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There are times when New Zealand music grabs us by the throat: Hinewehi Mohi singing our national anthem in Maori at the 1999 Rugby World Cup; Whirimako Black singing live in the build-up to the 2004 Athens Olympics; Moana Maniapoto wowing yet another crowd with her band, Moana and the Tribe.

There is a connection between these Maori divas. Actually, there are several connections. All went to St Joseph's Maori Girls College in Napier; all are in their 40s; all have built their love of the Maori language into their songs. And all came under the influence of Georgina Kingi.

"Miss Kingi" as they still call her, is the Sister Mary Leo to the Dame Kiri in these women. There is no getting past the point: "Miss Kingi" and St Joseph's - a Catholic boarding school for Maori girls, with a musical influence way beyond its size - started these artists on their way to international acclaim.

Kingi, now principal of St Joseph's, explains that just as a place in the First XV rugby team is the ultimate prize at some schools, at St Joseph's "kapa haka was the ambition of every girl".

Mohi agrees. "The kapa haka was our world. We were very much immersed in it."

Kingi's is the first name these women mention when asked who had the biggest influence on their musical education. "Georgina Kingi! She was a stickler for singing," says Maniapoto.

Mohi adds: "She was very strict but I liked that. If we were performing a bit lacklustre she'd call us 'suet puddings' and we didn't even know what a suet pudding was."

Kingi says she and Maniapoto have a longstanding joke that Maniapoto was never appreciated at the school as she should have been.

"I think Moana has held it against me to this day; she never ever made it into the front row of kapa haka," says Kingi with a smile.

Maniapoto says: "It wasn't until I became slightly famous and returned to the school with Hinewehi for something and the principal said, 'Moana, in the front row!' I replied, 'Gee, a little global fame was all I needed to get the prime spot, eh?' "

While Kingi effortlessly reels off the years when her ex-students started at the school (1974 for Maniapoto and Black, 1978 for Mohi), she says she's unclear how long she's been there herself. "Thirty-five, if not 40 years," she says. "I can't quite remember."

She also refuses to accept full responsibility for producing this trio of vocal stars. "Thank you for the compliment paid to St Joseph's," she says. "But... the family backgrounds contributed to what they became."

What they became was recognised. Hinewehi Mohi sang in Paris in October during the rugby World Cup. Mohi is often heard at international events - at the America's Cup in Valencia this year, as well as that unforgettable Maori version of the national anthem that stunned Twickenham.

Her performances in Paris, part of a tourism promotion timed to coincide with the Rugby World Cup, included songs from her 1999 album Oceania, which sold more than 70,000 copies worldwide.

Black, a soulful singer-songwriter who has sold more than 20,000 albums in New Zealand, also has a strong global following boosted by that live appearance in Athens.

Maniapoto, a recipient of the NZ Order of Merit for services to Maori and music, has formed two bands - Moana and the Moa Hunters and now Moana and the Tribe. In 2002, she performed on a 30-venue tour of Europe, and in 2004 she won a major US song-writing competition.

Maniapoto says she took away from St Joseph's the message that Maori girls can do anything. "I thought there was a strong feminist streak going through the school," she says. "The nuns showed that girls can do anything. They used to fix the blimmin' trucks and zoom around."

Maniapoto, unwilling to disappoint a family which had made sacrifices so she could attend St Joseph's, was dux of her year before qualifying as a lawyer. Seduced by singing while at university, she has never practised law.

Maniapoto started learning te reo Maori St Joseph's, and early in their careers she and Mohi began promoting the Maori language. "It was a great time because we were doing shows at Waitangi and concerts, just to raise the awareness of the language," says Mohi. "It was quite a pioneering time."

Today, Maniapoto says her band's music is "a fusion of contemporary and traditional Maori musical elements. We have elements such as haka, then we have a multimedia film kind of component to us. We play in big rock festivals, reggae festivals, theatres and clubs."

Describing the inspiration for her music, Mohi says she loves "sourcing concepts and ideas and beautiful old words from the traditional waiata, the traditional songs". Maori musical instruments and legends inform her work as well.

Black, who Kingi recalls was happiest when strumming her guitar, also incorporates taonga puoro (traditional instruments) into her music, and is a strong advocate for her language.

She composed and sang the title song for TVNZ's The New Zealand Wars, and co-composed the title music for Maori news programme Te Karere.

Her first album, Hinepukohurangi: Shrouded in the Mist, won Best Maori Language Album at the 2001 NZ Music Awards. She recorded two tracks on the top-selling world music album 1 Giant Leap, and last year she was awarded the NZ Order of Merit for services to Maori music.

Mohi tries to define the vocal styles of the three St Joe's old girls. "Whirimako's voice is just very delicious, it's like chocolate. I'd describe Moana as rich and staunch," she says. "And mine, I'd say, is probably more ethereal. It's a little more floaty."

Just as their voices differ, each woman has her own memories of life at St Joseph's.

Maniapoto talks about singing at chapel, learning to harmonise and play the guitar. Mohi recalls swinging poi, composing songs and receiving food parcels from home. But one memory was universal; the grey skirts of the uniform.

"The skirts were sort of pleated," says Mohi. "We called them parachutes because one whiff of wind and up they would go." Maniapoto adds, "These mini-skirt thingies! Every gust of wind... they were a shocker."

They are no longer part of the uniform.

Typically, Kingi tries to divert praise elsewhere for the success of her former pupils. She says Sister Margaret Purdie, the principal in the 70s, created the environment which helped develop their talents.

"During that time she really encouraged them," Kingi says. "Certainly the girls were encouraged to stand up and be confident no matter what they do."

Seems to have worked.