Weekend Herald - Canvas
HOW THE NATIONAL ANTHEM IN MĀORI CHANGED NZ
Song created history — and the singer is now changing more lives through music.
Singing the national anthem in Māori is today an accepted part of Kiwi life at major sporting events, but the person who did it first says the criticism it attracted at the time was a shock. Hinewehi Mohi was thrust into the international spotlight in 1999 when she sang God Defend New Zealand in Māori before the All Blacks’ opening game in the Rugby World Cup against England at Twickenham – the same year her double platinum album Oceania was released.
“I was in England at the time and was asked to sing the anthem,” she says. “I thought it would be beautiful to sing it in Māori and really show the distinctive side of our nation.”
But she wasn’t prepared for the negative backlash that came from some quarters: “I found it enormously difficult to reconcile the degree of anger over it and it has kind of haunted me for two decades,” she says.
“I’ve never regretted it, but I do get a little frustrated that I’m always defined by it because certainly the things that are important to me didn’t start and stop at the singing of the anthem – although I do understand and appreciate the role it had to play in my life.”
Mohi, who recounts the events surrounding the rendition on this guest spot in Steinlager’s “
New Zealand’s Finest”, says her love of music had another major effect on her life. She and husband George Bradfield, together with supporters, established the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre, using music to help people with special needs.
The idea came to them after their own daughter, Hineraukatauri, who suffers from cerebral palsy, experienced music therapy in London while they were living in the UK: “Her response was exhilarating and immediate. For the first time she was able to truly express herself and connect with the therapist. It was very emotional to watch.”
When they returned to New Zealand, they looked for a music therapist for their daughter Hineraukatauri – but found there wasn’t a lot of scope here, deciding to set up their own.
“You actually see what difference it makes for people with disabilities,” says Mohi. “We now have over 500 people each week receiving therapy in three centres around the country. If we can give something special like that for people to share in their lives, it’s the most wonderful gift we can give.”
But it is Mohi’s marriage of music and Te Reo Māori which has cemented her place in the ranks of New Zealand’s finest.
She has recorded three albums, the most acclaimed of which, Oceania, was described by critics as “a beautiful collection of haunting melodies” and was the first contemporary Māori language album to be released internationally.
Her love of music and culture developed at a young age when her father began learning to speak Māori: “He would play LP records to hear the sounds of the language because you couldn’t learn Māori in the same way back then. I used to listen to this beautiful operatic singing and I just loved the way te reo sang so I think that led me to pursue music making myself.
Born and raised in Hawkes Bay, Mohi affiliates to the Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tūhoe iwi and went to St Joseph’s Māori Girls College in Napier, well known for producing songstresses (“where we sang all the time”), and later to Waikato University where she graduated with a BA in Māori.
“I was in two kapa haka and was really involved in singing in Māori,” she says. “After I left university I started recording my own music, performing and getting to really experience the language in its truest form.”
Mohi has also been a producer of TV and digital content for over 35 years, with a particular focus on Māori programmes and the revival of traditional waiata. In 2019, Hinewehi marked twenty years since singing the national anthem in Māori with the release of the Waiata Anthems album, where she supported artists such as Six60, Bic Runga and Drax Project to record their well-known hits in Māori.
She has continued mentoring artists in her role at the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) promoting the growth of Māori music and the development of a bilingual music industry in Aotearoa.
“Whether it’s through a translation of a song into Māori connecting us to our language and culture, or using music to help a person with disabilities express themselves, music is a powerful connector and I am grateful to be a part of changing lives through music.”
“After I left university I started recording my own music, performing and getting to really experience the language in its truest form.”