Aroha Harawira: Turning the tables

By Christine Nikiel

George FM host and DJ Aroha Harawira. Photo / Greg Bowker
George FM host and DJ Aroha Harawira. Photo / Greg Bowker

A breakfast radio host by day and club DJ by night, Aroha Harawira is both early bird and night owl.

It's common to catch her heading off at night to play for the club set at a city bar after a day spinning records for an upmarket event and doing her radio show.

"Then the next morning she's calling you asking if you want to join her smashing out 10km along the waterfront," says Harawira's boss of three years, Auckland's George FM station manager, Willy Macalister.

Harawira, an award-winning DJ and new George FM breakfast co-host (with Clarke Gayford), has energy to burn - and ambition. Her aim is to be "the country's most in-demand broadcaster", a matter-of-fact statement made without ego.

A tough childhood has formed a driven but modest woman who sets her sights high.

"Aroha knows what she wants to achieve and has a really strong sense of self," says Macalister.

Friend and former colleague Christopher Tubbs, who has just returned from a 17-year stint as a DJ and BBC Radio 6 broadcaster in London, says Harawira is all about the music.

"She's very focused. Whatever she does, however large her profile, it'll never be about anything [other] than the music to her." She also has a warmth and empathy with people - qualities that are "very refreshing" in the music business, he says.

She learned to beatmatch from a DJ boyfriend and, as well as clubs and bars, regularly plays at local music festivals Rhythm & Vines, Splore and Homegrown and has toured with offshore supporting acts such as The Roots & Ben UFO.

While many DJs become pigeonholed by their music, Harawira's eclectic tastes keep her outside the box. She likes to mix off-kilter beats together and have fun with different tracks, describing them as, "slightly wonky, dark, suggestive and silly".

A good DJ reads the crowd and chooses the music accordingly, she says.

"Punters just want to hear songs they can dance to. Other DJs will be impressed by how the DJ mixes songs together, but not the dancers. At some events you feel like you're compromising your musical identity ... but when you're the background music in a bar you can be more creative in your choices."

Music has always been a part of her life.

Her mum, Tina, would wake her up to watch local late-night music show Radio With Pictures as a special treat, and Harawira danced around to music videos and her mum's punk records.

"I grew up with The Clash and Iggy Pop. It was funny. When I was going through my rebellious teenage angst phase and listening to loud, aggressive, industrial music like Nine Inch Nails, Mum was getting into it, too."

Harawira also learned piano, drums and did some singing. Music became a refuge because home life was unpredictable.

Tina, who had her daughter in her early 20s, was "a free spirit, a hippie", who'd had a "harrowing" childhood, troubled by not knowing who her real father was. Her mum, says Harawira, was "angry, strong-willed and opinionated, but vulnerable".

When Harawira was 5, Tina hitchhiked the 340km-odd from New Plymouth to Masterton with her daughter, escaping an abusive boyfriend.

They moved around a lot and, always the new kid, Harawira was often bullied at school.

She became "reclusive", burying her head in a book and, under the tutelage of her beloved grandmother Gwenne Blackwood, did baking and pottery and learned embroidery, knitting and lace-making.

They were poor, too. Harawira remembers envying other kids who "had lunch every day and there wasn't gib board falling off the walls [of their houses]".

In Masterton, mother and daughter moved in with Tina's friend, Dianne Manson, and her daughter, Katie, who is still one of Harawira's best friends.

When Tina got together with Manson's brother, Wayne, "a kind, gentle man", it brought stability to their lives.

Harawira was close to her maternal grandmother, or Nanie, Annabelle Harawira, a "glamorous, strong, intelligent Maori woman", who was very much involved in local council affairs.

She didn't see much of her dad until her late teens, but it was his parents, Gwenne and Gordon Blackwood, who helped out most, and it was usually to Gwenne that Tina turned when times were tough.

Gwenne arranged for Harawira to go to Chanel College, a small Catholic school in Masterton, where she learned te reo Maori, took drama and dance classes and came out of her shell.

Meeting her real grandfather when she was 14 and a school trip to Ruatoria, his birthplace, was also incredibly healing, she says, for both her and her mother.

At her grandmother's behest, Harawira joined the Masterton Embroidery Guild. Here, Harawira jokingly claims, she had her first brush with international fame. Each Guild member was asked to embroider something for the backdrop curtain at London's historic Globe Theatre. A television documentary was made, and her creation - a snail - is still there.

"It's a really beautiful snail," she laughs. But no, she no longer embroiders.

At Chanel College, Harawira was a straight-A "goody two shoes", joining a Christian youth group for a few years and was increasingly "preachy" to her mother. "Then I started listening to aggressive industrial music and dressing like a Goth."

Her dream of being an actor didn't pan out, so she turned to radio instead, working for Wellington student station Radio Active and Radio New Zealand National.

In Auckland, she scored a sought-after presenter's role for student station bFM at the 2003 Big Day Out, a placement which sparked outrage from other bFM presenters annoyed about "some young chick nobody knew going straight into one of the most-coveted slots".

Harawira did such a good job she was promptly offered her own regular show on the station.

A real job juggler, she usually has at least two or three on the go. While at bFM she was also presenting and producing the Transmission and NZown shows for the now-defunct music channel Juice TV, and DJing at weekends. At one stage she was also studying, tutoring and occasionally lecturing in audio engineering as well. She has an Honours degree in audio engineering and spent four years working for Auckland-based DJ software company Serato.

While at Serato (and still hosting two shows for George FM) she quickly rose through the ranks. Within two years she was marketing operations manager, flying to high-end offshore gigs to meet, film and interview A-list DJs about using Serato software.

Then she needed a break. She quit her job (nicely), sold all her belongings and tripped around the world for a bit. She's been back 18 months.

Harawira's new role at George means paring back some club work which, even for her, can be taxing.

While DJing is "good practice" for her breakfast role, she admits the 4am finishes take their toll, on health and relationships.

The club DJ scene is male-dominated, and the glamorous Harawira certainly stands out. It bothers her that people still stare and comment "because I'm a girl DJ", but she says she's had nothing but support from male - and female - colleagues.

It was a different story when she was the "faceless" technical support person for Serato, though. The discovery that she was female sparked a massive backlash against her from some online forum users - mostly male DJs offshore. The comments stung.

She's since developed a thicker skin, but still rails against "keyboard warriors" who criticise while hiding behind the anonymity of texting.

Despite a strong career focus, Harawira says she'd love to just road trip around the world volunteering in wildlife parks. If money wasn't an issue she'd move her mum and stepfather closer to Auckland, and buy her dream car, an electric-green 1969 Dodge Charger "because I'd look like a rock star".

For now, though, she's found her niche at George FM. "I really enjoy the challenge of radio. It allows me to be myself, to share music and to have a laugh, but I think I'll always have something else on the side. I'm most stimulated when I'm doing multiple things. And whatever I end up doing, it will always come back to music."

- NZ Herald

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