Rob Kipa-Williams links in through Zoom from the Wairarapa, where he’s been busy planting native trees. He’s just bought a farm with his mates and he’s got big aspirations; he hopes to start a market
“If anyone wants to come up to the farm to plant native trees and regenerate the ngahere, bring a spade,” he says.
Kipa-Williams is big on hauora. Life looks a lot different now for the actor who made his name playing the handsome Ari Parata on the popular Aussie teen soap Home and Away.
Of Ngāti Maru, Scottish and Irish descent, Kipa-Williams was part of the first Māori family to ever feature on the show. After his character was killed off six months ago, Kipa-Williams moved home.
Now he’s launching the first meditation app of its kind, inspired by his own journey in hauora and meditation. Called HAAAA, it is aimed at providing a space for listeners to connect with their wairua and comes in six Pacific languages.
“I was in a pretty dark place about four years ago,” he says.
“My thoughts were often in a sinister place at times and I really didn’t know if I was going to make it. I feel things deeply in a way I pretend like I don’t, because people see this strong figure. But there were times where I considered ending it all.”
Meditation, Kipa-Williams says, saved his life.
“I was introduced to a tohunga from up north and he taught me about breathing and meditation. I made a promise that I would do it morning and night and I followed through on that promise. And incrementally over time, I noticed I got happier, or had a more positive outlook on life. And the only thing that really changed was that I was being mindful of my thoughts. I was breathing. I was doing this practice.”
The H of HAAAA stands for our connection to our higher self. Each A represents the domain of an atua (or god): Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
The app was also designed with Māori and Pasifika in mind. The suicide rates are devastating, with Pacific youth suicide the leading cause of death in the 15-24 age bracket.
“To me, it makes sense to try and come up with something that speaks to those cultures with the practice of meditation. It might seem a bit woo-woo but if we can sort of help orient their thinking to go, ‘Actually, I can relate to this because it’s mine, I can feel myself in this music.’
“I did a presentation for World Suicide Prevention Day and I played the Cook Island track from the app. And there was a Māori fella who was receiving an award, he came up to me afterwards, and he was like, ‘Bro. That made me quite teary. Even though I’m Māori, I could feel my ancestors through that music.’ Whakapapa goes right back through the islands and that’s what I’m feeling in this work. And that’s what I’m inspired about – where we’ve come from and all of those existences.”
Kipa-Williams grew up in Palmerston North but didn’t know a lot about te ao Māori as he was adopted into a Pākehā family at 10 days old. At 15, he reconnected with his birth parents.
He’s been making big changes overseas, working with the producers on Home and Away to get the first hāngī, whai kōrero, haka, taiaha and tangi on the show- all the first in history to be shown on Australian television.
“At first it was interesting,” he said. “We got hit pretty hard in the early days but when I think about it, the haka episode was the point where it kind of turned and the audience started embracing us as a family on the show. And that was really cool. It was really cool to see that happen over time.”
The haka episode was the most viewed episode of that year, proving how popular the Māori culture and the family have become with audiences. When Kipa-Williams learned his character was going to get killed off, he asked for Ari to be given a tangi.
“I asked politely if they could honour my culture and honour my character by taking him out with a tangi. And the producers looked at each other and were like, ‘Okay, we’ll do that.’ And she started watching The Casketeers and drew inspiration from that show.”
Creating HAAAA has been another gateway to giving back to his culture, he says.
“This project has definitely had me wanting to reclaim my te reo Māori in a massive way. I’m learning tāonga pūoro [traditional Māori instrument] and when te wiki o te reo Māori arrived last week, I was inspired to do my own meditation in te reo Māori.”
Many performers from across the Pacific were involved in creating the music, chants, and sounds within the app, including Opetaia Foa’i who co-wrote the award-winning Moana album with the hit song We Know the Way.
“About three years ago, I meditated and I wanted to watch a movie afterwards and I decided to watch Moana and something started happening in my DNA. I felt the voices, the ancestral sounds, the frequencies and that music did something to me. And even though it wasn’t Māori, it was Tokelau language being spoken, it was in that feeling that soundtrack inspired the idea of wanting to have this meditation practice be available to the Pacific, not just Māori.
“I wanted to create that triangle and start to see that whakapapa of language while listening to the other languages. If you don’t know te reo, you can learn the process in English, and you can move into the bilingual version. And then you can move into the te reo version, then you can start exploring the other languages.”
Kipa-Williams was a recipient of the Community Fund 2020, which saw government organisation Le Va fund most of the app. Kipa-Williams personally financed just over a third of the app himself and Te Puni Kōkiri funded all of the legal documents.
“If breathing can make me feel this good, if people embrace it, they’ll see the benefit of it. It’s amazing how a couple of really deep breaths can change anything. It’s awesome seeing how interconnected all the Pacific languages are. This undeniable fabric of tapestry of words that interconnect.”
He hopes that one day kids can practise meditation at schools, with an app like HAAAA helping Pasifika youth reconnect with their whenua.
“I’ve really tried to focus on quality and transporting people to those countries. If you’re someone who is living on the other side of the world and you do this meditation, I’m literally going to send you home through meditation.”
Kipa-Williams is set to collaborate with Tiki Taane on some Māori tracks for the next phase of music within the app. He’s also keen to get back into acting – but he’s loving his current journey.
“I never thought I’d be doing meditation. Going from drinking and partying and now I’ve been sober for four and a half years. This project is probably the most inspiring thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
HAAAA is available on all Podcast apps. The soundtrack is available on Spotify, YouTube Music and iTunes.
SUICIDE AND DEPRESSION
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• What’s Up: 0800 942 8787 (11am to11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.