Musical mentor smashing barriers sharing her God-given gift on stage and off

Bobby Mihi Howard is a woman of many musical parts.

She's sung in nightclubs and bars, been trained in classical music by a retired American opera singer, has a long involvement in choirs, possesses a performing arts degree, specialises in jazz, gospel and soul, has been an on-stage lynchpin in musical shows, is a commanding presence in kapa haka, teaches voice and entertains in the band STAVE on the corporate circuit.

That's quite some line-up by anyone's reckoning, but Bobby's achievements keep on compounding.

It was as director of Rotorua Musical Theatre's (RMT) July Dreamgirls production where she hit her highest note so far.

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Under her theoretical baton the cast, including many theatre newbies drawn from kapa haka groups, performed to sold-out houses throughout its two-week season.

Inspiring others to give of their best is yet another of this big-voiced, multi-talented woman's accomplishments. Regardless, she refuses to take credit for the show's smash success.

"They were a dream group of young people to work with, no divas, they really supported each other, were committed."

Young people are her professional forte on stage and off. By day she's the Rotorua Youth Centre's online hub co-coordinator. That roughly translates into running the centre's platform that supports young people into employment.

Rotorua's not the only place to benefit from her musical expertise. In September she played the wicked ogre stepmother in Tauranga's Stage Right's Shrek the Musical. Bobby dismisses the travelling involved for the months of rehearsals preceding it as "going with the professional territory".

She's become a regular in Tauranga productions.

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"I have a rule that here [Rotorua] I prefer to help out. I don't want to be seen as one of those people who hog the local stage especially with so much new talent coming through."

With her theatre career sketched out we turn to tracing her life's trajectory, the 40 years which have carried her to where she is today.

Growing up near Gisborne she nursed an ambition to be a sound engineer and began to study in that direction in Auckland. "Then I was sort of discovered as a singer."

In one of those Cinderella-like stories, the discovery was made by a tutor who doubled as a programme director in radio.

She was making a tape when her scheduled backing singer was a no-show.

"I thought 'oh my goodness, who's going to do it?' I ended up doing it myself but was too shy to put my name to it. My tutor wanted to know who the vocalist was; my friend went 'it's Bobby'. He came to me and said 'have you ever thought of being a performer?' "

Bobby hadn't but the seed was sown, she began to frequent Queen St's The Temple Bar and Grill's open mic sessions.

"Actually I was going there to drink, when I had a little bit of Dutch courage in me I'd get up and sing, the owner asked if I'd do a gig. I said 'okay'. I got to be the support act for Emma Paki [multi New Zealand Musical Awards winner] playing guitar and singing a mix of covers."

It led to invitations to perform elsewhere.

At the time Bobby, who came from a family with a deep Christian faith, was boarding at the United Methodist Mission's girls' hostel.

The man she was to marry, Raymond Howard, was in the male equivalent. They met at a combined hostels' camp in the Hokianga.

"We all had to do an item, after hearing mine he made a smart remark. I thought he was smug, cheeky, he got my back up. He started to turn up when I was singing in Auckland, it was like he was taunting me. Someone said he liked me. I was an innocent, didn't know what the whole flirtation scene was."

Bobby soon learned. Three months after he convinced her to go out with him they married. That was 20 years ago, and by then both were deeply involved in their church.

They moved to the Far North "so I could get to know his family".

Missing "other creatives" Bobby enrolled at Northland Polytechnic which is where American former opera singer Carol Maher took her under her wing. At Maher's urging, Bobby applied for a place in Auckland University's Performing Arts School where she planned to major in music.

By then she'd switched from classical to jazz.

"I didn't have the discipline to do classical. I was a tough, rough Māori girl student, wanted things on my terms. But my music today is because of her [Maher]."

At university, she became involved in choir work and was approaching the end of her course when Raymond was invited to join Rotorua's Living Faith church ministry.

"He's an elder now."

Bobby became part of the church's musical team and, to complete her degree, joined Te Wananga o Aotearoa under Dr Barry Smith's tutelage.

"I was like 'yay, I'm going to finish my jazz', but when I heard the first karakia (prayer), I realised I was coming into a totally different style, that not many Maori do jazz."

Regardless, her love of jazz remains, it's cemented into STAVE's repertoire.

While at the wananga, Smith cast her as narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the genesis of her bonding with musical theatre. Her first RMT show was Miss Saigon, director the late Robert Young's last production.

"With him I found musical theatre so different from Auckland where it was a bit pretentious, here it's much more relaxed."

While all this music was writing her life's score, Bobby and Raymond became foster parents.

"Early on in our marriage we found out I couldn't have children, so we decided to foster a combo of young people, those in respite care and those in need of a home for life - that means what it says."

Their foster daughter is showing promise as a singer in her own right; Bobby insists she "serves her dues" before joining her on stage.

Of her own career, she admits a liking for smashing barriers and walls.

"I like to get my hands dirty, open the way to let others shine, I love breaking new territory, being a pioneer. I like being uncomfortable it keeps me on the cutting edge."

BOBBY MIHI HOWARD

Born:

Wellington, 1977

Education: Manutuke Primary, Gisborne Girls' High, Northland Polytech, Auckland University, Te Wananga o Aotearoa (Rotorua)

Family: Husband Raymond, foster son, 17, daughter 14
Iwi affiliations: Rongowhakaata (Gisborne rohe), Ngapuhi, Ngati Pikaio

Interests: Whanau, music, kapa haka, young people, helping organise city's annual community Christmas lunch

On her music: "That's a hard one, I realise God gave me a gift, music is that gift and that God says, 'You are not doing this for you, your gift is meant for others'."

On her life: "I've tried every opportunity that's come up."

On Rotorua: "It's the creative hub of New Zealand."

Personal philosophy: "Live hard, love hard, be fearless."