National kapa haka festival Te Matatini celebrates iconic Maori art

Every two years the kapa haka community of New Zealand comes together to crown a national champion at Te Matatini.

With their cheeks puffed, eyes bulging, tongues protruding, stomping their feet and slapping their enormous thighs, the New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks have made the haka a spectacle which is adored around the world.

The “Ka Mate” haka, a bone-chilling war cry celebrating life triumphing over death, is without doubt the best known example of kapa haka. However, the iconic Māori performing art comprises a whole suite of disciplines.

Along with the fierce haka, there is mau rākau in which performers use weapons like long-handled taiaha and short clubs called patu, and tuneful waiata-ā-ringa (action songs) in which the performers flutter their hands. Another form of kapa haka is the graceful poi dances, mostly performed by women, who rhythmically swing a small round ball connected to a plaited cord.

From 20 to 24 February, Te Matatini will bring together almost 2,000 of the best kapa haka performers at Wellington's Westpac Stadium. This year’s event has the theme Te Matatini ki te ao (Te Matatini to the world) and is expected to attract 65,000 people. More than a million haka lovers are set to watch on television or tune in online.

Local broadcaster Māori TV will screen the festival for 11 hours each day, and fans can watch online on Facebook, Instagram and even Snapchat.

The national haka festival has evolved from a small community event in 1972 to the biggest celebration of Māori performing arts in the world.

Every two years the pinnacle of kapa haka performers, 46 teams from 13 regions within New Zealand and Australia, meet at Te Matatini to battle for a series of trophies and to become overall winner. The competition consists of 10 disciplines combining a variety of singing and posture dances, which are judged according to set criteria, including costumes, skill and language use.

Pauline Hopa has tutored her kapa haka group Hātea, based in Whangarei in Northland, for almost 20 years after learning the ropes from legendary kapa haka exponent Ngapo Wehi and his troupe Te Waka Huia.

“I still get a buzz from performing” the 60-year-old says. Like many other haka groups Hātea is a family affair. Among the 40-strong-group that will take to the stage at the festival to show off their 25-minute-long routine are some of her children and grandchildren.

While many other Māori cultural practices were lost after the country was colonised and the traditions denigrated as heathen, kapa haka has survived, grown and evolved and become an integral part of New Zealand’s national identity.

“Seeing my grandchildren perform, I know that our culture and the art form is in good hands,” says Hopa.

Kapa haka is so much more than just the stunning performance that can evoke emotions in both Māori and non-Māori. It’s often seen as a gateway to those who have lost connection to their own culture as well an activity in which all New Zealanders are able to engage with Māori culture. It is taught at many kindergartens and schools, and performances can often be seen at cultural events.

Te Matatini (The Many Faces) sets out to be a platform for the revitalisation of Māori arts and culture, and particularly the language.

Most groups perform their own compositions and arrangements at the festival. The lyrics often address social and political issues within the Māori community or celebrate heroes both old and new.

“The language is right at the heart of it. If you know the language and the processes that go with it then you have a template of how to be Māori,” Hopa explains.

As a kapa haka tutor she not only teaches the movements but also provides pastoral care and passes on Māori life skills. Studies have found that kapa haka teaches social values and manners such as whānaungatanga (kinship), manaakitanga (hospitality) and aroha (love), along with life skills such as commitment and discipline, writing and composing ability and memory strengthening.

Hopa says that Te Matatini is one of the most exciting things to happen in Māoridom.  

Every performance has the same six items to go through but each group brings their very own flavour and their own compositions.

“Each of those 46 groups is going to go hard and none of them will be the same,” Hopa promises. “It’s a really big exposé of what’s out there currently in Kapa Haka Land. It’s also very political, some satirical and some of it controversial.”

While the whole event is held in the indigenous language te reo Māori, visitors who don’t speak the language won’t have to miss out. The translation service Haka Translate will provide simultaneous English and for the first time Mandarin translations of the performances on the main stage.

As well as watching and enjoying the competition, visitors will be able to buy Māori arts and crafts, sample Māori cuisine, and learn about Māori history and culture.

Where to see Kapa Haka

There are many opportunities for visitors to New Zealand to experience kapa haka including:

Te Puia, Rotorua
At Rotorua, the birthplace of Māori cultural tourism, Te Puia Māori Arts and Crafts Centre invites guests to experience Māori culture and custom. The centre puts on an excellent hangi and showcases traditional performances.

Auckland Museum
The Museum's performance is recognised as being one of the best in New Zealand and culminates with a spine-tingling version of the world-famous haka.

Ko Tane The Māori Experience, Christchurch
The South Island's only Māori Cultural Performance & Hāngī Dinner is an interactive Māori cultural experience that provides a look into Aotearoa's history from the past to the present day.