Te Matatini performers hoping to honour late tutor

The national kapa haka competition Te Matatini is now just weeks away, but for one of our most historic groups the journey there has been marred with tragedy.

Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao's head tutor Sally-Ann Roberts, or Hereana as she was affectionately known, died suddenly while the group was performing in Rarotonga last year.

Her passing has left a gaping hole in Te Arawa and the kapa she left behind.

"It's been quite an emotional journey," Tiahuia Ropitini, who performs for Tūhourangi, said.

"[We're] learning new things, fulfilling duties and roles that she left us, and just navigating through those spaces as best as we can."

Kaitātaki Tāne, Koro Tini, said the kapa was heartbroken, but Hereana's teachings continued to guide them through.

"We've just had to just pick ourselves up, really, just try and apply all her teachings from the past. There's some gems of kōrero we've just had to hold onto.

"We often ask ourselves, 'what would Here do here?' 'What would Here say here?' We just try to think that she is here, and try and soldier on as best as we can."

Hereana led Tūhourangi for many years. She lit up every stage.

"She was one of a kind, had a real pizzazz, and quite a trend setter," Ropitini said.

"She always had a big smile, she always had big actions, and all of those teachings, all of those things, we still carry them today."

Acknowledging those who've passed away is an intrinsic part of Te Matatini.

Performances are often inspired by those who've perished and groups are sometimes seen taking photographs of their loved ones on stage.

Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao composer John Turi-Tiakitai said Te Matatini acted as a marae for the motu.

"No doubt many groups will be bringing items of political interest, social issues that are facing Māoridom and, like us, bringing their mate back to Te Matatini."

Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao has a long and renowned kapa haka history.

Its people have been performing for tourists for generations, and continued doing so when they relocated to the Whakarewarewa geothermal village in Rotorua.

"In fact, tourism in Aotearoa, we believe, started with Tūhourangi," Turi-Tiakitai said.

"They came to see the pink and white terraces at Tarawera and our people were quick to see that there was an economic opportunity there by entertaining the tourists, so kapa haka started way back then."

Many of the group's current kaihaka still perform for tourists at the village.

"It's part of what makes Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao, Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao," he said.

"It's not just the thing that they do after work, it is their work. And for some of them, it's four or five concerts a day in peak season.

"I suppose our style comes from that legacy, we had to tell our stories often to an audience that didn't understand te reo Māori. So, the concert, entertaining, and good singing was all part of that legacy."

As Te Matatini draws nearer, practices are ramping up.

Like many kapa around the country, Tūhourangi are occupying their weekends refining their bracket.

"Commitment when it comes to kapa haka requires a lot. It requires sacrifices, it requires your time, it also requires a good attitude sometimes," Ropitini said, who grew up around the kapa, and performed her first Te Matatini with the roopu in 2009.

"It's getting closer to crunch time and we're excited. It's always a buzz coming to practise, especially with all of our cuzzies, our and aunties our uncles."

Performing alongside whānau is the very reason Koro Tini turns up.

"I think, at the end of the day, that's the main reason why I'm here, to do something with my son," he said.

He'll never forget the way it felt when he saw Tūhourangi perform for the first time when he was his boy's age.

"That was in 1986. And, at that time, Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao were practising for Christchurch. My kuia told me to go down and look at the group. I got there and I was blown away. That's where I want to be."

Now, as the groups' male leader, it's his responsibility to guide a kapa with heavy hearts to yet another Te Matatini festival.

"I'd like to think its one thing to lead the items, but its more the off the stage stuff that's important to me. It's just as crucial."

The kapa determined to make their late tutor proud when they take to the Matatini stage.