The Māori word ‘kapa’ means to stand in a row or rank, and haka is a dance. The term ‘kapa haka’ means a group or groups standing in rows to perform traditional Māori dances, accompanied by sung or chanted words. Kapa haka is both an ancient and a living art form.
Types of haka
Contrary to popular belief, haka is not only a war dance. There are many different types of haka, each appropriate for a different occasion. According to haka and Māori-language expert Tīmoti Kāretu, the haka provides a platform for its composer to ‘vent his spleen, to sing someone’s praises, to welcome his guests, to open a new meeting house or dining hall, to pay his respects to the dead, to honour his ancestors, to teach his traditions to the succeeding generations.’1 What each of these variants has in common is the mauri (life force) that permeates every aspect of the art. Haka draws on the performers’ spirits as well as their thoughts.
The poi is a genre of music exclusive to New Zealand Māori. The poi is a ball attached to the end of a cord, which is swung around by the kapa haka performer to complement the performance. Men primarily used poi as an exercise device to help warriors wield their weapons more effectively in battle; women used poi to relieve muscular strain and to keep their hands and arms flexible and strong for use in everyday tasks such as weaving. Although the modern poi is now largely performed to European melodies, pre-colonial poi were recited in a way similar to haka, especially by the people of Taranaki.
Waiata in haka
Waiata (song) is a central element of kapa haka. Haka, laments, love songs, songs of abuse and a host of other waiata themes all have distinct purposes. Māori waiata transmit the feelings of a person or group, recording personal and prominent historical events and imitating oral narratives. Waiata are used to transfer knowledge through music within Māori communities.
Haka and social status
Traditionally, the haka was not merely a pastime but a custom of high social importance. A tribe’s reputation often rose or fell on its members’ ability to perform the haka. The leader had to be an expert, who influenced the performance of his team by the timing of voice and movement.
First kapa haka
The earliest kapa haka was said to have been a convention of women gathered by the chief Tinirau. As a tactic to exact utu (revenge) on his nemesis Kae, Tinirau instructed the women to entertain Kae and his people, in an attempt to make him laugh so he could be identified by his distinctive teeth. The plan was successful – Kae finally succumbed.
First European reactions
The earliest Europeans to witness the haka were invariably struck by its vigour and ferocity. Joseph Banks, who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand in 1769, later recorded, ‘The War Song and dance consists of Various contortions of the limbs during which the tongue is frequently thrust out incredibly far and the orbits of the eyes enlargd so much that a circle of white is distinctly seen round the Iris: in short nothing is omittd which can render a human shape frightful and deformd, which I suppose they think terrible.’2
Traditional functions of kapa haka
These postures and gestures were intended to daunt the enemy, or to excite the audience and seduce them into the performance. Vigorous use of the diaphragm, powerful movements and strong vocal output can build up tremendous energy, vividly expressing the messages directed to the listeners. For extreme execution of haka, performers must be physically and mentally fit. In the case of war dances, they aim to psychologically intimidate their opponent with pūkana (dilated eyes) and whētero (protruding tongues).
When asked to explain the art of performing haka, the Ngāti Porou haka master Henare Teowai replied, ‘Kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana – the whole body should speak.3