Maori-mad Brazilians brought to tears by Tuku Iho event in Rio de Janeiro

LAURA MCQUILLAN/stuff.co.nz

The who's who of Brazilian tourism is moved to tears by a Maori cultural event in Rio de Janeiro, while others are getting a permanent mark of Kiwi culture. Laura McQuillan reports.

A Rotorua kapa haka might be Brazil's biggest cover act since Frank Sinatra, with a te reo version of The Girl from Ipanema bringing Brazilian VIPs to tears.

The Rio de Janeiro performance of one of Brazil's most famous songs was a surprise for a who's who of tourism and politics at the opening of Maori art and culture exhibit Tuku Iho on Friday (NZ time).

Also in the audience was Paulo Jobim, son of the song's composer, Tom Jobim. He later told organisers the performance was beautiful, and his heart hurt with emotion.

A Brazilian audience was brought to tears by a kapa haka rendition of The Girl from Ipanema.
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A Brazilian audience was brought to tears by a kapa haka rendition of The Girl from Ipanema.

Many thousands of other Rio residents will be treated to the same experience over the next two weeks, during the event backed by Rotorua tourism and cultural organisation Te Puia, and its Maori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI).

The kapa haka, accompanied by Kiwi singer Ria Hall, will perform at sites like the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, and as the pre-match entertainment before Brazil's biggest club football team kicks off at Maracana Stadium.

At an exhibition space in Rio's botanic gardens, master carver James Rickard will complete a huge carving, surrounded by an installation of Maori art.

But for many Brazilians, the biggest appeal of Tuku Iho is a trio of ta moko tattooists, who'll leave a permanent mark on about 60 locals.

In Rio, many tattoo studios offer the option of "a Maori" - a label used to describe various tribal tattoos, which are in hot demand among locals.

The name drew a chuckle from ta moko artist Arekatera 'Katz' Maihi.

"It's all good. As Maoris, we'd like to think that we could go into any shop and ask for a Brazilian," he quipped.

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As an added bonus, Tuku Iho's tattoos are free of charge: thanks to Brazil's infamous bureaucracy, organisers are unable to charge for the experience.

It's hoped the event will help ensure the "Maori" tattoos that Brazilian artists create are more homage than cultural appropriation.

"Hopefully what we're doing is creating those discussions about integrity in art forms," says NZMACI's director Karl Johnstone.

"We can be, sometimes, oversensitive around the use of our design ... Really it's about having knowledge about which forms are okay to use, which are generic, and sometimes which have more meaning associated with them and should only be used by particular people at certain times."

Tuku Iho has a number of aims: showcasing culture, building indigenous ties, and encouraging tourism and trade.

The group will meet with the Amazonian Indian tribe Kayapo, and teach rugby to locals, who are increasingly switching codes from their beloved football.

Brazil is the third destination for Tuku Iho, following exhibitions in Chile and Argentina, which stemmed from a 2012 waka voyage from the Far North to Easter Island.

Johnstone admits South America's red tape has added extra costs to the exhibition - funded by Te Puia from its Rotorua tourism business - but the organisation is able to cover the additional expenses from elsewhere in its budget.

But the added cost seems worth it: before the event even opened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian tourism operators were already expressing interest in adding New Zealand to their destinations.

Te Puia's chief executive Tim Cossar says South Americans tend to find Maori culture, particularly performances, "unbelievably powerful".

Of a recent performance in Sao Paulo, Cossar says, "unlike a lot of audiences, they actually gravitated to the front and wanted to be very close to the performers, where a lot of countries - because it's quite loud and can be seen as quite aggressive - they sort of stand back."

He has high hopes for a massive leap in South American tourist numbers to New Zealand - from 26,000 last year, to as many as 150,000 a year by 2020 - after Air New Zealand adds Argentina to its flight paths in December.

 - Stuff

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