THE eyes dilate derangedly. The tongue pokes out dangerously. A look akin to animal fury descends on the tanned visage of the handsome young man. His grimaces and grunts pierce the stillness of this balmy evening at Mitai Maori Village in the heartland of Maori culture, Rotorua, New Zealand.
Swish, swish, he waves his spear-like weapon in the air, ever mocking the audience whose eyes are fixated on his every movement, enthralled by the spine-tingling demonstration of Maori warrior might.
Stomp, stomp, the sounds of feet stamping in unison on the elaborate wooden stage is followed by thunderous thigh slapping.
This is a demonstration of the famous Kapa Haka, a powerful and highly visual Maori performing arts.
All this while I’d only been able to enjoy it from the safe distance of my TV screen whenever the All Blacks rugby team played. But seeing it up-close is truly something else.
“I never met a Maori before,” I blurt out in awe before cringing in embarrassment at just how stupid the star-struck confession may have sounded to the magnificent ‘species’ seated in front of me.
With his jet black hair left loose to cascade down his back, his tall frame towering over me just earlier as we made our acquaintance, there’s no doubt that Wetini Mitai-Ngatai is, just like the Maori warriors of yore, a force to be reckoned with.
Wetini is, after all, a leading Kapa Haka expert, cultural entrepreneur and somewhat of a celebrity in the Land of the Long Clouds for his appearance on the reality TV programme, Kapa Haka: Behind the Faces, which followed him and his Kapa Haka group as they prepared for the 2013 national Kapa Haka championships.
The Rotorua native and father of five is also the founder of the Mitai Maori Village where I caught the aforesaid Haka performance.
The Village, a Maori cultural performance and tourism attraction located at Fairy Springs, Rotorua, was founded in 2002 to, as Wetini puts it, “... provide employment for his family and the wider community.”
Continuing, he says, in that languid Kiwi drawl: “We used to hold ‘concerts’ at hotels and they’d be presented in a commercial manner, complete with the posh English accent whenever a set had to be introduced. What I wanted to offer at Mitai Village is something more raw, an authentic representation of who we are. We’re here on our own land, and people come to see us as we are and how we used to be. We’re proud of our tradition.”
Upholding tradition in the modern world
The soft-spoken entrepreneur shares that his formative years were spent with his grandfather on the latter’s farm where he enjoyed a traditional Maori upbringing.
“From the food I ate, to the way I was treated for illnesses and even my conduct — grandfather was intent on ensuring that we followed tradition,” he recalls.
And this is something that Wetini continues to hold dear. “Although we live in the modern world, our people try to ensure that many of our Maori practices and customs are continued. One of the most important ones that we observe today is called tangihanga, a traditional Maori funeral rite that’s held on a marae (communal or sacred place).”
Other rituals — such as the ceremonial welcome where the host tribe engages in back-and-forth banter with visiting guests, the shaking of hands, the hongi (pressing of noses together) and the feasting — all reflect that sense of acceptance and becoming one. A family. “Like what happened to you last night,” Wetini says, refering to my visit to the ‘Village’.
“What you experienced was a welcome ceremony that’s considered to be sacred. It’s sacred because you walked on our land for the first time. It means that the spirit of your feet is connecting with the land... and in turn, with the spirit of our people as the land represents that.”
Wetini belongs to the Te Arawa tribe, one of the seven Maori tribes here who reside around the Rotorua and Bay of Plenty areas of New Zealand.
The name is derived from the mighty waka (canoe) that brought Tamatekapua, the tribe’s leader, and his people to Ohinemutu to the bank of Lake Rotorua.
“My people have been here for a very long time,” continues Wetini. “This area is known as our ground. Once you’ve established your boundaries, it means that you’re able to live off the land and feed your children. There’s enough to sustain your people only — without others encroaching. There’s an old saying that goes, ‘through land and through woman that man perish’. In other words, it is fighting over land or women that men can be destroyed.”
Boundaries and areas of habitation are established through tribal wars, elaborates Wetini.
“The winning tribe establishes its boundaries. Some of these boundaries continue to remain today. That said, some of them have been moved, crossed and changed, depending on your capability to defend your area.
The modern Maori
“Even though we’re living in modern times, we still treasure our culture,” says Wetini, his dark eyes flashing.
“We continue to retain heaps of our stories and our history. We are proud of our genealogy. In fact, my wife and I recently completed a series for Maori TV, retelling stories of our past heroes, the various tribes and their chiefs, the battles they fought and the reasons why. We’re currently looking into doing another programme to be funded by the same TV station.
The modern Maori, says Wetini, is a professional. “We have lawyers and accountants to take care of our affairs. Our Maori economy is now worth NZD40 billion and we have big trusts. Some of our people have money in geothermals and farms. Others have shares in tourism, for example, the whale-watching business in South Island. Many of our people are very industrious. Like what I’m doing with the ‘Village’ — it’s to keep our tradition alive.”
Driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, Wetini decided to diversify his business interests after setting up his cultural village.
He found himself commuting between New Zealand and Dubai, following the success of his new venture selling “snooze cubes”, which are essentially micro-hotel rooms for long-haul airport passengers, created by his business partner, Larry Swann. In fact, Wetini was recently here in Malaysia for the launch of his Snooze KL, a funky 13-room napping facility for travellers, located by the contact pier of KLIA.
“My wife is a big part of it. I can sniff out opportunities but she can push it. She’s the engineer. She also runs her own business — a film production company.”
Wetini, the second of eight siblings, credits his grandfather for his entrepreneurial drive and love of hard work.
“We had a hard life on my grandfather’s dry stock farm, but it was never dull. We learnt a lot. Grandfather was a great problem-solver and well respected. A strong man. He was the patriarch, the main man in the family. My grandmother worked at the hospital kitchen and she also had a very strong personality.”
His late grandfather, who was born in 1908, adds Wetini, was truly a source of inspiration.
A strong-minded Maori who spoke broken English, he was admired for his work ethics.
With a faraway look in his eyes, Wetini recalls: “He worked hard. He didn’t believe in drinking because he knew that drinks got a lot of our people in trouble.
“All his life he led by example. He’d make us do multiple tasks so we ended up becoming quite skilled in various areas. One of his favourite sayings was ‘Always follow things through to the bitter end. And never give up’. He inculcated in us the belief that perseverance and hardwork will always get you somewhere.”
Meanwhile, it was his grandmother who got him into music, putting the young Wetini through piano lessons.
“It was only two years but it gave me an opening into that world,” shares Wetini. “I was in a family band from the age of 18. We used to play at gatherings and weddings and got paid for it. We used the money to buy food and even a carpet for the house.”
The affable Maori confides that he was also a sportman growing up.
“I played rugby, hockey, karate, judo, tennis. I was never without something to do. And I had a lot of things going on at the same time.”
Chuckling, Wetini says that it’s this ability to juggle so many things at the same time and being able to stay focused that has got him to where he is today.
His eyes dancing, he adds: “Last year, I entered my troupe for a major competition and we came in second, losing only by a point. I also had a TV gig going on called Kairakau, a series that depicted the lives of tupuna (grandparent or ancestor) living on the land of Aotearoa. And of course, when tourist season descends, things get very hectic at the cultural village. Between Dubai, KL and New Zealand, I’m kept pretty busy.”
With a wink, Wetini concludes: “I’m just gearing up to compose my next Kapa Haka programme for the next big competition with my troupe. And I’m already planning further developments for Mitai Maori Village. So, yair, grandfather would’ve been proud if he were still alive!”