Story: Kapa Haka

Page 4. Urban groups and formal competitions

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Kapa haka and urbanisation

The Māori population experienced rapid and extreme urbanisation from the 1930s. The first urban kapa haka groups were formed to provide a cultural connection for those dispossessed of their culture by urbanisation. While these groups continued to serve the earlier functions of fundraising and tourist entertainment, they were also a valuable vehicle for preserving te reo and tikanga Māori (Māori language and customs).

Winning combination

Ngāpō (Bub) and Pimia (Nen) Wehi led their kapa haka teams to win numerous national Māori performing arts competitions – twice with the Waihīrere Māori Club and four times with the Auckland-based multi-tribal group Te Waka Huia. Their groups have also represented New Zealand at four South Pacific festivals, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia. To provide an income for members, Te Waka Huia gave paid performances at the Auckland War Memorial Museum for 14 years.

Pan-tribal kapa haka

Unlike earlier kapa haka groups, many of those formed from the 1930s were pan-tribal (with members from a number of tribes). Ngāti Pōneke was formed in Wellington in 1936. In 1969 Pita Sharples set up Te Rōpū Manutaki in Auckland. Kīngi Īhaka formed the Auckland Anglican Māori Club in the same period. Te Kotahitanga o Waitaha was established in Christchurch in the early 1970s. Other influential groups, still reflecting the traditions of their local tribes, were Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū, formed in Tokomaru Bay by Tuini Ngāwai in 1939, and Waihīrere Māori Club, formed in Gisborne by Bill Kerekere in 1951.

European melodies

The waiata these groups performed typically set Māori lyrics to popular European tunes such as ‘Que sera, sera’ and ‘Don’t be cruel’. Although the groups’ leaders and elders were generally native speakers of Māori and well versed in traditional music, they drew on European musical forms to attract younger members and provide a gateway to traditional culture. Tuini Ngāwai used popular tunes of the day so that young people would listen to the messages in her songs, expressed in classical Māori. For a later generation, Ngoi Pēwhairangi’s Māori-language lyrics were set to a hip-hop beat by Dalvanius Prime. The Pātea Māori Club’s performance of the resulting song, ‘Poi e’, became a huge hit in 1983.

First formal competitions

The growing number of local kapa haka groups led to regular regional and national competitions. These inter-tribal cultural competitions have been a gratifying substitute for the violent demonstrations of tribal pride that were a part of Māori society centuries before. One of the earliest kapa haka competitions was at the 1934 Waitangi Day celebrations, when a trophy was presented for the finest Māori song, oratory and dance.

Taumaunu Shield

Kapa haka groups in the Gisborne region held their first annual competition shortly after the Second World War. From 1953 the top trophy was the Taumaunu Shield, presented to commemorate Karaitiana Taumaunu, a prolific Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti composer. Competition grew so intense that during the rehearsal period teams would deploy ‘spies’ to report on the repertoire of an opposing team.

Making it in America

In 1963 Te Arohanui o Te Iwi Māori, a group of about 150 kapa haka performers based at the Temple View Mormon centre in Hamilton, travelled to Laie, Hawaii, to complete a Māori village at the Polynesian Cultural Centre. The group then toured California and Utah and appeared on the Danny Kaye show, a top-rating nationwide TV programme. Their tour was a critical and commercial success, and was followed in 1972–73 by a further, but less successful, US tour by the New Zealand Māori Company.

Polynesian Festival

By 1972 at least 13 regional competitions were held regularly. In that year the first Polynesian Festival was held at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, as a national competition between the top regional teams. The festival’s original aim was to raise the standard of performance for tourist entertainment, but rising concern about preserving the Māori language and other elements of traditional culture gave it greater importance. In 1983 the Polynesian Festival became the Aotearoa Traditional Māori Performing Arts Festival and teams from other Pacific Island nations were no longer eligible to compete.

Te Matatini

In 2004 the Aotearoa Traditional Māori Performing Arts Festival was again renamed, as Te Matatini o te Rā national festival, held every two years. The name ‘matatini’ (’many faces’) was coined by Dr Wharehuia Milroy in reference to the number and diversity of the participants. Since its formation Te Matatini has been the country’s largest Māori cultural performing arts festival, with at least 30,000 spectators watching the competition between around 40 kapa haka teams, each one the winner of its own regional competition, and totalling some 2,000 members.

Each team performs six disciplines – whakaeke (entrance), mōteatea (traditional chant), poi (women’s dance using balls on strings), waiata-ā-ringa (action song), haka (posture dance) and whakawātea (exit). Waiata-tira (choral song) is an optional extra. Teams also compete for manukura wahine and manukura tane (best female and male leaders), kākahu (best costumes), te kairangi o te reo (excellence in written and performed Māori language), titonga waiata hou (best original composition), and categories for best poi, haka and waiata-ā-ringa.

How to cite this page:

Valance Smith, 'Kapa Haka - Urban groups and formal competitions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2022)

Story by Valance Smith, published 22 Oct 2014