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Dame Hinewehi Mohi reflects on her inspirational career

As she's being inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame, the singer looks back at her proudest moments and the girl who inspires it all
Photos: Babiche Martens

As she celebrates being inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame this week, Dame Hinewehi Mohi talks to the Weekly about the unexpected award and the healing impact a lifetime of music has had on her whānau.

The Hawke’s Bay talent first hit the airwaves in 1999. It was the release of her debut album Oceania, recorded with English producer Jaz Coleman. Smiling at the cherished memories, Hinewehi recalls recording the initial hit single Kōtahitanga with her daughter Hineraukatauri, then just 18 months old, in her arms.

Born with cerebral palsy, Hineraukatauri is nonverbal and at the time used a tracheostomy to breathe. But as Hinewehi experimented with the now iconic chorus, “Whakaawe awe awe”, Hineraukatauri couldn’t contain her enthusiasm.

“We got the first recording with her snorting along with her tracheostomy,” recalls Hinewehi, now 59. “Because she was just a baby when I was writing the songs with Jaz, she was always on my hip. She was listening and influencing those tunes and ideas in the lyrics.”

Hinewehi Mohi in a bath filled with white and blue plastic balls
Soaking up the attention!

While it was an incredibly challenging time, it was also a profoundly life-changing one. Doctors told Hinewehi that her daughter’s chances of surviving to adulthood were low. They spent much time in and out of hospital.

“I remember Jaz said, ‘Use this music as a vehicle for expressing your emotions and feelings about the birth of your daughter.’ It was such a wonderful thing. But, she was born with a lot of challenges and we didn’t know what the future held for her.”

The album went on to be a huge success, spending 18 weeks in the Top 40 charts.

After witnessing first-hand Hineraukatauri’s ongoing amazing response to music, Jaz introduced them to music therapy at the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Centre in London in 1999.

“She was two then and she was just so joyous,” recalls Hinewehi of her now 28-year-old daughter.

Hinewehi Mohi in a red dress with a traditional Māori coat on
The humble dame is being inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. “When they asked me, my first thoughts were, ‘I’m not worthy.’”

“I knew she loved music and responded to it. She can’t speak but she vocalises, and in her own way she sings. That continues to be one of the most joyous things we can see for her in music therapy.”

Hinewehi and her husband George Bradfield knew they had to make sure Hineraukatauri could continue to access it back in Aotearoa.

“George and I came home determined to have more. We were lucky to find people who thought it was special too and helped us.”

The devoted duo went on to found the Raukatauri Music Therapy Trust. Hinewehi proudly shares that this year marks the charity’s 20th anniversary. It has grown from one music room supporting a small group of children each week to now welcoming 1000 people of all ages through the doors weekly in four different regions.

“When a person really comes alive with music, honestly, it’s hard to articulate what that is,” she beams. “But it’s a sense of joy and ecstasy that your child and loved one is really connecting, and is entitled to be able to share in that. At Raukatauri, we see miracles happening every day.”

Hinewehi Mohi with Hineraukatauri at music therapy.
Hinewehi and beloved daughter Hineraukatauri during music therapy.

Hinewehi admits it’s tougher than ever to keep the doors open, but she refuses to give in. Knowing the value the service provides as the only music therapy centre in New Zealand, Hinewehi is getting creative with a Guinness World Record attempt for the world’s largest haka.

In September, she will attempt to beat the world record of 4028 people performing the war dance. The event will double as a fundraiser for the Trust.

Reflecting back on her musical roots, Hinewehi pays homage to her father Mike Mohi. She credits him with instilling in her a deep love of waiata (song) and her Māori culture.

When Mike wanted to learn te reo in the mid-’70s, they were living on an isolated Hawke’s Bay farm, so he began correspondence school. But music proved to be the key.

“Because we were so distanced and busy on the farm, Dad used to play LP records of artists like Isabel Cowan and Inia Te Wiata singing the legacy waiata we know and love. It was a beautiful way to saturate our ears with the language.”

From these early experiences, Hinewehi learned to imitate the voices. She went on to develop her vocal skills at St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College.

The singer is now setting her sights on a Guiness World Record for the world’s largest haka.

“I wanted to sing, but I didn’t initially see how I could make a living from it, so I went to Waikato University and later got into broadcasting, radio and television, and enjoyed telling stories through that medium.”

As she talks about this time, Hinewehi acknowledges that she has had many mentors, including some of the great modern-day reo advocates like Sir Tīmoti Kāretu.

“Another was the late Dr Hirini Melbourne, who taught me so much about taonga pūoro [traditional Māori instruments] and all those voices of antiquity. I’m really grateful to him for opening up a whole different world to me. As a by-product, I named my daughter after the [Māori] goddess and personification of music and the guardian of flutes.”

Since then, Hinewehi has been a force for good in the Aotearoa music scene. In 2008, she was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to the Māori. Then, in the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours, she received a promotion to Dame Companion for services to Māori, music, and television.

While today her fierce commitment to te ao Māori is nationally celebrated, Hinewehi will never forget unintentionally making history in 1999. She controversially sung only the Māori national anthem at the Rugby World Cup in Twickenham.

At Twickenham in 1999 before heading out to sing the national anthem. Oceania producer Jaz is on the far right.

“It was 25 years ago, but still it was a very confronting time. Thank goodness we didn’t have social media then or I may not have survived! There was certainly a lot of pushback and discussion on talkback radio. Often I do take these things to heart. I really feel strongly. I love our culture and want everyone to love it.”

Her passion is just as strong today. Hinewehi counts producing Waiata/Anthems, a compilation of top Kiwi songs re-recorded in Māori, as a career highlight. The 2019 album debuted at number one on the national charts. Excitingly, it also saw a large increase in waiata reo Māori on mainstream radio stations.

“It took me by surprise,” says Hinewehi. She has continued to advocate, support and engage with songwriters in waiata through her work at music rights organisation APRA AMCOS. “It was really intense but so exhilarating. Artists who had never sung in Māori and were often disconnected from the language, culture and their whakapapa [ancestral lineage] were empowered using their own music to provide a connection to themselves as Māori.”

As she’s inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame, Hinewehi confesses she was initially surprised she’d been chosen.

“Subsequent to Oceania, I haven’t had as many releases. That makes me a little whakamā, uncertain about my suitability, for the Hall of Fame.

“When they asked me, my first thoughts were, ‘I’m not worthy.’ I couldn’t really get my head around not having the body of work of Don McGlashan or other inductees. But I do understand what my involvement has been and see it as an honour.”

From kapa haka at college to her album Oceania. Hinewehi has been a force for Māori language in the music industry.

Quick to acknowledge it hasn’t been a solo effort, Hinewehi runs through a list of everyone she’s grateful to. From translators and artists to producers and funders, plus many more in between.

“They’ve all come together and supported me. Every single one of them is important to the whole and I wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”

When she’s honoured at the May 30 Aotearoa Music Awards, the audience will be full of many of those who have been key on her journey and her beloved whānau – husband George, Hineraukatauri and her caregiver of 24 years, Tania Hammond, and the man who introduced her to music, her dad.

“He’s pretty understated when it comes to that stuff, but te reo Māori has been his life’s passion and that has guided me to fall in love with waiata reo Māori. Honestly, he really thrashed that music,” she laughs.

Smiling, Hinewehi enthuses, “I’m really proud to have him there. He’s been such a big part of setting me on this path for what I’ve loved since I was a little kid.”

To learn more or to help support the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre, visit rmtc.org.nz/donate

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