24 Feb 2019

A passion for haka: composer Reweti Elliott and performer Tomika Whiu

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:05 pm on 24 February 2019

Poi choreographer Reweti Elliott talks about his own unique style and kapahaka performer Tomika Whiu talks about his experiences at Te Matatini and the evolution of Māori performing arts.

Reweti Elliott created poi for two groups at this years Te Matatini.

Reweti Elliott created poi for two groups at this years Te Matatini. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Reweti Elliott is an early childhood teacher who first came up with idea to create poi in his classroom.

He says the tamariki [children] and their movements inspire the choreography.

In all of his collaborations with kapa haka teams, Reweti creates his poi with a syncopated beat.

When he sits down with composers, his goal is to interpret their words to best explain the story.

“I sit with the composer and he tells me their vision and then I present it back to them. That's when my work and that vision together to create that item.”

One word in a song can be interpreted many ways, he says.

“If you want to emulate the moana [ocean] there are various ways you can do that specifically with poi. Do you want the visuals of the moana or are you looking at the tides crashing on the shore? There are various ways you can portray that specific move or that word.”

In 2016, the National Secondary Schools kapa haka organising committee replaced the compulsory poi item with Mau rākau (the use of weaponry), which caused a widespread backlash from single-sex boy’s schools.  

Te Iti Kahurangi based their poi on the kereru at Te Matatini in Wellington in 2019.

Te Iti Kahurangi based their poi on the kereru at Te Matatini in Wellington in 2019. Photo: Te Matatini Incorporated Society (supplied)

Poi has no gender bias, Reweti says.

“The poi has no boundaries, it has no limits in regards to tikanga. I’m very aware of literature written by [esteemed poi judge] Ngamoni Huata… but there is no specific gender so it is limitless. Being a creator [I want to] forge the way ahead for any group I’m participating with,  I like to create new things and new items to wow the audience.”

Reweti has composed two poi performance pieces at this year’s Te Matatini – one with Waikato-based group Te Iti Kahurangi and one with Tauranga-based group Tutara Kauika ki Rangataua.

He gravitated to the kaupapa of Māori performing arts because of its strong leadership from tutors including Sir Timoti Karetu, Te Rita Papesch and Joe Harawira.

“When I moved to Waikato it was a passion to join… They were well established at the time ... by exponents of Te reo Māori.”

Since the mid-nineties, Reweti has performed alongside Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato and created poi pieces with Te Pou o Mangataawhiri until 2015.

Despite being asked to join a group over the years, Reweti has chosen to teach instead because it is on his own terms.

Tomika Whiu has performed with Te Waka Huia for 25 years.

Tomika Whiu has performed with Te Waka Huia for 25 years. Photo: Te Matatini Incorporated Society (supplied)

Tomika Whiu first entered kapa haka at the age of 17 with Pounamu – a Māori performing arts group created by the late Dr Ngapo Wehi who was inspired during the world tour of the Te Māori exhibition in 1984.

Pounamu would perform kapa haka at the Auckland Museum and the group was a springboard to the senior club Te Waka Huia.

He attended a practice and has been with the group ever since. 

Since the Te Mataini festival began in 1972, Te Waka Huia has taken out the coveted first place Duncan McIntyre tāonga five times. 

In the last two decades, Tomika says that the changes have been vast, but the core values of the club have stuck with him.

“We have many sayings in the club…teachings or sayings that come from aunty and uncle - tikanga te tuatahi, kapahaka te tuarua - so you know the traditions and practices of our people are first and foremost… Tikanga was always paramount and kapahaka was secondary to that.”

Tomika agrees that the competition has evolved in its 46-year history, but adds that the group hasn’t changed much, in the early days, people assumed that you had to audition to get in, but recently it's had an open door policy, he says.

“We value the teachings of our club…[but] what comes with that is a sense of responsibility... as Māori ourselves we are staunch to our own hapū, marae or iwi so when we enter these groups there’s a sense of duty to be able to uphold te mana o te roopu, the standing of the group."

Auckland-based kapa haka group Ngā Tumanako won the coveted Duncan Mcintyre tāonga and are the overall winners of this year's Te Matatini festival. See RNZ coverage here.