Maori group to mark Havel’s visit to homeland

Frank Tomas Grapl Junior and Eru Haimona during the performance, photo: Kateřina Svobodová / archive of Whakaari Rotorua

Prague’s O2 Arena is set to see a very special concert next week. One of the most popular Czech bands Chinaski will team up with the Whakaari Rotorua group from New Zealand to perform a traditional Māori dance, called haka, trying to set a new record for the largest-ever haka. Whakaari Rorotua will also mark the visit of the late Czech president Václav Havel to New Zealand in 1995 with a special program at the Václav Havel library.

Frank Tomas Grapl Junior and Eru Haimona during the performance,  photo: Kateřina Svobodová / archive of Whakaari Rotorua
I discussed the visit and more with the group’s leader, Frank Thomas Grapl Junior, who was only eleven in 1995.

“I remember how much feeling he held for the native people of New Zealand. It was his plan and idea to first meet the local people, the Maori, who were the first to arrive in our country, just to see how his interactions would affect the culture.

“He totally felt at home in our city, and not just in Rotorua, but also in Wellington and in Auckland. Looking at the photos in the archives, you can tell he felt completely at home. He didn’t feel like a stranger, he felt like he was visiting friends.”

It was your father, I believe, who actually helped to organize that visit, correct?

“That is true. Many of the politicians that were there in 1995 with Václav Havel and with Olga, as well as the other Czech politicians, are still alive. They know that we are here and we are going to bring some special presentation back to Rotorua for all of them to see, because they all have fond memories from the time spent with your Czech president.”

Your father emigrated from Czechoslovakia to New Zealand in 1950.

“That is correct.”

Did he actually know Václav Havel prior to his visit to New Zealand?

“I remember how much feeling Václav Havel held for the native people of New Zealand.”

“No, he didn’t, but he knew Alexander Dubček and his brother. They were fighting in the underground to try and maintain Masaryk’s democracy. And even though a little latter, Dubček became a Communist, I believe it was part of his plan to actually turn back to democracy.

“He was responsible in helping protect my father from the Communists who were looking for him when he had escaped from a communist labor camp.

“Much later when he met my mother and her family, he fell in love with the Maori music and with the voice the Maori people and telling their stories about traditions and history.

“It was his dream to give thanks to the Maori people for taking care of him and accepting him in New Zealand by promoting their music around the world, including in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.”

Would you say the name of Václav Havel still resonates in Rotorua?

“For sure. That is why we are keeping the memory of his visit alive from 1995 in Rotorua. It’s very important to see the example he created by bringing the native cultures and connecting them with the modern material world.

“If you read about any of his visits to any country in the world, he was always very specific about meeting with the aboriginal people, he wanted to meet them first. It’s like the Czech people here – you are the roots of the nation.

8-year-old Frank Tomas Grapl Junior with his father  (first from right) and Alexander Dubček  (fourth from right),  photo: archive of Frank Tomas Grapl Junior / Whakaari Rotorua
“What you see today is that young people don’t understand their history. They don’t know about the three-hundred-year domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about the arrival of the Nazi’s, about the killing of Reinhard Heydrich, or about the seven soldiers who sacrificed their lives in 1942. And then there is the coup with Gottwald in 1948 and later the Prague Spring in 1968 and then fast forward to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

“I think kids these days don’t understand how lucky they are to have the freedom to travel around the world and to actually complain freely without worrying whether somebody is watching them or reporting them from the Secret Police. I see people complaining all the time, but not actually making any solutions.”

Going back to your visit here in the Czech Republic, another highlight is a joint concert with one of the Czech Republics most popular bands Chinaski. How did this cooperation come about?

“In February this year, our group was closing the Exhibition of Bohumír Gottfried Lindauer. He is New Zealand’s most famous painter of Maori people and he was originally from Pilsen. So, Chinaksi were recording their new album in Auckland in the studios, only a short walk from the Auckland Art Gallery, where we were closing the exhibition.

“I asked them if they wanted to come and be a part of this historical moment, and they came to the Auckland Art Gallery. I invited them to close it with me and sing Kde domov můj. Afterwards, they asked me and a fellow group member to come to the studio to record an introduction of their album and they asked if we could do some traditional Maori performance and show them how we really do it back in Rotorua.

“We will have almost 18,000 Chinaski fans doing the haka with us and we will actually make the world’s biggest haka record.”

“So, we did the traditional Maori haka which was made world famous by the New Zealand world champions, the All Blacks rugby team. They loved it so much that I said: ‘Well, let’s try it’. So we all took off our shirts, and we were half naked doing the haka for almost one hour.

“They enjoyed it so much that they said: ‘We’re going to finish the album tour to promote the album in O2 arena on November 16. If we sell out O2 Arena, we would like to do a haka there. Would you join us?’ And I said: ‘Of course we will. We are coming to the Czech Republic anyway, so there’s no problem.’

“So, we made the deal, they sold out the O2 Arena and now we will have almost 18,000 Chinaski fans doing the haka with us. And we will actually make the world’s biggest haka record, which our city currently holds.”

What else do you have on your schedule during this visit?

“I can’t remember. There are so many things. For example, we will be going to Tatra Smíchov rugby club in Prague, which marks a 60-year anniversary next year. They will have a big tournament there with many of the children, teenagers and adults playing, and I think we will do something special for them like we did two years ago.

Hongi - a traditional Māori greeting,  photo: Kateřina Svobodová / archive of Whakaari Rotorua
“Later, we are meeting with Michael Havas, a fantastic Czech-New Zealand film maker. He is going to have a premiere showcase of the Maori Battalion. It is a group of Maori army warriors who helped fighting in world war two to help free countries like Czechoslovakia that were betrayed by the French and the British because of the Munich agreement.

“So were going to show that even a minority like the Maori people were willing to fight for countries like yours in order to help free you and to help with democracy even though it wasn’t always successful.”

Will you also have time to visit the birth town of your father in Brno?

“Brno! Of course! We are going there on November 7 and I will visit my grandparents there and my auntie. They’ve all passed away now, but we will pay tribute to them.

“I think that we will be there on St. Martin’s day on November 11, so we will celebrate St Martin’s day and have the goose or the duck or whatever they have. We eat everything, we used to be cannibals in the old days, but we prefer the meat now. We are looking forward to that too, to keep the roots connected.”​