Professional surfer Tai "Buddha" Graham has lived nearly half his life in Bali and runs two of the hottest music venues there, bringing in top acts from across the globe. But, as he tells Michael Neilson, he stays true to his Māori roots and wants to bring as much home talent over as he can to share with the world.

Travellers have long been coming to Bali for the surf, heat and culture. Now they also come for the burgeoning music scene.

And right at the centre of it all is Tai "Buddha" Graham, a Māori professional surfer turned entrepreneur doing his best to put Aotearoa on the map.

As the day dips into the Indian Ocean hundreds of hip young characters make their way to one of the world's greatest sunset bars – Single Fin.

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This is where Instagram dreams are made.

Perfect waves at the world-famous break Uluwatu reel off in the distance as professional surfers, models, entertainers, "influencers" and backpackers all mingle to get the shot - #nofilter needed here.

On this particular Sunday session there is a more Kiwi feel than usual.

Veteran roots-reggae outfit Katchafire are headlining, and as they settle into their groove in front of a packed house, and the sky sets a deep orange, there really is no better complement to this moment in time.

And venue-owner Graham – jiving in the crowd along with friends and whānau, young son Kahu in his arms - knows that only too well.

Katchafire performing a sunset show at Single Fin. Photo / Supplied
Katchafire performing a sunset show at Single Fin. Photo / Supplied

He was born on the Gold Coast but his Kiwi roots run deep, with his father hailing from Far North iwi Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi.

"We have some of the best music and I want to share it with the world," says Graham.

He's already brought over The Black Seeds, Lord Echo and Six60 - several times - to the "Island of the Gods" and his sights are set firmly on securing Kiwi dub royalty Fat Freddy's Drop. When they return his calls, that is.

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At 37, Graham has made quite the life for himself, with his Norwegian fiancee, Helle Them-Enger and their son, Kahu, 2, shining in a land that is home to some of the world's coolest characters.

When two-time world surfing champion Mick Fanning visited Indonesia last year it was Graham who found him the best waves, culminating in one of the year's most popular surf videos.

Katchafire after performing their sunset show at Single Fin. Tai Graham is fourth from right holding his son, Kahu, next to his father, Miha. Photo / Supplied
Katchafire after performing their sunset show at Single Fin. Tai Graham is fourth from right holding his son, Kahu, next to his father, Miha. Photo / Supplied

Graham even went island-hopping with a top Facebook executive on his private yacht, towing the amateur surfer into giant barrels in Sumbawa.

A week before we met, Graham was hanging out with Grammy-winner and style king Anderson Paak.

The internationally-acclaimed hip-hop/R 'n' B artist was in Bali on a family holiday and Graham – a "huge fan" - reached out to ask him to play at his Canggu beach club, The Lawn.

"He'd been my number one artist for a long time," says Graham.

After a bit of wrangling, Graham managed to not only convince the superstar to play an intimate show to a few hundred lucky souls, but the pair spent the following days together surfing and "hanging out".

Anderson Paak was so chuffed with the experience he even played a free show at Single Fin the following Sunday.

How'd he end up here?

Graham is all about going against the grain, which he thinks he got from his parents.

After growing up in Auckland his father, Miha, moved to the Gold Coast, while his Kiwi relatives flocked to Melbourne.

Tai Graham (right) with Anderson Paak. Photo / Supplied
Tai Graham (right) with Anderson Paak. Photo / Supplied

His mother, Linda, wound up there too chasing the sun, as far away from home as she could from Britain.

Graham spent his formative years between the surf meccas of the Gold Coast and Bali – where his mother moved after his parents separated in 1989, but stayed well-connected to his Māori roots.

Trips back to New Zealand – sadly mostly for tangi - gave him a sense of place he never felt in Australia.

"I just connected way more with the culture in New Zealand, the close sense of whānau.

"Now there are thousands of the bros over on the Gold Coast – but it wasn't like that when I was young, I was the only brown kid at primary school.

"People always ask me where I am from. I don't like saying I am Aussie, but it is hard for me to say I am a Kiwi as I didn't grow up there.

"So I just say I'm Māori."

Tai Graham (right) with his son, Kahu, and father, Miha. Photo / Supplied
Tai Graham (right) with his son, Kahu, and father, Miha. Photo / Supplied

A talented rugby league player, his father was set on his boy playing for the New Zealand Warriors, but Graham's love of the ocean proved too strong.

He caught his first wave in Bali age 7, and soon enough was sponsored, travelling the globe competing. By his early 20s, his life was the water.

But it all started to feel a little too easy.

"Everything was okay, I had a good life, but a mentor of mine was like, 'Are you really happy?' And I was like, 'Honestly, no.'

"I wanted to wake up absolutely stoked, every day."

So he hatched a business plan to start a surf camp somewhere in the world and eventually settled on Bali. With $3000 in his pocket he set off to realise his dream.

This was 2005, and while Bali – and Indonesia – had long been known by surfers for its perfect waves, accommodation was mostly dominated by hotels or local guest houses.

Graham started up at a little surfers' hostel, and with his local contacts and knowledge – he is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia – and his western sensibilities, became the go-to guy for anyone and everyone - from top surfers to swimsuit models to celebrities - wanting to have a good time.

Bali-based Maori professional surfer Tai Graham with son Kahu and wife-to-be Helle. Photo / Supplied
Bali-based Maori professional surfer Tai Graham with son Kahu and wife-to-be Helle. Photo / Supplied

Soon Graham started his first bar with a Balinese childhood friend, and several years later another friend approached him about starting a surfers' bar atop the cliffs overlooking Uluwatu, one of the world's most famous surf breaks.

This was 2010, and while uber-popular among surfers, Uluwatu was quiet, a fair trek from the hustle of Kuta and not known for its late night hospitality and parties. But they took a gamble and it paid off.

Now there is simply nowhere else to be on a Sunday but Single Fin.

Building on their huge success, Graham launched beach club The Lawn in 2015 in Canggu, which has become a go-to for a Friday night, with top DJs and musicians headlining from all over the world.

Business in paradise


Graham says doing business in Bali is great for people who want to live a good lifestyle and have a bit more freedom.

His fiancee, Them-Enger, has her own successful ventures too, including clothing label Faithfull the Brand - worn by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Hailey Bieber.

"She is amazing. She and her friend started making clothes on the dining table, and now they have more than 1000 employees.

"Owning our companies means we have freedom, whether that is to travel around Bali or go to some remote island."

Since he moved to Bali, it has undergone some massive changes.

Tourism is booming but without the infrastructure to match is leading to rubbish-lined beaches, overloaded sewerage systems and water shortages - not helped by the thousands of private pools.

Graham says sustainability is a massive part of all of his ventures. They have banned all single-use plastic and try as hard as they can to eliminate it through the supply chain.

He has also been heavily involved in a project on the Uluwatu Peninsula to clean up the sewerage network.

Bali-based Maori professional surfer Tai Graham likes to look after Kiwis who come visit including top surfer Ricardo Christie (centre). Photo / Supplied
Bali-based Maori professional surfer Tai Graham likes to look after Kiwis who come visit including top surfer Ricardo Christie (centre). Photo / Supplied

Having spent a lot of his childhood in Bali, Graham could speak the local language, knew a lot of the culture and was good friends with many of the local families.

When starting The Lawn, he stood in front of 170 village elders to plead his case and get their permission.

"Normally foreigners will get a local agent but they wanted me there and I wanted to be part of that. It was a pretty special experience, they said I was the first foreigner to do that."

Graham says Balinese culture has many similarities with Māori, which helps him slot in and gain respect from locals.

"It really helps to blend in, and especially having Balinese staff I think they really appreciate the effort."

Musical roots

At all his venues music is the most important aspect.

His passion originated through his musician father and trips back to New Zealand, jamming with the "cuzzies".

Now he is doing his best to share the good word about Kiwi music.

When Tai Graham is not organising concerts he is chasing perfect waves around the world. Photo / Supplied
When Tai Graham is not organising concerts he is chasing perfect waves around the world. Photo / Supplied

"The world's perception of New Zealand is that it is this cute little nation on the side of Australia, but we've got some of the best music and talent around.

"I want to showcase as much as I can over here."

He recalls bringing over The Black Seeds, little-known on the island at the time, but who proved one of the best shows.

Graham even brought rap superstar Swae Lee to the show - with more than eight million Instagram followers - who was on holiday in the area.

"He was just loving it, saying 'How cool is this band?'

"Even now I still get messages from people saying that was one of the best shows ever. [The Black Seeds] just brought such a funk groove to the island."

But there is one Kiwi act that has so far proven unattainable - Fat Freddy's Drop.

"Ever since I first started Single Fin back in 2010 they've been my dream band. I would love to show them a good time and put on a show for everyone in Bali to see, it would be the ultimate show."

Katchafire performing at Single Fin. Photo / Supplied
Katchafire performing at Single Fin. Photo / Supplied

Along with Kiwi musicians, Graham often plays host to everyone from top surfers Ricardo Christie and Billy Stairmand to All Blacks.

Whānau - where the heart is

Soon after setting up his first venture in Bali, Graham met Them-Enger, who was living on the island as an exchange student, but "mostly there to party".

They've been together about 12 years, and got engaged four years ago - the busy couple have plans to finally get married this year.

As Graham did, their son, Kahu, is growing up in a middle country, with his father Māori with an Australian passport and mother from Norway - "A Māori Viking," Graham says.

But like his father Miha did for him, Graham is doing his best to keep Kahu connected to his roots.

Their home in Canggu takes the shape of a marae and they have already made two trips back to Aotearoa after Kahu was born in Norway.

The first was for a family reunion, bringing together hundreds of whānau for a massive gathering, first at Hoani Waititi Marae in west Auckland, which his koro, Te Heringa Kereama, had helped establish. Tā Pita Sharples even paid them a visit.

Katchafire performing a sunset show at Single Fin in Uluwatu, Bali. Photo / Supplied
Katchafire performing a sunset show at Single Fin in Uluwatu, Bali. Photo / Supplied

Such trips back home, catching up with whānau - many of whom are artists and musicians themselves - reminds Graham of the talent that exists, particularly among Māori, but also the shyness that can hold Kiwis back.

"From having grown up in Australia I can see many Kiwis don't have this bravado, self belief, and you kind of have to break that mould.

"We've got some of the best talent around and I'd say to Māori youth back home to dream big, as big as you can, because something will work out."

While they will be staying in Bali for the foreseeable future, their aim is to make it back to New Zealand at least once a year.

Whatever the future holds, it will definitely involve the ocean.

Along with running his Bali ventures, Graham is part of surf company Billabong's "adventure division", which means taking him regularly to some of the world's gnarliest waves.

Being a professional surfer might seem like a glamorous lifestyle, but Graham says for him it is all about the thrill of chasing waves.

"I love working hard then going on a mission. I don't care where I sleep, I'll sleep on a dirt floor, as long as we get some big barrels."

Having spent so much of his life in Indonesia Graham has an encyclopaedic knowledge of not only the breaks, but all of the conditions needed to for them to work, making him a go-to guide for many of the world's top surfers and surf companies.

Like any true surfer though he is not going to go naming any favourite spots: "I like to get off the beaten track," is all he'll say, which includes scouring the New Zealand coast any chance he gets.

"There are some amazing waves in New Zealand, and I'd love to get over there more to explore."

Graham takes a similar, adventurous approach with his businesses.

"You could go down the mainstream path, go to a popular spot where you know the waves will be good, but it will be crowded, or you could take the alternative path, take some calculated risks, and absolutely score.

"Because in the end, why would you just want to follow everyone else?"