Moetū Haangū Ngāwai was born on 5 May 1910 at Enihau, her family’s home, a mile north of the East Coast township of Tokomaru Bay. Her parents, Te Rā Haangū Ngāwai, a farmer, and his wife, Te Ipo Hārata Te Awhi Kaahi Parata, were both of Te Whānau-a-Ruataupare of Ngāti Porou. They already had six children when Te Ipo, finding she was again pregnant, visited the tohunga of the Ringatū church to seek the customary blessing. He foretold that her child would be especially gifted in some form of leadership. Later Te Ipo found that she was bearing twins, and wondered which baby would respond to the tohunga’s prophecy. Two girls were born, Moetū Haangū and Te Huinga; the second-born child lived for just twelve months, so the words of the tohunga were seen to concern the older child. To impress upon her that she was one of twins she was given the name Tuini (twin).
Tuini Ngāwai was educated at a local native school during the First World War. She found it difficult at first because spoken Māori was banned from the school grounds, but before long she was fluent in English, and found that her two languages enriched and strengthened her. When she was 14 her mother put to music a song Tuini had written. Te Ipo died later that year, convinced by the poetry of her daughter’s words that the tohunga’s prophecy would be fulfilled. That song did not survive, but from 1931 Tuini was to write more than 200 songs which are still remembered, most spiritual in their inspiration, but each written for a specific, often pragmatic purpose.
Her first surviving song, ‘He nawe kei roto’, so impressed Apirana Ngata that he had Tuini sing it at the opening of the carved meeting house Te Hono ki Rarotonga at Tokomaru Bay in January 1934. Other well-known songs she wrote before 1939 include ‘Awhitia au’, ‘Mā te aha rā e tama’, and ‘Mai ngā rā o mua e Ari’, which commemorates the Lady Arihia Ngata hockey trophy.
In 1939 Tuini moved briefly to Auckland, where she joined a choir that made frequent radio broadcasts. There she polished her composing technique, writing words for the choir’s performances. As the Second World War began, Tuini returned to Tokomaru Bay, setting up and leading (in her strong contralto voice) Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū, a performing group whose work assisted Ngata in his recruiting efforts for the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion. The group’s performances continued through the 1940s and beyond, bringing Tuini’s songs to troops in training camps and those departing, to their friends and relatives left behind, and later to their descendants. During the war Tuini wrote many of her finest songs, including a farewell, ‘Haere rā e Roa’, composed for her sister Materoa, who had joined the army, and ‘Arohaina mai e te Kingi Nui’. This second song, written in 1940 following a church service for the Māori Battalion, was regarded by many as her masterpiece and an outstanding classic of Māori songwriting; it caused Ngata to hail Tuini as a composer of genius. The song was sung during a farewell to the Māori Battalion, and it became their unofficial hymn.
In 1943 Ngata arranged for Tuini to be appointed a teacher specialising in Māori culture, working with all schools that taught Māori children from Te Karaka in Poverty Bay to Cape Runaway. At the 1943 hui to celebrate the award of the Victoria Cross to Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu, she had all the schools perform en masse the song ‘Karangatia rā’, a famous action song composed by Ngata for the return of Māori soldiers after the First World War. Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū performed several of Tuini’s songs specially written for the occasion, including ‘Kei tawhiti pāmamao tō tinana’ (Your body rests in a distant place).
Tuini Ngāwai’s teaching career ended in 1946, when she took on the leadership of shearing gangs, learning to shear so as to be able to lead by example. Tuini expected strict standards from her workers, and she herself was to win the women’s section of a shearing competition. Many of her songs commemorating Māori shearing gangs are still sung on the East Coast. From 1946 she also became involved with the Kotahitanga movement, which sought to restore Māori pride and identity through cultural revival. She assisted the tohunga Hōri Gage in his healing ministry, and she was involved with efforts to achieve greater recognition for the Treaty of Waitangi. As always, she voiced her deepest feelings through the words of songs such as ‘Te Kotahitanga rā e’.
From the mid 1940s to 1963 Tuini put to use her versatility with a number of instruments, especially the saxophone, by leading a six-piece band she named the ATU Orchestra. Most of Tuini’s songs were set to popular tunes because, for Tuini, their vital message lay in the words rather than the music, and the performers had to learn the songs by heart as quickly as possible for each new occasion.
From 1953 Tuini entered her senior cultural group from Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū in the Tamararo Māori cultural competitions held in Gisborne. She also trained and entered two youth groups and most years these three groups represented Tokomaru Bay in the annual competitions. Tuini wrote many songs for these events, including ‘Piki mai kake mai’, to commemorate the ancestor for whom the competitions were named. Tuini and Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū sang her song ‘Te Tiriti o Waitangi’ before Queen Elizabeth II during her tour of 1953–54; another famous song of the 1950s was ‘Nau mai, haere mai’, written to welcome the 1956 South African rugby team to Gisborne.
Tuini Ngāwai never married, but raised many children. Diminutive in stature, she gave the impression of size through her confidence, tempered with the humility, care and concern for others that marked her life. She was a perfectionist with an unrelentingly high standard, although she allowed for individual style and did not insist on a rote-learned unison in cultural performances. Although a Ringatū she assisted other churches with their choirs, in combined worship and in Māori cultural activities. Her greatest contribution to other churches was in leading a Mihinare (Anglican) culture group at the all-Aotearoa Hui Tōpū Māori held at Tūrangawaewae marae in 1962. For this occasion she wrote ‘Matariki’, one of two songs she penned to acknowledge her King movement hosts.
At the beginning of 1965 Tuini Ngāwai fell ill with cancer, and she died at Tokomaru Bay on 12 August. She was buried at Ngaiopapa, Tokomaru Bay. Many of her songs were later collected and published by her niece Ngoi Pēwhairangi, also a songwriter. Tuini left behind a rich legacy of songs and an unsurpassed standard of composition, work and community leadership.