Katehane Paea was discouraged from speaking her native tongue as a child in 1950s New Zealand and her mother was given the strap when she spoke te reo Māori at school. Today, Katehane’s grandson Arapeta Paea, who describes his Nan as “the closest thing to my heart”, studies at the University of Waikato to retrieve and nurture the language lost to three generations of his family.
Dedication, passion and hard work have seen the former Rotorua Boys’ High School head boy receive a Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship, for his achievements in guitar and voice. He is deepening his understanding of Māori language and culture with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) and is in his second year of study with a double major in Te Reo Māori and Tikanga Māori. A surprising choice, perhaps, for a young man who didn’t learn te reo until high school but Arapeta is all about breaking down perceptions, rejecting stereotypes and just being himself.
With strong connections to a Samoan (on dad Valavala’s side) and Māori (on mum Gaylene’s side) heritage, Arapeta pays tribute to his whānau in helping him reach his goals. His grandmother remains an inspiration in everything he does. When his mum and dad work long hours it’s Katehane who steps in to support Arapeta and his younger siblings, sister Heniparaire and brother Mikaere. Nothing is too much trouble, so when she jokingly asks Arapeta “What would you do without me, boy?” he answers with a smile “I honestly don’t know”.
Starting high school as a “shy kid”, Arapeta’s natural musicality led him to all things performance and brought him out of his shell. School productions like Jesus Christ Superstar, Buddy Holly and The Wiz, challenged him to take on different personas and make them his own. His first school production director, world-renowned performer and Rotorua Theatre stalwart, the late Robert Young taught Arapeta “to be confident and not care what anyone thinks of you”. Advice he found inspirational then and tries to honour and incorporate into his life now.
Kapa haka provides another outlet for the natural-born performer of Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngāti Porou and Ngai Tai descent. He has competed at regional and national level and travelled to Shanghai twice as a Māori cultural ambassador. He enjoys being a teller of stories through song and action, and never tires of learning more about his language and culture. His eye is firmly fixed on the big prize of one day winning the Te Matatini festival – Aotearoa’s biennial national Māori performing arts festival.
And if study, kapa haka practice and competitions, student ambassador and Hillary commitments weren’t enough, every weekend Arapeta returns to Rotorua’s Tamaki Māori Village to perform three shows a night for tourists keen to experience Māori tikanga. He also squeezes in performances at Te Puia in Rotorua and, along with his mate Rua, is head kapa haka tutor of Waikato Diocesan School for Girls. In his spare time he plays around with music in any capacity he can. Recently he provided backing vocals on friend, and fellow Waikato student, Rehua Selwyn’s Mā te Aroha, a song launched on radio and streaming sites iTunes and Spotify, that inspires Māori to love themselves and their culture.
Arapeta, the man with a big smile, big personality and big talent, has a dream. He wants to become a secondary school teacher to give back to his community and pass on knowledge to the kids he hopes to one day inspire. Arapeta plans on gaining his BA and continuing straight to postgraduate teaching studies, and is getting in some practice by working as a relief teacher back at Rotorua Boys’. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no time to waste turning his dream into reality.
“I’ve had a few friends suggest I take a break and have a gap year before I study teaching,” he says. “But I’ve seen people have a gap year that turns into a gap life. That’s not for me.” The natural leader wants youth to realise that involvement in Māori culture through performance can take you to “unimaginable heights and places you never dreamed you’d go”.
Another career option on Arapeta’s radar is being a collections manager of Māori taonga at a museum like Te Papa. He believes that travelling the world to return taonga to New Zealand, or educating others in how to correctly care for Māori artefacts would be a fascinating vocation and something he would feel privileged to be part of.
Receiving the full-fees Hillary scholarship was a welcome recognition of the hours of effort Arapeta has put into honing his craft. It’s fair to say he’s pretty “chuffed” about it. “On a scale of 1 to 10 it’s about 200,000,” he says. “The fact that I'm able to get financial, leadership and mentoring support throughout my years at uni is such a humbling thing and I can’t wait to get out there and change the world!”
Ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku māpihi maurea
My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul