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Kapa haka, a way of life

BENEATH her mountain Ahititi and surrounded by the flowing waters of Waihirere, Louise Kingi acknowledges where it all began.

The rural settlement of Waihirere, which is 16km inland from Gisborne, is a kapa haka stronghold and is where Louise grew up and attained her kapa haka teachings from her elders.

Now she is regarded as an kapa haka icon nationally and was recognised by Te Waka Toi — Creative New Zealand for a lifetime of dedication and excellence to the Maori performing artform.

She was awarded the inaugural Te Tohu Whakamanawa o Te Matatini award in recognition of outstanding contribution to kapa haka at the annual Te Waka Toi Awards at Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington on Saturday evening.

The awards celebrate and recognise excellence in Maori art, and this year the accolades went to 12 winners across seven categories.

As the longest-serving performer in the Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival, Louise is the only person to have performed at every festival since it began in 1972 — an achievement that can never be matched.

Over that time she has helped her roopu Waihirere claim the national title five times, including the inaugural 1972 festival.

“It was an absolute honour and a privilege to receive this tohu (award),” said Louise.

“To have my haka whanau there on the night as well just made it even more special.

“Thank you to everyone who came from Turanga, Tamaki, Poneke and Waikato to share in this moment, as well as the ones from back home who were sending their aroha and support.

“I will treasure this tohu for the rest of my life.”

Performing from the age of threeLouise started performing for Waihirere at the age of three, and acknowledged the Karaitiana Tamararo competition as the stage of where “it all began” with her first performance in the 1960s.

In receiving the tohu, she paid homage to those who had paved the way in Waihirere haka — the likes of founding father Hetekia Te Kani Te Ua, her first tutors Wiremu and Mihiata Kerekere, Ngapo and Pimia Wehi and current tutors Tangiwai and George Ria.

Louise also acknowledged her mother Sue Kingi as the one who shaped her to become the person she is today.

“They have all had a great influence on me and I acknowledge them all in receiving this tohu.”

The alto singer is renowned for having one of the most recogniseable voices in kapa haka, especially for her leading haka calls and vocal interjections — such as a call of “aue!” midway through a song.

“Interjections help to uplift your team on stage and can also calm the team down, when they need it. That’s all part of helping to steer the team on the stage,” she said.

“Knowing when to interject, well it’s just something that’s within you. You feel it and it just comes out. It’s natural and something developed over time with experience.

“But even when we’re learning a new song and I’m enjoying it, it’ll just come out.”

Another leadership role she has had in the Waihirere Maori Club, has been in the kitchen, cooking kai to feed the roopu.

“It’s not all about haka. You have to learn how to work from the kitchen and the toilets before going through to the front.”

As the years have gone by, kapa haka has evolved, said Louise.

“Kapa haka these days has really pushed the boundaries. For someone like me, I’m finally starting to find that it’s not so easy anymore.

“There’s nothing wrong with my voice — it’s the body that has slowed down.

“These days I get a lot of help from the younger generation in our Waihirere haka team. “They help me with things like learning the actions for a new poi item — and vice versa, I will help them too.

“Without the help of our club members I probably wouldn’t be in there.

“My nephews are especially encouraging, they always say ‘you can do it aunty’, and that helps me to keep going.

“If I am still able to carry on, then I will, because I love kapa haka. It’s a part of my life. It always has been and it always will be.”

Louise said her greatest highlight from over the years was the whanaungatanga (kinship) amongst the competing teams, particularly back in the early days.

“For the 20 minutes that you were on the stage you were enemies. But when you came off the stage, you were whanau.

“I remember at the end of every Tamararo festival all of the teams would go back to Te Poho o Rawiri Marae and have a hakari (feast) with singing and dancing.

“For me, the whanaungatanga has been the greatest highlight.”

As the kaiako of Waihirere Te Kohanga Reo, based at Parihimanihi Marae, Louise believes the future of Waihirere haka rests with the mokopuna.

“I believe the children in our kohanga are the future of Waihirere haka. As long as they remember who they are and where they come from, Waihirere haka will survive and live on.”

Louise Kingi with her award at Parihimanihi Marae in Waihirere.
Louise Kingi with the mokopuna of Waihirere Te Kohanga Reo.