Moana Maniapoto’s dedication to te ao Māori is clear from her music and television — thanks to songs and tours which mix dance, te reo, and kapa haka, and a line of documentaries made with her partner Toby Mills.
Maniapoto’s music is acclaimed for its fusion of traditional Māori instruments with modern influences (including pop, reggae and taonga puoro). In 2006, American mag The Beat called her a "truly inspiring performing and recording artist".
The singer, documentary maker and law graduate grew up in Invercargill, the daughter of a wharfie and a mother who held down many jobs. Her father played guitar and piano, and encouraged her and her sisters to sing when he made speeches at the local marae.
Later her parents "slogged their guts out" to send her to St Joseph’s Māori Girls' College in Napier. She learnt kapa haka from the influential Georgina Kingi, plus poi and composition. Maniapoto talks about her convent school memories in this 1995 documentary. In an NZ Herald interview she described the "strong feminist streak going through the school … the nuns showed that girls can do anything. They used to fix the blimmin' trucks and zoom around".
Maniapoto financed her law degree at Auckland University by singing in the city's club circuit. She also appeared occasionally on television, supplying backing vocals on variety shows. Along the way Dalvanius Prime pushed her to write and record. Moana and the Moahunters formed in 1990. That year, their remake of feminist anthem ‘Black Pearl’ climbed to number two in the charts. In this Making Music interview, Maniapoto recalls how a trip to Detroit — where she was asked to sing at a church, in front of 400 Afro-Americans — made her realise the importance of embracing her own culture and sound.
Back in Aotearoa, te reo trailblazers like ‘AEIOU’ were still getting rejected by mainstream radio. The song featured on 1993 album Tahi, which later scored a Taite Music Prize for its lasting influence. Spinoff writer Leonie Hayden has described how 'AEIOU' marked the first time she'd heard popular music by Māori women. The colourful music video was the first to be funded by NZ On Air.
In 1992 the band performed in New Orleans, after befriending Americans The Neville Brothers during a tour of Aotearoa. Moana and the Moahunters' success in New Orleans was captured in documentary The Neville Brothers - Keepers of the Flame.
In 2002 Maniapoto formed new band Moana & the Tribe, "a fluid group of talented performers" who have released multiple albums. Together the two groups have performed hundreds of concerts across the globe. Moana has also performed with bands Aotearoa, My Name is Moana, and in electronica duo Tū. For more on her musical career, see these AudioCulture pages.
She has also packed many television credits into her kete. She did a year on Shortland Street as Doctor Te Aniwa Ryan starting in mid 1993, where she stalked and courted Temuera Morrison's Hone Ropata. She was credited as Moana Maniapoto-Jackson (from her marriage to Labour MP Willie Jackson).
In the mid-90s she co-hosted Saturday morning TV3 kids show, Yahoo. Maniapoto also provided political commentary on current affairs show The Ralston Group, and led the panel (with Stacey Morrison and Temuera Morrison) for Māori Television’s praised 2005 election night special Taaria te Waa.
Director Stuart Page used a Bolex camera to film Maniapoto in her Auckland apartment and at her marae for My Home (2003). The short film was included on Moana and the Tribe DVD Live & Proud.
Maniapoto has directed (and sometimes narrated or presented) a number of documentaries involving aspects of te ao Māori. Most are made with her partner Toby Mills, under their respective companies Black Pearl Productions and Tawera Productions (Mills also manages Moana's tours, and handles multimedia effects on her shows.)
The duo's documentaries have explored everything from profiles of activist Syd Jackson (Syd Jackson: Life & Times of a Fully Fledged Activist) and master carver Pakariki Harrison (He Tohunga Whakairo), to this doco Maniapoto presented about an early encounter between Māori and Russian explorers.
Guarding the Family Silver (2005) saw Maniapoto exploring how companies use indigenous cultures. The doco was born after Moana was forced to hurriedly come up with another name for her group, after discovering 'Moana' was copyrighted by someone else. The Island (2008) looked at another subject that was close to home: the cultural and geological history of Motutaiko Island in Lake Taupō. Maniapoto’s marae — Waitetoko — is on the eastern rim on the lake.
Maniapoto and Mills' first TV collaboration was Ngā Morehu: End of an Era (2000), which features kaumatua telling stories about everything from catching crayfish, to being jailed alongside prophet Rua Kenana. The first episode won Best Māori Programme at the NZ Television Awards. Their Syd Jackson doco won the same award in 2003, while an episode of Ngā Morehu was nominated for Best Māori Language Programme.
The pair's documentaries have screened at festivals internationally. On the couple's website, they describe their production ambitions: "Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu: small but precious. Our passion is to film our people telling their own stories, and to capture it with integrity."
In 2004 Maniapoto was made a member of the NZ Order of Merit, for services to Māori and music. Her contributions to Māori music saw her receiving a Te Waka Toi award in 2005. An Arts Foundation Laureate Award followed in 2007, and in 2016 she was inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame.
Maniapoto composed the music for Mills' 2001 short film Te Po Uriuri (with Hirini Melbourne), and Mike King series Lost in Translation. She is part of the trust behind Māori/Pasifika website E-Tangata, and in 1990 hosted a talkback slot on Aotearoa Radio, the first national Māori station.
In 2018 Māori Television invited Maniapoto to host a new current affairs show. Te Ao with Moana debuted in June 2019, and returned in 2020. The show is produced by her journalist son Kimiora Hikurangi Jackson. Maniapoto also directed her first television series: The Negotiators, in which she meets people who have negotiated Treaty of Waitangi settlements. Maniapoto wrote in E-Tangata about how learning about past injustices against Māori got to her. "The thing that gets me the most, that shines through all the ugliness of the injustice and the cruelty and the dehumanising of a people, is the ongoing capacity our people have for kindness — the generosity of spirit, the commitment to inclusivity."
Profile updated on 31 August 2020
Moana Maniapoto, 'Treaty Negotiators: Not a job for whimps' E-Tangata website. Loaded 18 August 2019. Accessed 31 August 2020
Moana website. Accessed 31 August 2020
Chris Bourke, 'Moana Maniapoto Profile' AudioCulture website. Loaded 28 September 2016. Accessed 31 August 2020
Shelley Bridgeman, Singing the Same Song' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 4 November 2007
Leonie Hayden, 'The wonderful world of Moana Maniapoto' (Interview) The Spinoff website. Loaded 8 June 2019. Accessed 31 August 2020
Dale Husband, 'Moana Maniapoto: Making Māori visible through our songs' (Interview) E-Tangata website. Loaded 8 October 2016. Accessed 31 August 2020
‘Moana Maniapoto - Musician’ Arts Foundation website. Accessed 31 August 2020