Kapa Haka group at Rotowhio Marae

Te Matatini – The Many Faces of Kapa Haka

by Keriata Royal-Taeao

World Choir Games 2024

Kapa Haka is the term used for Māori performing arts. It literally means to form a line (kapa) and dance (haka), and involves a powerful, emotional combination of song, dance and chanting. The Te Matatini Festival, held every two years, is essentially the Olympics of Kapa Haka, a gathering of the sharpest exponents of the art form from New Zealand and Australia, who battle over four days to be crowned Toa Whakaihuwaka, Te Matatini champions.

This title has been contested since the festival’s inception in 1972. What began as the Polynesian Festival at Whakarewarewa in the famous geothermal town of Rotorua has grown and changed over nearly 50 years, pushing boundaries in every way – technically, artistically, musically and physically. In 2004 a new name was given to the festival: Te Matatini, meaning ‘the many faces’. It refers to the way in which Kapa Haka touches the vast and diverse multitudes – performers, tutors, supporters, contributors and audience members alike – attracting many faces to this display of Māori culture.

The heart of Te Matatini’s audience, though, lies with the whānau (families) from all over the country who attend expectantly in their thousands, eager to watch their favourite groups for days on end, in sunshine, rain and hail. These attendees share a real sense of engagement with, and pride in, their Māori identity and language. It is also a source of pride to be selected to host Te Matatini, as well as a serious challenge. The festival is held each time in a different region of New Zealand and hosted by the local iwi (tribe/s), whose task is to cater for upwards of 40,000 visitors!

The 2019 festival took place in the capital, Wellington, on the largest platform the festival had yet seen. Aptly themed Te Matatini ki te Ao (‘Te Matatini to the World’), it encapsulated the festival’s aspirations for a larger scope and more international reach. Forty-six teams, each with 40 onstage performers, took part in vigorous competition. They had already competed at one of 13 regions throughout New Zealand and Australia and prevailed from among a total of 163 teams to move through to the four-day Te Matatini Festival itself. The first three of those days consisted of performances in three competitive pools. Only the top three groups in each pool (nine in total) qualified to compete on the finals day, Te Matangirua.

Six compulsory disciplines make up a performance bracket and each group is given 25 minutes to perform. If a group chooses to perform an optional seventh discipline, the waiata tira (a group song), it is given an additional four minutes. The items that make up a bracket are:

  1. Waiata tira – This choral-like piece is either newly composed or uses the tune of a pre- existing song, and is sung with guitar accompaniment or a cappella. Its main purpose is to warm up the group’s voices.
  2. Whakaeke – If no waiata tira is sung, this is where the group takes the stage for the first time. The whakaeke can consist of waiata (singing), haka, movement – which includes the use of traditional weaponry – and instruments. It is like a haka pohiri, the traditional welcome ceremony, where the visiting party introduces itself and tells the audience of its connection with the host people through pakiwaitara (stories) and whakapapa (genealogy).
  3. Mōteatea – This is perhaps the most traditional item in Kapa Haka and follows a a centuries- old tradition of chanted song-poetry. It is unlike other waiata, in that the tune does not adopt Western approaches to melody and harmony. Mōteatea are monophonic and have a more rhythmic sense to the way in which the kupu (words) are voiced.
  4. Waiata-ā-ringa – This action song is embellished with use of the wiri, a quivering of the hands that is an integral part of Māori movement. Lyrics were traditionally chanted, but have over the years transformed into a song incorporating melody and harmony.
  5. Poi – Another form of, typically lighthearted, action song employs the poi, a small ball on the end of a string. Poi are for the most part swung by women, and depict the movement of elements of the environment, such as water, small birds and insects.
  6. Haka – This well-known, powerful chant can be performed by both men and women and is usually accompanied by strong body movement. At Te Matatini, the men take the lead, with their legs apart and firmly grounded. Groups often use the haka to speak (chant) about current topics of importance.
  7. Whakawātea – This is the exit song, or finale, and is made up of a number of elements intended to make a lasting impression on the audience.

The success of the 2019 winners, Ngā Tumanako, represented the epitome of hard work and commitment to Kapa Haka over many years. Hailing from West Auckland, Ngā Tumanako had never placed in the top three prior to this year. Many members of the group had practised Kapa Haka from school age, having attended the local kura (Māori-language immersion school), and from there carried the experience into adulthood. They are now winners on the most competitive Kapa Haka stage in the world.

Although the biennial festival is the primary event on the Kapa Haka calendar, Te Matatini also has an ambitious, longer-term plan to contribute to positive social change in New Zealand. It has already invested heavily in programmes that foster youth leadership, to ensure the continuation and growth of Kapa Haka, understanding that the art form has a crucial role in developing cultural identity and pride. Promoting the language is also a key aim: all Kapa Haka is performed in te reo Māori (one of NZ’s three official languages, the others being English and NZ Sign Language), while compères and broadcasters speak around 90% in te reo, and audience members are encouraged to use te reo wherever possible. The results of a research project commissioned to assess the social, economic and cultural impact Kapa Haka has on society will be available in the coming year.

Te Matatini 2019 set a new bar for the exposure of Kapa Haka and for the event’s own growing status as a world-class festival. International media were in attendance and an audience of 1.1 million watched on television or via live-stream. “We all know this is New Zealand’s premier Māori event,” says Te Matatini’s Chief Executive, Carl Ross, pointing to a recent scoping project for NZ’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage that highlighted Kapa Haka‘s “significant contribution to New Zealand’s national identity and how we are represented and viewed internationally”. Ross notes that Kapa Haka is routinely used by government departments and private enterprise when engaging with their overseas counterparts. “Kapa Haka is one of this country’s points of difference. It is unique in the world.”

“Permission to reprint this article has been granted by ACDA. The original version was published in Choral Journal, Volume 60, Number 8 (March 2020).”

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