National kapa haka festival Te Matatini has started in Hastings today with an emotionally charged opening performance from Auckland group Te Manu Huia, dedicated to Maori performing arts legend Dr Ngapo Wehi, who died last July.

Representing Tamaki Makaurau and accompanying senior group and five-times winning roopu Te Waka Huia to the nationals for a ninth time, Te Manu Huia provided just the kick-off warranted for the huge festival in which 47 groups chosen from 13 regional competitions compete over the next three days, all after places in the nine-team finals on Sunday.

The festival opened in overcast but mild conditions, with Te Manu Huia's arrival on the huge mahau-fronted stage about 8.40am watched by several thousand people in the athletics arena at Kahungunu Park, otherwise known as the Hawke's Bay Regional Sports Park.

Large teams of judges will be assessing the performances through the compulsory components of whakaeke, moteatea, waiata-a-ringa, poi, haka and whakawatea, along with such options as waita tira, an introductory choral exercise aimed to announce the group's arrival and set the tone of the performance, generally limited at the festival to 25 minutes.

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Te Manu Huia are tutored by family of Dr Wehi QSM, whose festival history dated back to when he and wife Pimia took Gisborne club Waihirere to the first title in 1972 in Rotorua. Moving to Auckland they also took Te Waka Huia to their first title, at Christchurch in 1986.

The opening day features 15 teams on the stage, with 16 more tomorrow, including Wairoa-based Te Rerenga Kotuku, and 16 in the last preliminary rounds on Saturday, including both Te Waka Huia and Waihirere, and Hawke's Bay groups Ngati Kahungunu ki Heretaunga and Tamatea Arikinui.