In 1999 Hinewehi Mohi made history at the Rugby World Cup when she performed the New Zealand national anthem in te reo Māori. Twenty years on, she's making history again with a new album that includes some of Aotearoa's most beloved pop songs, translated into Māori.
Waiata / Anthems features well-known tracks from Bic Runga, Six60, Drax Project, Stan Walker and more, all beautifully translated into te reo Māori with the help of Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, one of NZ's greatest living Māori orators.
Hinewehi joined RNZ Music's Yadana Saw to share some of her favourite songs and discuss why she chose to sing in Māori that day at Twickenham.
The positive reaction to Hinewehi Mohi's Waiata / Anthems project could not be further from the bitter public reaction she faced when she sang 'E Ihowa Atua' at the England vs. All Blacks quarter final match at the 1999 World Cup.
Two decades on, she says she chose to sing the anthem in te reo because she “was in a bubble” and thought Aotearoa was ready to celebrate the Māori culture in the same way she was.
Hinewehi (Ngati Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe) grew up surrounded by te reo. After boarding at St Joseph’s Māori Girls College she attended Waikato University, immersing herself in the “secure and nurturing” environment of the Māori department.
She studied under luminaries such as Sir Tīmoti Karetu (who is the translator for the Waiata / Anthems project) and Dr Hirini Melbourne.
“Everyone was so excited and enthusiastic about learning Māori and being involved in what we were doing,” Hinewehi recalls of that time.
“It's possibly why I came to sing the national anthem in Māori, I [was] perhaps still in a little bit of a bubble thinking that this is all very normal and the bubble was popped a little bit when there was an adverse reaction to my performance.”
“I was feeling incredibly proud to be there and to perform the national anthem.”
Hinewehi was surprised by the negative reaction not only from the players, who didn't sing along, but from many New Zealanders back home. Talkback radio was alight, and TV news programmes were demanding she explain herself.
“It was shocking to me because I was singing in our language for our country and it made me feel, 'Was that really right?'”
In television interviews from the time Hinewehi is calm, and seems somewhat bemused by the fallout. Fronting without an agenda other than simply wanting to celebrate te reo Māori and her culture, Hinewehi did not fit the angry, Māori activist stereotype that her critics assumed her to be.
In the tournament's semi-final match, Hinewehi was ordered to sing only the English version of the anthem. The All Blacks lost to France 43-31.
“For a millisecond I questioned whether I should have sung the anthem in te reo, but it was the most authentic side of me that I could portray.”
For Hinewehi, the Waiata / Anthems kaupapa is a celebration of “how far we’ve come”. Looking back on the controversy that her national anthem performance stirred up she says, “The upshot of it is that it’s all turned out fine.”
The Waiata / Anthems ialbum is available now: https://www.waiataanthems.co.nz/
Bic Runga dropped in to perform 'Haere Mai Rā' / 'Sway' live at RNZ
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