Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 37, Number 5. 3rd April 1974

Maori Poetry—the singing word:

Maori Poetry—the singing word:

Image from the book 'Maori Poetry'

Maori song is more than "Hoki hoki tonu mai" and the school haka. In Barry Mitcalfe's new book the singing word is represented by one hundred varied waiata from a wide range of sources. Each song is followed by a translation and notes on the background of the waiata which often throws new light on questions of source or points of reference.

This book is more than a collection of waiata. There is a broadly informative introduction entitled "The Singing Word". Song composition is illustrated by six songs with music. The book is concluded with an essay "Changing Styles", a collection of photographs, and a glossary.

The proverb which heads the essay on changing styles: "Mauri noho, mauri mate; mauri tu, mauri ora"—"Adapt or Perish" is a theme that occurs throughout the book. Not only is the continuity of waiata or Maori song-poetry important but so is the change which the book amply shows.

The changes with the growth of Pakeha domination can be seen from the early references in song to missionaries through to the Hau Hau's mixture of Christianity and Maori nationalism. The growth of the millenarian movements show the attempts to reconcile the increasingly dominant European power with Maoritanga. Unfortunately, as is quoted from Te Whiti, "The grub didn't need to enter the pumpkin itself, but it ate the root and killed the plant."

Later, some waiata were used to advocate Pakeha means as a tool for economic survival in the twentieth century. Waiata based musically on popular songs became current.

A song with vastly different sentiments from the popular "waiata aroha" originated in Nuhaka in the 1940s and spread by word of mouth. This adaption of "kaioraora" or cursing song was directed against Hitler. So waiata related to what was going on and yet had its roots in the past. Modern waiata tangi which are the past and the present conclude the waiata section of the book.

Waiata tangi has continued as a thread in the cloth of Maoritanga, The author has collected many waiata of sadness. There is expression of pain and suffering in the last stanza of He Tangi Na Te Turoro na Hine Tangikuku.

Tiro iho ai au ki ahau
Rinoi ra e te uaua
Te koha kore o te kai ki ahau
Heke rawaho i te kiri ora
Waiho au kia poaha ana
He rimu puka, kei te ahau

A Song of Sickness
I see myself, twisted sinew
Wasted flesh, the body I once knew
Has no substance, unsustained
Is itself the sustenance of pain
I am dead weed cast upon the shore.

Flowing throughout the waiata are the expressions of Maoritanga. There is the beginning:

He Karakia: Tihei Maun Ora
Tihei Mauri ora
Ki te ao marama
Ka mama ra tara ki uta
Ka mama ra tara ki tai
Ka mama ra kei ariki
Tihei, tohe ora.
An Incantation: Sneeze of Life

The first breath, sneeze of life
Greets the world of light
There is plenty inland
Plenty in the sea
Food for a chief and for thee—
sneeze living soul.

Waiatas express many emotions. In this book there is depth in the variety of waiata. "He waiata Whaiaipo", a song of yearning: "Ngeri", a song of derision; "Makakite", a vision and "Waiata Aroha", love songs are but a few examples.

Reading the book you soon realise that Maori music is much more than haka and action song. Songs were sung or recited—the division is European—to make tatooing easier, to accompany a string game or to present a view to visiting ministers as in the following example which has a mock solemn liturgical tune:

Ka Puta Mai He Minita
Ka puta mai he minita ka kauhau whakapono
Ka puta tana kupu ki te iwi Maori
Titiro ki te atua ka titiro he minita
Ki te papa o te whenua o Aotearoa
Muri atu i tena he pukapuka haina
Haina mai Maori ka ora koutou
Ka taipa tia mai ki te paraharahara
Ki te pa titi ki te paraikete whero
Ki te rori rino o te kawanatanga
Ka tere te moana e.

Behold a Minister, preaching the Faith,
Bringing the word to the Maori people
They look up to the Lord, the Minister looks down
To the land, the wealth of Aotearoa—
Sign here, Maori, give greetings to all
And you shall be given scraps and leavings
The jew's harp, the red blanket
And the iron guns of the Government—
The sea drifts on.

The poetry in these waiatas reflects a changing culture. The "karakia" or incantations are no more, but the work of modern composers struggling against commercialisation goes on. The life of waiata in change and constancy is captured in words and photographs as much as sound, movement, meaning and peoples lives can ever be.

In the waiata there is an answer to those who search for true New Zealand literature. Waiata are not only the literature of New Zealand but also the music. The book captures the vitality of past and present music and literature. Even if the book is not read to learn of New Zealand's literature and music that is the singing word it should be read for the poetry of the English translation. The poetry and the author's insight make "Maori Poetry" an important contribution to understanding.

Photo of Maori performing waiata