With the release of her group's fourth album, Moana Maniapoto is taking stock of where her life, her music and her politics meet. She talks to Scott Kara
Moana Maniapoto wanders round her kitchen making cups of tea, cutting cake, slicing fudge, and pouring milk into a fancy white jug that looks more like a gravy boat. All this takes a while as she chats about meeting Bob Geldof in Germany last week ("I like him, he's very self-deprecating.") and how her 17-year-old son keeps her in touch with today's music, like the White Stripes, Kanye West ("He likes his politics"), and local lad Tiki Taane (who she wants to remix a song from her new album, Wha).
She's nothing like the staunch, hard-talking Maori activist many people know her as. The musician and documentary maker, and leader of Moana and the Tribe, has never been scared to front up, be it about politics, Maori sovereignty issues, or getting te reo songs played on the radio.
"I haven't always been like that," she offers. "I come from a family who are shy and don't like conflict. But I've ended up with a whole bunch of people around me who can't be bothered with mucking around and are like, 'Bring it on'."
"Well, hell, I was married to Willie for years," she says of her ex-husband, the talkback host and former politician Willie Jackson. "The Jackson clan are a very strong family. And then there's my mentors and friends in my band, like [singer] Amiria Reriti, and I've watched my sister [Katarina] over the last few years, and she has come from the space I was at of being nice and accommodating and now, I tell ya, she's turned out just like us."
But today, sitting at the dining table in her Grey Lynn apartment which has stunning views over sprawling rooftops towards the Waitemata, she's laid back, serene and at times, when talking about Wha, almost dreamy. Even so, she agrees she is a no bullshit-type person.
"I suppose you get to a certain age where you are very clear about your values and what's right and wrong and some things are immovable, and for your own piece of mind say something or do something about it rather than moaning,".
On Wha there's the militant protest song Te Apo, which uses haka and sounds recorded by the Tribe at a protest in Hong Kong during the World Trade Organisation conference in 2006; the title track is about independence and sovereignty; and other tracks pay tribute to her heroes like the late Syd Jackson ("He was described as an activist but really he was a very compassionate person with a big heart.") and members of the Maori Battalion.
These days though, for Maniapoto it's more about the music and the songs than pushing any cultural or political barrows.
"I'm not always trying to make a cultural point. Perhaps in the early days I was trying to say you can pull elements from traditional Maori music into the contemporary, and culturally and politically that fusion is going to produce something great. But now it's more about how do the musical elements all work together."
And Wha is Moana and the Tribe's most cohesive album yet. In the past the mix of musical styles on albums Tahi (released as Moana and the Moahunters in 1993 which included hit singles Black Pearl and A.E.I.O.U. (Akona te Reo)), 1998's Rua, and 2003's Toru, have often been awkward.
But Wha seamlessly brings together traditional Maori elements like haka and taonga puoro, with classical, reggae, dub, and world music.
Previously she worked with a number of producers, however this time round she used Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper who joins the Tribe for a month long European tour in July. "That's the way it works, you start out doing business together and then you end up being whanau," she smiles.
This tour also includes a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival alongside Joan Baez, Erykah Badu, Etta James, Alicia Keys, and Paul Simon.
She also attributes the album's cohesiveness to talking through the album concept with both Bridgman-Cooper and manager Sol de Sully. "So that even though the styles are diverse, they all work well together. Which means the album sounds a lot better than other ones which might have been a bit disjointed. Looking back over the four albums my confidence as a songwriter has grown. I don't know how many songs I wrote on the first one but I've done more and more and then got to this one where they are all my songs, bar one."
And when it comes to making music she's keen to emphasis the team effort of the Tribe, which includes her partner, tour manager and multimedia producer, Toby Mills. Oh and haka experts - who she dubs the "show ponies" - Scott Morrison and Paora Sharples. "They take longer to get dressed than us girls that's for sure," she jokes.
Many of the songs on Wha are co-written with Morrison, who is also her te reo expert. "He has got really beautiful reo," she beams. "But he doesn't translate [English into Maori] literally. He does it conceptually and he uses really old phrases. Whereas I would translate it quite clumsily and literally. So if you don't understand the language you don't really understand the poetry that he uses."
Then again, on Rangikane Ana, which Maniapoto wrote for the opening of the first Moriori marae on the Chatham Islands, the emotion and compassion in the song still comes through music even if you don't understand te reo.
Despite Maniapoto's early achievements in New Zealand with Black Pearl and A.E.I.O.U., and being a recipient of the NZ Order of Merit for services to music and Maori in 2004, and an Art Laureate in 2007, at home she believes her music is still widely viewed as Maori music, or worse, a kapa haka group.
But it's overseas where she has had some of her greatest successes.
In 2004 her song Moko won America's International Songwriting Competition, beating 11,000 other entries, and The Tribe have played concerts around the world, from Vladivostock in Russia to the New Orleans Jazz Festival in the US.
The Tribe's last overseas trip was earlier this month to Bonn in Germany for a performance at the United Nations conference on biodiversity. "Which I didn't know anything about and I was thinking, 'Should we be going?'," she laughs.
As it turned out they had every right to be there because "most of our songs talk about the relationship with the land".
The German audiences' reaction to Moana and the Tribe is typical of the intrigue their music has for overseas audiences.
"Before we went to Germany we all thought they'll all be sitting there and not responsive, which is our dumb ignorant misconception. But I'll tell you what, they are full on and very emotional. It's the same in Russia. They are crying to a song like Rangikane Ana which they don't even understand the language. It's a very powerful thing, music."
Who: Moana Maniapoto
What: Moana and the Tribe
New album: Wha, out now
Past albums: As Moana and the Moahunters, Tahi (1993), Rua (1998); As Moana and the Tribe, Toru (2003)