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Legends of the Maori


page 275


A VAST amount of legendary lore, of religious belief, of nature-myth, custom, ritual, folk-story, is enshrined in the poetry of the Maori preserved from generation to generation by oral tradition. I have collected from people of the older generation several hundreds of songs and chants, and this is but a small portion of the splendid poetic treasury. The Maori’s heart naturally goes forth in song; no ceremonial speech is complete without a chant, old or new, bearing upon the occasion or the topic discussed. No primitive race equalled the Maori-Polynesian as a composer of poems and especially elegiac poems, not even the Scottish Highlanders of the old clan days. The examples of songs given in this section of the book, selected from a great mass of waiata gathered from various tribes, will indicate the varied character of themes and treatment, and also the depth of poetic feeling and often noble sentiment which distinguished the song of the Maori.

Many a Maori chant has its dynamic value as a rhythmic time-song in dances or canoe-paddling or other tasks in which concerted action is required. The sailor’s chantey is the pakeha equivalent of the takitaki-hoe-waka, the time-song for the paddlers in a large canoe. Labour is lightened when performed in rhythmic unison, whether it is rope-hauling or rowing or paddling. The song chanted by the kai-hautu, the canoe captain, as he balances himself amidships and turns this way and that and flashes his glistening whalebone patu—the hautu’s favourite weapon— is of positive advantage in increasing the speed of the dug-out longship in a race. The poi action-song, in its many variations, is a perfect time-giver.

There is a large section of waiata difficult to translate, because of the archaic language in which many passages are couched. Such chants are very ancient and are to a certain extent regarded as sacred, embodying esoteric knowledge and embalming memories of far-off Hawaikian ancestors, when mankind was near akin to the gods. The translation of such songs is only to be accomplished by the aid of learned old men, now very few in number, belonging to the tribes which have preserved by frequent recital the words of the composition. This sort of work is slow, since I have found it often required reference to several persons to fix the exact and full significance of a line, a phrase, or a name in a centuries-old chant. Such men of the past as Patara te Tuhi, of Waikato, page 276 Kiharoa and Tamarahi Tomairangi, of the Arawa, Waaka Tamaira, of Taupo, Te Whareaitu, of Taranaki, Hone Tikao, of Ngai-Tahu, were able to explain the inner meaning of ancient allusions; it was their hereditary sacred knowledge.

There is a distinct resemblance between some Maori poetic forms and the hokku of Japan, which, as a translator of Japanese poetry has said, “enshrines an incredible amount of meaning within the narrowest compass of language.” Domett described a certain Maori dirge as “the very pemmican of poetry,” and he took such themes and expanded and elaborated them. Like the hokku, they are packed with meaning. One word often can be expanded into several lines in the process of conveying the picture it embodies to the English reader.

This little love-song (given me by a venerable dame of Te Atiawa, Taranaki) is an example of the “pemmican of poetry,” a sentiment condensed to its barest limit; like the hokku, it requires explanatory notes:—

He rata ahau
Kia awhi noa ake
Ki te rau pukatea,
E hine te makoha ki noa.

Here the lover, addressing a girl, likens himself to a rata tree embracing the female pukatea, which his loved one resembles in her smooth-skinned beauty. The pukatea is a softwood tree with smooth bark, and the rata is often found encircling it. The conquering climber stretches its cable-like arms around it and clutches it tightly, with a steadily increasing strength of grip. At Hauparu, Lake Rotoiti, near the main road, there is a double tree that well illustrates this curious feature of our forest life. A rata has climbed to the top of a large pukatea and it flourishes there, while the pukatea it has encircled is still fresh and green.

Another example of the hokku-like picture-poem in brief form is this Ngati-Paoa waiata:

Whakarongo ake au
Ki te tai o Hauraki,
E wawa mai nei.
Wa-wa, wai e ha!


I listen to Hauraki’s sea,
The surf’s loud sound borne hitherward.
Roar, O ye waters, roar.

The patere is a form of chant that gives the Maori great pleasure. It is a long poem, sometimes embodying genealogical recitals and mention of historical heroes and their deeds. Sometimes it is a lament, abounding in touching expressions and beautiful imagery. When the first singer, or reciter, is out of breath another takes up the chant without an instant’s page 277 pause, and the monody is carried on in this way, sometimes with a kind of response or chorus by all of the people. I have heard a patere continued in this way for more than half-an-hour. One afternoon, in a meeting-house at Tapuwae-haruru, the eastern end of Lake Rotoiti, the Ngati-Pikiao folk gave patere after patere, as they sat on the soft-matted floor. The rhythm and the vowelled music of the long recitative presently acted upon one as a soporific. The patere makes an excellent lullaby.

Maori music has engaged the attention of several composers, in particular Mr. Alfred Hill, whose interpretations of the peculiar beauty of the chants and love lilts and poi songs have attracted the applause of the world. Mr. Hill was the first professional musician to bring an expert knowledge to the task of transcribing the music of the Maori, and I hope that he will return to his old love, the study of this engrossing branch of primitive melody and rhythm. As to melody, there probably was little of it, to the European ear, in original genuine Maori music; it is the wonderful rhythm, combined with action, that constitutes the great charm of so many native songs. Here is a note on this subject written for me by Mr. Hill:

“From my study of Maori music I am inclined to the belief that rhythm was the beginning. Rhythmic shouting came next, and the inflexion of the voice in laughing and crying, especially the latter, may have supplied the next stage—primitive melody—a crooning, dirge-like wailing with a little rising and falling of the pitch.

“The earlier songs seldom exceed the compass of a fourth, while the modern songs exceed even the octave. It seems as if the compass became extended with the development of the emotions. The early missionaries’ hymns, sailor and soldier songs, and even the drill and words of command of the soldiers, all played a part in the development (or modernising) of Maori musical art. Certain features of early Maori music are not unlike the music of the Hebrews. A fondness for the diminished third, certain mannerisms of the leaders in singing, in their qualities of voice, and little tricks of manner, are common to both races. The broken rhythms are another point of resemblance. The more melodious a song is the less rhythm (that is, even rhythm) it has. Smaller intervals than the semitone are used in many songs; there are many waiata on record which cannot be expressed with our present notation. Originally the female voice was the same pitch as the male. In teaching full-blooded Maori girls new Maori or English songs I have always found that they pitch the voice music an octave lower than white women do. The voice is entirely in the chest, there is no sign of the female falsetto.”

The popular Maori melodies of to-day, some of which have been made widely known by means of the gramophone, are mostly of foreign page 278 origin. Our pakeha hymns and many old songs have been turned to use by the quick-eared, music-loving native and in the adaptation to Maori chants they have gained in beauty. The same process of transforming pakeha and papalangi airs to native melodies has taken place all over the Pacific. In the popular music of Hawaii, Tahiti, Rarotonga, Samoa we can trace the white man’s tunes. More often, though, there is a haunting suggestion of the missionary hymn and the old-time chorus and the sailor’s chantey, so that it is impossible to identify the source. But while we recognise the un-Polynesian character of the basic theme in these himene and other chants, we can enjoy the perfect harmony, the delightful blending of voices, the cadences by which the Maori has moulded alien music to his own many-vowelled tongue.

There is music in the words, in the very sound and form of many a classic Maori poem. The son of the mountain and the forest had a perfect genius for pleasing phrases that came rolling to the tongue and sweet to the ear. Many a native elegiac chant is as poignantly memorable in its way as that most mournfully beautiful of verses:

Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrymosa
Qua pendebat fileus.

And just as difficult to render into English that will approach the original tongue in musical beauty.