Bringing Māori Soul to the Heart of Europe
Whakaari Rotorua are a group of performers from Rotorua, New Zealand, who travel around the world sharing their Māori culture through traditional dance and song. They specifically travel to the Czech Republic often as they have a deep connection to this country – especially group member Frank Grapl Junior, as his father, František Grapl, emigrated to New Zealand in 1950 as a former political prisoner.
František was born in Brno, and like many others – and in his opinion, rightly – dealt in weapons during the communist era. Brno was famous for delivering weapons all around the world at the time, as people were preparing for an uprising against the communist regime. František was arrested and placed in a labour camp in 1948. With the help of the Kinsky family, for whom he had worked as a chauffeur, he managed to escape in 1949. He fled to Austria and then Germany, where he boarded a boat using fake ID papers. Through various means, he ended up in Australia, and from there he continued to New Zealand. After WWII, the governments in both New Zealand and Australia were trying to develop their countries, and so they welcomed foreigners who wanted to start a life there. When František arrived, he immediately fell in love with the country and the locals, and there he met his wife and Frank’s mother, Tuhi. After a short settling-in period, he began working as a mechanic and later as a music and culture promoter.
When Frank Junior was a child, he always believed his father was some kind of foreign agent as he could speak eight different languages (including Māori) and they had many visitors including prime ministers and presidents, actors, and singers from all over the world. He would ask his father how he knew these people, to which his father would always respond by saying, “Enjoy yourself and don’t ask questions.”
Václav Havel stayed with Frank and his family for two days during his presidency. Even though Frank was 12 years old at the time, he remembers Havel and his father performing a haka dance together at 4am. Without a doubt, there were a few drinks and cigars involved. They were making so much noise that the police were alerted. When they turned up and realised the president of the Czech Republic was in the house, those who were going off duty wanted to hang around, so it ended up becoming one big party. “I feel privileged that I had the opportunity to meet him and see a side of him that most people would never have seen,” says Frank.
“I always saw him as a friend of my father’s and not as a politician.
I learned a lot from him. We use many of his lectures when visiting schools in the Czech Republic, especially the lectures that are focussed on teaching that people should be united and not divided. For the most part, it is this philosophy that is shared in traditional Māori songs, especially how we need to be more considerate of one another to make the world a better place.”
František and Tuhi shared a love of Māori culture and the international language of music, and the ambition to travel the world and promoteMāori culture. In 1978 they started bringing various cultural performance groups from New Zealand to the Czech Republic. In 2008, four years after Frank’s father died, he decided to continue the tradition together with his mother and other artists. “There is just something about the Māori Haka, songs, and costumes that draw people in, people just love it,” he says.
The Haka is an ancient Māori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield or when groups came together in peaceful times. It became famous worldwide when players (most notably the All Blacks rugby team) would perform the dance to intimidate their opponents. Frank says, “The majority of people are fascinated by it and the fact that Whakaari Rotorua’s shows are fully booked until the end of July pays testament to this. People want to know the meaning behind the Haka, what the costumes are made of, and whether or not Māori’s still wear them. Most people have never met a Māori before. A lot of the time I am mistaken for an Indian, South American, Egyptian, you name it! There are quite a few New Zealand actors that play in movies due to the fact we look like so many other different nationalities. The truth is that most people that meet us have no idea who we are.”
Māori culture is regaining its former strength due to the many problems currently affecting the world. People are choosing to return to their roots. There are many different Māori tribes and each has its own tattoos and costumes. The costume Whakaari Rotorua wears is a generic costume. However, the tattoos are from their hometown, Rotorua. The costumes used to be made from the feathers of various birds such as the kiwi, but these birds are now protected. The feathers are now replicas or from birds that have died naturally. Most tribes still have the original cloaks that get taken out on special occasions, such as when a family member dies. The coffin gets placed in the house with the cloak draped over it and for three days the family eats and sleeps with the deceased. On the third evening, family and friends celebrate, sing the old songs, and tell the old stories that go back to their ancestors thousands of years ago.
The first Czechs arrived in New Zealand in the 1860s, and they built their first small community on the North Island in a village named Puhoi, where to this day you can find the Puhoi Pub, a famous Czech pub which was established in 1897. There wasn’t much up there, so many Czechs began relocating to Auckland and to the capital, Wellington, to find jobs and, hopefully, for a better life. Even though most of the inhabitants have lost their ancestral language, they still celebrate Czech folklore, produce Czech cheeses, and sell cold draft pilsner.
“In New Zealand we believe that everybody knows about our culture, but most countries outside the Commonwealth don’t know that much about us. At the beginning of June, we travelled to Moravia to catch up with friends and family. During our stay, we discovered that the first Moravians came to New Zealand in 1874. When we began planning to go to Moravia, we asked them if they had seen a Māori before. They said never, so it has taken nearly 150 years for us to come and see them,” says Frank.
Whakaari Rotorua try to act as ambassadors between New Zealand and the Czech Republic. “At the moment we have our focus on Karlovy Vary, as we want to make it a sister city of Rotorua.”
According to Frank, there are many similarities between the two cities. Both, for example, have geysers and geothermal springs. It is also a fact that Kiwis have been travelling to Karlovy Vary more than ever in the last five years. The Czech Republic isn’t linked to any countries in the Pacific, and New Zealand isn’t linked to any countries or cities in Europe.
Frank says, “There are connections between the Czech Republic and New Zealand that most people don’t know about. For example, everyone knows that the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed in New Zealand, but what many people don’t know, is that most of the pottery used on set was made by Czechs and that fed our economy.”
Whakaari Rotorua has performed with famous Czechs such as Karel Gott and the band Chinaski. One of their most memorable shows was with Marta Kubišová. Marta came out of the darkness in 1989 on the balcony of Hotel Jalta on Wenceslas Square, when she sang “Prayer for Martin,” which is considered by many to be the unofficial Czech national anthem. “When we met her for the first time, she was so kind and humble,” Frank says. He asked if he and his mother could sing a song for her. “She said, ‘No you can sing with me.’ We ended up improvising together with my mum. It was such a beautiful experience. We did it in the Hotel Jalta underground nuclear bunker on Wenceslas Square, which was iconic seeing that she had sung there 30 years ago.”
Whakaari Rotorua’s mission is to educate people on their Māori culture through performances, and also to spread understanding, connection, love, fun, and laughter. By combining dance and music they show that it is okay to open up, smile, and let other cultures in.