Less than a week after being at the heart of the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle in Te Tairāwhiti, kapa haka performer Ainsley Tai (Te Whānau ā Apanui, Te Whakatōhea) has made it to Tāmaki Makaurau where she’ll take the Te Matatini stage on Wednesday for the first time. 

When Ainsley performs with Tauira Mai Tawhiti kapa she will be channelling the energy of her tīpuna. The 19-year-old has participated in kapa haka almost her whole life and feels it’s a unique expression of her identity and connection to her whakapapa.  

“Being able to perform with many generations of my whānau is an absolute highlight. It's a feeling of already winning in terms of whakawhanaungatanga, learning my hau kāinga history, and being present in all aspects of te ao Māori,” Ainsley says.  

“It’s a sense of belonging and pride for who I am, and where I come from.”

Kapa haka’s contribution

Last year, research released by Nga Pae o te Maramatanga showed the significant cultural, economic, educational and spiritual benefits kapa haka brings to Aotearoa. 

Professor Linda Waimarie Nikora, who oversaw the Ngā Hua a Te Matatini report, believes the lack of funding means the potential benefits of kapa haka for Aotearoa are being left on the table. 

“A significant investment into supporting groups and their preparation and the coming together will go a really, really long way, not just towards the performance, but for creating health and well-being and for more importantly, continuing to generate Te Ao Māori,” she says. 

Despite being unique to Aotearoa, kapa haka receives way less funding than other performing arts. Each year Te Matatini gets $2.9 million. The New Zealand Royal Ballet receives $8.1 million, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra $19.7 million.

Te Pati Māori wants $19m dedicated to Te Matatini and a further $10m committed to the community, hapu and iwi development of kapa haka and its accompanying art forms.

“They do it on aroha”

Getting to Te Matatini takes a mammoth effort and the sacrifice from the participants and their whānau is huge. 

Each team has to win its regional competition which is a massive achievement in itself. Then they train for months often travelling long distances from across regions to attend wānanga. 

The teams create original compositions, music and choreography. There’s also elite voice training, breath training, and physical training. Then the teams and the support crews have to travel to the festival. Everyone involved is volunteering their time. 

Earlier this year, Te Matatini announced a $5000 grant to help kapa haka teams get to Auckland. But even before Cyclone Gabrielle hit, two teams had to pull out of this year’s competition because they couldn’t raise the money to attend the festival. 

Ainsley has had to sacrifice her weekends for kapa haka practices. She misses out on seeing her whānau and friends and going to parties. She’s also missed out on opportunities to perform with her musical group Ka Hao – 24 young Māori from Te Tairāwhiti who celebrate their Māoritanga through waiata – as she has trained for around 30 hours a week in preparation for Te Matatini.

Given the amount of training, the level of performance and the time and resources invested into getting to Te Matatini, Professor Linda Waimarie Nikora believes kapa haka should be looked at in the same way as professional sports. 

“It's no different to someone who wants to become an elite athlete. You're talking about coaches, you're talking about equipment, training facilities, and getting the right expertise around individuals. It's no different to training an elite athlete, but the majority of kapa haka teams do it cheaply and they do it on aroha,” she says.

Most elite athletes can imagine a professional career in their sport. But for elite kapa haka performers, there are very few opportunities outside major tourism centres to become a professional. 

For Ainsley, kapa haka will always be a special space for her to express her Māoritanga. She just hopes she can keep doing it.  

“I want to be able to do the thing that I love most, the thing that grounds me in my culture and I want to do it alongside my mum and all my siblings,” she says.

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