Kapa haka - the Māori performing arts story

Kapa haka - or traditional Māori performing arts - forms an intrinsic element of the New Zealand cultural experience.

Kapa haka - or traditional Māori performing arts - forms an intrinsic element of the New Zealand cultural experience.

From the famous haka which fires up the All Blacks before a rugby match to the gentle harmonies and graceful actions of Māori choral and dance troupes, the combination of movement and voice makes Māori performing arts a unique cultural experience.

Traditional and contemporary
Kapa haka means to stand in a row or rank (kapa) and dance (haka), and unlike other indigenous dance forms performers must combine song, dance, expression and movement in each item.

Traditional and contemporary adaptations of waiāta (song), poi dance, haka and other activities are performed by cultural groups or individuals either in formal or informal settings, on marae, at schools, or kapa haka festivals.

Te Matatini festival
The national kapa haka festival is known as Te Matatini which means 'the many faces'.

The 2019 Te Matatini festival was held in Wellington, in the city's main stadium, from 20 - 24 February.

Held every two years, Te Matatini is the world's largest celebration of Māori performing arts and attracts more than 60,000 people from throughout New Zealand. Almost 2000 performers in 46 teams from New Zealand and Australia, and representing 13 regions, were selected in regional competitions to appear on stage at the 2019 event.  

Multi-faceted performance
Te Matatini teams are required to perform six disciplines within their performance piece - whakaeke (a choreographed entry), moteatea (traditional chant), poi (raupo ball swung on the end of a flax cord), waiata-ā-ringa (action song), haka and whakawatea (exit). They must perfect every discipline in a polished 25-minute performance.

As well as the main performance prizes, teams also compete for Manukura Wahine and Manukura Tane (best female and male leaders), kakahu (best costumes) and use of te reo (language).

"The festival recognises the strength of diversity among Māori tribes and whanau, while equally encouraging us all to come together and celebrate as one," says Te Matatini chair Selwyn Parata.

Teams have 24 - 40 members with a wide range of ages from 14 years up, and Mr Parata says it is not uncommon to find grandparents performing alongside their mokopuna (grandchildren) "and passing on their skills and experience".

Premier cultural event
The national competition, a highlight of the Māori cultural events calendar, was inaugurated in 1972.

Over four days, the audience experiences the best Māori performing art New Zealand has to offer from the synchronised, elegant movements of the women performing the poi to the unrestrained ferocity of the male haka.

The festival has the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In 2007 UNESCO promoted Te Matatini through its global networks and United Nations agencies as a premier cultural event on the international festival calendar.

Māori performance history
Historically songs (waiata) were sung solo, in unison or at the octave and included lullabies (oriori), love songs (waitata aroha) and laments (waiāta tangi).

It was traditional to end a speech with a song and some of the smaller, traditional wind instruments used by Māori were sung into providing a unique sound. The poi provided a rhythmic accompaniment to waiāta.

Captain Cook reported that the Māori sang in "semitones" but Europeans could not hear the microtones Māori were singing. Songs would repeat a single melodic line, generally centred on one note, falling away at the end of the last line. It was a bad omen for a song to be interrupted, so singers in groups would cover for each other while individuals took breath.

It was European missionary influence that led to the harmonisation that characterises modern Māori music today.

International stage
Māori performing arts now have a worldwide spread thanks to travelling cultural clubs, ex-pat groups and organisations, such as the London-based Manaia performing arts and education company, who promote their culture wherever they go.