There are a number of early pioneers of the waiata-ā-ringa (Māori action song). Apirana Ngata composed waiata-ā-ringa in the early 1900s. Te Puea Hērangi of Waikato is also regarded as a pioneer of the action song. In 1917 she composed ‘E noho e Rata’. It was a tribute to the Māori King Te Rata, but is now sung with reference to the present Māori King.
Te Pou o Mangatāwhiri
Te Puea Hērangi formed Te Pou o Mangatāwhiri concert party, which toured the North Island to raise funds for the creation of Tūrangawaewae marae at Ngāruawāhia. According to historian Michael King, it was the first group to popularise string instrument backing for Māori songs.
Mākereti Papakura also led early touring concert groups to Sydney (1910) and England (1911). There are early references to Māori performing ‘action songs’. The Ashburton Guardian reported in 1900 the performance of a Māori party which included a ‘Maori action song’, which the reporter found ‘very interesting and amusing’.1
Popularity of action songs
Māori action songs became a popular part of Māori performance from the First World War onwards. Ngata, Paraire Tomoana and others were arranging words and actions for songs at this time, and many of those songs became classic Māori action songs. However, the modern waiata-ā-ringa was not an integral part of Māori performing groups’ repertoires until the mid-1930s.
The piano and violin were instruments of choice for early composers and performers. Kīngi Tāhiwi from Ōtaki, founder of the Ngāti Pōneke Māori club in Wellington, composed much of his music on a long-necked five-string banjo. Tāhiwi’s most famous song is perhaps the flirtatious tune ‘He pūru taitama’.
Composer Tuini Ngāwai of Ngāti Porou played the mouth organ, ukulele, Jew’s harp, kōauau (traditional Māori flute), saxophone, piano, drums, violin and other instruments. In the 2000s the guitar was generally used to accompany performances, but its dominance only dates from the mid-20th century.
Revival of traditional instruments
Since the late 20th century there has been a revival of traditional Māori instruments such as the kōauau and pūtōrino (flutes) and pūrerehua (bull roarer). The late Hirini Melbourne of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu and ethnomusicologist and performer Richard Nunns led this revival. In the 2000s these instruments could be heard in both traditional and contemporary performances.