Tihi Puanaki - looking back on 50 years of Te Matatini

By James Perry

Kapa haka legend Tihi Puanaki says after 50 years of Te Matatini, kapa haka keeps her young at heart and mind.

The premier kapa haka competition of the world is celebrating 50 years this year. Puanaki has been at the heart and soul of Christchurch rōpū Te Kotahitanga o Waitaha since establishing the group with her husband in the 1970s.

Her son Te Huaki has led the rōpū, and now her mokopuna are taking to the stage. Rather than that ageing her, she says it gives her great thrills.

“It lifts my spirits to see the next generations. It's amazing to be able to stand together with their children and whānau. Even though I'm old, kapa haka keeps me vibrant,” she told Te Ao Marama.

Puanaki, who guided Te Kotahitanga to the national title in 1977, trumpeted the long-lasting benefits of a life-long dedication to kapa haka.

“For those of us who've done it for a long time, there's a fire still burning within us. We’ve seen the benefits it gives to our health.

“I’m still encouraging my generation to keep active in kapa haka, to keep healthy and keep up with our mokopuna. It’s amazing to stand with whānau. Not to mention seeing us keeping at it helps the younger generation stay involved.”

She adds Te Matatini might be the pinnacle of kapa haka but says it’s not the only means of continuing the traditions of tīpuna.

She fondly remembers one moment when the rōpū visited a women’s prison to perform.

She says the women’s spirits were lifted by the performance.

“They were happy, laughing and their hearts were pumping. And you know what it's like when you stand and the audience is lively, you haka even harder.”

Puanaki laughs as the story continues. One of the more ‘pleasing’ aspects for the female crowd was noticing one of the male kaihaka had a hole in his underwear, inadvertently exposing himself.

“I think, that's why the women enjoyed it. From then on I said to the men they needed to wear two pairs of undies, in case they had a hole in them.

“I better not tell the story of the time we performed to a nudist colony,” she continues.

Even after 50 years of Te Matatini, legends such as Tihi Puanaki continue to show that kapa haka could well be the elixir of youth.