range (“he can go anywhere, like Aretha Franklin”) while Ngahere “Nuz” Ngatai tends to a Stan Walker-like smooth, says Smith.

“Their presence is entertaining, they have the x-factor and they are charismatic. They know how to read a crowd really well.”

The singers improvise a little in the banter with each other and the audience.

“They don’t sit at home and make up jokes. There’s no staged stuff.”

Faifai, Keepa and Ngatai were born and raised in New Zealand but, like many Kiwis, crossed the Tasman in search of wealth and a better lifestyle, says Mr Smith. Their remake of The Crew Cuts’ Sh Boom Sh Boom launched their careers and the trio have performed together for 10 years.

Before taking on the role of station manager at Turanga FM, Smith had set up his own company with a view to making light entertainment shows. After seeing The Koi Boys in The Voice Australia he pitched to Maori TV an idea for a “shiny dance floor” series.

'I’d seen them win the crowd over with their humour and charisma'“I’d seen them win the crowd over with their humour and charisma. I thought ‘how can we capture th’is?”

Maori TV liked the concept but a new commissioner had a different idea.

“She said ‘why don’t you produce something more intimate and personal?’ I saw the opportunity to get inside their lives — on stage and off stage — would be a winner.”

Smith avoids the term ‘reality TV’ because it smacks of the contrivance of platforms such as Married At First Sight. What he has produced, he says, is a seven-and-a-half hour observational documentary.

Maori TV asked for a Maori-specific angle.

“They wanted me to look at what is was like for the boys’ loss of their language and culture. They asked if one of New Zealand’s most seasoned observational documentary makers, Nigel Snowden, would direct and produce the series. He said he would love to.”

The two men explained to the singers the intense degree of access to their daily lives the making of the show would entail. Not only was this essential to the concept, but invested in the series was time, energy and the cost of taking a film crew to the Gold Coast.

“We needed absolute commitment because we couldn’t do it half pie.”

The Koi Boys were up for it.

“We were in their faces for about three weeks.

“There was a break then we followed them home to New Zealand for about two weeks.”

One scene captures the singers shortly before they were due to perform with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra. The trio had not prepared well for the concert and had a meltdown during rehearsals and the filming for the documentary.

“When there are tears and tantrums it’s great for TV but the beauty of this series is the raw emotion,” says Smith.

The film crew followed the singers’ return to New Zealand.

“Kevin hadn’t the best life growing up there,” says Smith.

Keepa, the unofficial leader of the group spent years in foster care. He spent time in and out of youth prisons and correctional training facilities.

Broke and homeless as a teen he took up busking and discovered his musical talent. In 2016 the father-of-seven lost a son to suicide. In the documentary series he addresses this, and Maori youth suicide.

“We bring him home to visit his mum in Parihaka,” says Mr Smith.

“Kev was driving and talking to the camera saying ‘this is where I’m from’ — then he cries his eyes out.”

The singers also visited each other’s whanau and spent time reconnecting with te reo Maori. After working with kapa haka teacher Dre Ahipene to learn te reo, the trio eventually got to speak on their marae.

“I hope the series will resonate with our viewers,” says Mr Smith.

“I know there are lots of Koi Boys fans out there but we want the greater New Zealand public to view the series.”

The Koi Boys screens on Maori TV, Thursdays at 9pm. Episode 1 screened on June 27 but is available on demand. Radio New Zealand’s full concert audio recording of The Koi Boys’ performance with the Auckland Philarmonic Orchestra can be heard at https://tinyurl.com/y6yl2uch

SMOOTH AS: Social media contributors were outraged when smooth groove trio The Koi Boys, made up of Danny Faifai (left), Ngahere “Nuz” Ngatai and Kevin Keepa didn’t make The Voice Australia’s finals, but a major recording company snapped them up and now Gisborne man, Matai Smith — Turanga FM’s station manager, in fact — has made a documentary series about the singers. Picture supplied