CARVING HIS OWN
At just 29, Pere Wihongi has already made an impact as a pop culture champion of Mā ori language. Siena Yates meets the busy musician, composer, actor and director as he prepares for Te Matatini.
THEY say that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life, and few embody that sentiment as much as Pere Wihongi.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone spinning more plates at once, but it’d be harder still to find someone who does so with as much joy.
Most people know Wihongi as a musician, a kapa haka superstar and head tutor, an award-winning recording artist and a member of the record-breaking collective Maimoa.
Others know him as a television reporter, producer, director and editor on shows such as Te Karere, Marae, Pā kana, Pipi Mā and more.
To a new generation, he is even a magical Disney snowman named Olaf.
Some know him as ‘‘Uncle’’. Others don’t know him as ‘‘him’’ at all; they know her as ‘‘Aunty’’.
If there’s one title to wrap up someone like Wihongi, well, ‘‘if anyone can help me figure that out, that’d be great’’, he laughs.
At just 29, his list of jobs and achievements is already extraordinary, but the biggest part of figuring out who he is and what he does is simply finding more plates to spin. While the possibilities are endless, thanks to his past, his future direction is crystal clear.
Born and raised in Herekino in the Far North, Wihongi (Te Rarawa, Ngā ti Kurı¯, Ngā puhi, Ngā ti Wai), whose full name is Pere Te Ruru o te Ramana Wihongi, grew up firmly rooted in te ao Mā ori.
His pā pā , Te Kauri Wihongi, was largely responsible for that having begun his own culture and language reclamation journey while studying his teaching degree and starting his family. As a result, Wihongi, his brother Rhys and sister Awatea were all children of ko¯ hanga reo and kura kaupapa at first in Northland and then, for the majority of Pere’s schooling, at Te Kura Kaupapa Mā ori ā Rohe o Mā ngere in Tā maki Makaurau, after the whā nau moved there when Wihongi was 9.
‘‘I think we’ve just been lucky to have parents that believed in teaching us te reo Mā ori back in the 90s when it wasn’t a common or encouraged option – if anything, they were discouraged from [doing that],’’ says Wihongi.
That said, Wihongi is the first to admit that he didn’t always appreciate that as much as does now.
‘‘It wasn’t until I left my kura that I understood that it isn’t spoken or appreciated as much as I had thought. Growing up in a world where te reo was everything and it was always around me I had taken that for granted. When I left that pā of safety… I started to realise ‘OK, this te reo journey is something that really needs a lot of help, a lot of encouragement’. So that’s been a huge part of all my mahi that I’ve done since that moment on.’’
At that point, he considered two routes: teaching or television. In the end, he figured he could always revisit teaching later but, he laughs, ‘‘you only get a young face once for the television’’.
After a full-year course at South Seas Film and Television School, Wihongi worked his way up from his first job as a production assistant to reporting on the likes of current affairs shows Te Karere and Marae, and later directing at Whakaata Mā ori’s Mā ori language children’s show, Pā kana. But oddly, it’s not a side of Wihongi that’s as wellknown as his musical side – and he’s not overly surprised.
‘‘That’s a whole other side to me! Back then I wasn’t allowed to grow my hair, I wasn’t allowed to do my nails; it was a completely different Pere. A young, naive Pere,’’ he says.
Wihongi, a proud representative of the takatā pui [LGBTQI+] community says he’s ‘‘always been naturally feminine’’, but it was a side of himself he suppressed ‘‘for fear of judgment’’.
‘‘A lot of that was just my internalisation and my own trauma, so a lot of it was just about reclaiming myself, which I was able to do through my puna (spring) of friends.’’
It was also something he was able to explore more through his music career, which has always run alongside his TV mahi as a natural outlet for that other side of himself.
A lightbulb moment came when on one hand, Wihongi was appearing on screens adhering to a prescribed, gender-normative dress code – short hair, plain nails, minimal jewellery, suit and tie – but on the other, he was appearing in a full face of makeup in a music video that became the country’s top-watched clip on YouTube. Maimoa’s hit Wairua was released in 2017 and has a massive 11.7 million views
‘‘Growing up, there weren’t many examples like me and I didn’t actually understand that until I wore a full face of makeup in [Maimoa’s] Wairua music video; that was the first time I’d done it for film or television.’’
Then came the messages from other rangatahi and their parents recognising his bravery for such an act.
‘‘I’ll be honest, at the time I didn’t actually realise it was brave. I didn’t think about the implications or the bigger picture, I was just like ‘yeah why not? I want to be glamorous and colourful’ – I did it because it was me,’’ Wihongi says.
‘‘But after that, I found another appreciation for my femininity and also what that means for other people like me who don’t necessarily sit in the gender norms. I didn’t have that example growing up and I know if I had, I would’ve felt a lot more comfortable in myself... so now I think; what kind of example would I like to be for that young Pere, and how could I inspire that young Pere to really forget about the doubts I grew up with as a feminine boy?’’
This is perhaps why, in 2019, Wihongi gave up on long-term mahi to go out on his own and get as many plates spinning as he could.
Since then, he’s been able to take on more kaupapa than ever with more variety, all of which help him be that example, champion his reo and do the work that brings him joy.
There has been more TV, more music and more production.
He’s been vocal directing, creating music for and doing voice acting for kids’ show Pipi Mā , and has worked on translation and music for Matewa Media’s reo Mā ori takes on Disney hits The Lion King and Frozen, in which he voiced the beloved character Olaf.
Perhaps his biggest labour of love though has been leading the Auckland urban Mā ori kapa haka group, Angitā .
Wihongi founded the initiative some 10 years ago; back then it was known as Tā whitia kia Angitā based on Tā hoe academic, Te Wharehuia Milroy’s famous whakataukı¯, ‘‘tā whitia te hopo, mairangatia te angitā ’’ – banish your fears and success will follow.
Now though, he says, ‘‘Angitā means success, so if there’s any word from that whakataukı¯ I want this kaupapa to be based on, it’s that one’’.
It’s not just about success in performing. Wihongi’s been around kapa haka all his life and competing at Te Matatini national competition level since he was 15. For him, what happens on the kapa haka stage is just the tip of the iceberg.
‘‘A lot of our mahi is about driving, developing and growing our urban Mā ori community here in Tā maki Makaurau to be successful in whatever field they choose, and to use kapa haka as a vehicle to exemplify the true potential that they
‘Growing up in a world where te reo was everything and it was always around me I had taken that for granted. When I left that pā of safety… I started to realise ‘OK, this te reo journey is something that really needs a lot of help, a lot of encouragement’. So that’s been a huge part of all my mahi that I’ve done since that moment on.’ PERE WIHONGI
have,’’ he says.
‘‘Kapa haka is the waka to carry, encourage and promote the overall holistic health that we strive for as Mā ori: social health, mental health, spiritual health and, of course, physical health. If you look deeply into it, you’ll find that there’s so much of a benefit to our people.
‘‘It’s a huge taonga to te iwi Mā ori and it’s done wonders in encouraging and pushing a lot for our culture and the revitalisation of our language.’’
That is what all of Wihongi’s mahi has been working towards and, like with kapa haka, not only does it benefit Mā ori or even just New Zealand, but it’s also shown the rest of the world the beauty of te reo and te ao Mā ori.
‘‘I know that there’s a shift happening, we’re in the middle of it right now and I’m pretty sure we all know that,’’ he says.
It’s evident in the way we see people being called out for belittling, misusing or mispronouncing te reo: ‘‘it’s becoming normalised that te reo deserves that mana and that shift wasn’t there 10 years ago. So I know it’s happening.’’
Broadcaster, academic and author, Scotty Morrison has known Wihongi since he started out on Te Karere.
‘‘You can’t underestimate the power of Pere’s ability to influence people of his generation,’’ says Morrison. ‘‘In very different ways he has become quite iconic. For a person so young,that’s extraordinary.’’
Morrison says Wihongi is an outstandingperformer excelling at ‘‘power, pride, precision’’.
‘‘It’s his ability to connect with people and his humility that I
Abig sign of that shift is not just in the mahi Wihongi is doing, but in what he isn’t doing anymore. This Matariki will mark the end of the music collective Maimoa, of which Wihongi and his sister Awatea have been part since its inception in 2016.
The group was founded in response to declining numbers of reo speakers, with the aim of ‘‘showing our tamariki that there’s potential in our language and that we can thrive with it’’. Now, with a
‘‘huge increase’’ in reo Mā ori speakers and learners and the evergrowing presence of te reo in popular culture, Wihongi says, ‘‘we believe now that we are at a point where we have achieved our original goal’’.
Looking ahead, just as he can’t sum up everything he’s done so far , Wihongi is not in a rush to put any limitations on what he will do next. He will of course continue to make music, including the Matatini 2023 theme song, which he’s working on with Six60.
He’s also producing for other artists and he really wants to do more character voice work, such as his role as Olaf in Frozen. But for now, his main focus is on Angitā .
The group is the newest Tā maki team to qualify for Te Matatini and will compete for the first time at the festival on February 22-25, at Eden Park.
Over the past few months, this has been number one on Wihongi’s priority list as the head tutor of a group of some 70-strong, headed toward ‘‘the biggest event on the Mā ori calendar’’.
‘‘Honestly, I believe if you can head-tutor a group, you can be the prime minister,’’ he laughs. ‘‘As a tutor, you’re not just a composer, you’re not just a teacher on the floor – sometimes you’re also a therapist. At any kaupapa, you’re there: tangihanga, birthday, graduation. It’s a wider whā nau and you’re the head mother. So it’s about how you protect and support all of your tamariki and the kaupapa.’’
That’s especially true for Wihongi, whose kapa is filled with members who he’s known since his school days.
‘‘This community is not only the urban Mā ori community of Tā maki Makaurau, they’re my closest friends and quite literally my family. I get to stand and do kapa haka with my father, my brother, my sister and my best friends.
‘‘It’s a whole other experience to be a part of such a kaupapa. Yes, kapa haka is a passion of ours: the music, the culture, the reo. But a huge drive actually is the people and I’m just proud so very grateful that I get to do all of that with my dearest and closest.’’