Moana's universal music

One of New Zealand’s most influential cultural artists - Moana Maniapoto is not afraid to push the boundaries

The Māori singer/songwriter, along with her collaborative partners The Tribe now boasts over five albums in their repertoire.

International stage

Since the release of her albums (all named in Māori numerical order) Tahi (1993) Rua (1999) Toru (2002) Wha (2008) and Rima (2014) Moana and her original group The Moahunters and now The Tribe have experienced a steady growth of fans on the international stage.

Moana started her music career in the early 90s with Moana and The Moahunters (a Moa is an extinct flightless bird that was endemic to New Zealand) before the formation of Moana and The Tribe in 2002.

The Tribe, which also includes Moana’s sister Trina Morgan, numbers from three to 10 at any time and brings together a powerful mix of harmonies, funky beats and music that reflects a deep appreciation of New Zealand, its landscapes, culture and experiences.

Māori music legend Dalvanius Prime was a huge inspiration to Moana – helping guide her on the road to musical success. On stage, performing in a television special in the late 1980s, Dalvanius was approached by Moana's ex-husband, who asked the powerhouse of indigenous New Zealand music to put his wife up on stage too. 

While Dalvanius didn't oblige that time, a few years later he tracked down Moana, wrote four songs for her and guided her on her way, giving Moana her first break with the song 'Kua Makona' sung in her native tongue.

Worldwide impact

Over coming years the music continued to flow and her impact in New Zealand and across the world saw her contribution to Māori music, art and culture honoured with a plethora of awards.

In 2004, Moana became the first non-American to win the Grand Jury Prize of the International Songwriting Competition with her song Moko, beating over 11,000 compositions to win the prestigious prize. 

The same year Moana was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.  She was made a Life Time Recipient of Toi Iho - the registered and globally recognized trademark of quality and authenticity of Māori art and artists.

A year later she was awarded the Te Tohu Mahi Hou a Te Waka Toi Award from Te Waka Toi (Creative N.Z), an award that recognised her valuable contribution to the development of contemporary Māori music. The New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate Award (2007) and Music Industry Award at the Māori Waiata Awards (2008) followed. 

Since her first break, over two decades ago, Moana and The Tribe have performed all over the world – most notably in Europe and Asia. 

Visual delight

Despite the fact the Moana and the Tribe’s music focus on uniquely New Zealand themes, her lyrics (mostly sung in Māori) are not lost on international audiences - thanks to the visual imagery that accompanies her performances – created by her award-winning producer/director husband Toby Mills. 

In fact performing on the international stage has seen the group amass a dedicated following in Italy and Germany. In 2001, the group was part of a Māori business and arts delegation on a commercial exchange with Florence, Italy.  An outdoor concert in Piazza della Signoria outside the Palace (Palazzo Vecchio) drew the crowds. 

'It was fantastic,' says Moana. 'There we were, performing in front of 5000 people, with the sun going down and we got a tremendous response to the music. Even Dustin Hoffman wandered up and had a yarn to Richard about our show.'

In 2002, Moana and The Tribe were invited back to Italy, for a tour that included a spot on Italian state TV. They played a number of festivals before embarking on a seven-hour bus ride to northern Italy's Faenza, a town that has a close emotional and spiritual bond with Māori. 

"We had a ceremony there to honour the Māori battalion from World War II,' explains Moana. 'The relationship with the people of Faenza runs very deep and they are eternally grateful to Māori for liberating their town. We weren't allowed to buy anything while we were there.'

Italian ties

The 28th Māori Battalion fought against the Germans in World War II and secured the freedom of Faenza in December 1944. Many of the battalion were billeted to the town shortly afterwards for two weeks of rest and recreation and formed a close bond with the townspeople. Moana knows of Māori who have named their children Faenza after the little town. 

Moana and The Tribe performed a concert in the town square as part of the commemorative service for the Māori soldiers lost there in World War II, where the president of the 28th Māori Battalion Major John Waititi, received an award on behalf of New Zealand armed forces. 

Good relationships were formed with Italian musicians along the way – and the Tribe were joined on stage by clarinettists, cellists, a giant harp player and a pianist during some concerts.

"It created a fantastic fusion of Western music, traditional Māori music, and classical,' says Moana. 'Although at times there wasn't much room to move on stage!'

Moana says the mix of the music of the two cultures – Māori and Italian – on stage was quite challenging in some ways. 

"Bands there are quite big, really busy and loud,' she explains. 'Ours is a very simple group, it's vocally based, and it's very spiritual in feel. But what resulted was often spine-tingling stuff.'

European debut

In July 2002, Moana and The Tribe released a European debut album. They have appeared in Vogue and German magazine Brigitte and their month-long tour through Germany July/August 2002 drew attention and crowds of up to 10,000. In January 2003, Bavarian TV screened a 45-minute special of the group's August 2002 performance at the Chiemsee Reggae Festival.

'They are fascinated with New Zealand. Māori are exotic. Here [New Zealand] we are dime a dozen, but over there we are different. It's quite good for our egos!,'  she laughs. 'People came up to us after the shows, and said 'I had never even heard of New Zealand, and now – after two hours of music and images - I really feel like I know it'.'

Some know it better than others. Moana tells the story of a middle-aged German couple who attended a concert in Christchurch while visiting New Zealand. A few nights later they went to the group's Dunedin concert as well. Moana then spotted them in Frankfurt and thought, 'That couple looks familiar….' And then, there they were in Florence, and in France….

"They are really attached to the band and are very sweet. They wear Kiwi T-shirts. They have been to New Zealand 11 times, always bearing heaps of Swiss chocolate for me and the band."

Universal theme

Universality is a strong theme in the group's music. While never shying from conveying a political message relating to New Zealand, these often carry themes common for many indigenous people – oppression, land, spirituality being a few examples. 

But Moana's code for living and universal sentiment can be conveyed through three positive ideas: Mana wahine (respect for women); Mana Māori (pride in being Māori); and Mana tangata (respect for all humanity). Replace the 'being Māori' for pride in any person's culture – and the three make up a strong human ethic and one by which Moana lives. 

But this 'diva of Māori music', as she has been described, also has something else at the back of her mind. She remembers the words of her mentor Dalvanius in all that she does: 

"Be nice to people on the way up; you'll meet the same ones on the way down."