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Kapa haka – Māori performing arts

by Valance Smith

‘Kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana – the whole body should speak,’ said haka master Henare Teowai of this traditional art form. Kapa haka has adapted to contemporary times, while continuing to draw on its traditional roots.

What is kapa haka?

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


19th-century kapa haka

Missionary responses

From their arrival in the early 19th century, Christian missionaries strove to eradicate the so-called ‘war dance’, along with other forms of Māori culture that they saw as conflicting with Christian beliefs and practice. The Reverend Henry Williams of the Church Missionary Society felt it necessary to prohibit all old Māori customs, including songs and dances. Missionaries aimed to replace the haka, sacred waiata and other traditional chants with hymns. They encouraged European harmonic singing as part of the process of conversion.

By the mid-19th century Māori were competent at singing hymns in harmony. They also appear to have adopted Western-style musical forms for their own purposes. By about 1871 King Tāwhiao’s bodyguard was heard singing Māori songs to English melodies at Horahora.

Entertaining tourists

The first kapa haka concert groups appeared in the 1860s, especially in the Rotorua region, which by then was a popular tourist destination. European tourists wished to hear live performances by Māori of songs with European melodies, since many Pākehā found the ‘discordant’ monotony of traditional chants distasteful. Māori kapa haka groups used popular English tunes of the day, replacing the English lyrics with Māori poetry.

First overseas tours

Haka and mōteatea (traditional chants and songs) survived as part of the repertoire of kapa haka concert parties. Several groups, often performing a mixture of traditional, European-influenced and entirely European items, toured internationally in the late 19th century. Dr McGauran’s ‘Troupe of Warrior Chiefs, Wives and Children’ included a haka in a show that appeared in Sydney and Melbourne in 1862, and toured the UK the following year.

Welcoming the royal family

Distinguished visitors such as members of the British royal family have customarily been greeted with traditional Māori ceremony. The first such visit, by Queen Victoria’s son Prince Albert, took place in 1869, while the New Zealand wars were still being fought. As the prince arrived at the wharf in Wellington, he was greeted by a vigorous haka. The Wellington Independent reported, ‘The excitement of the Maoris becomes uncontrollable. They gesticulate, they dance, they throw their weapons wildly in the air, while they yell like fiends let loose. But all this fierce yelling is of the most friendly character. They are bidding the Duke welcome.’1

Kapa haka in Māori institutions

Kapa haka also became a regular feature of celebrations within major Māori institutions such as the Ringatū Church, the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) and the Parihaka community led by Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi.

Renowned touring parties

By the early 20th century kapa haka performances were well established as entertainment representative of New Zealand. The famed Te Arawa tourist guide Mākereti Papakura led her group of performers to Australia and the UK in 1910–11. Tainui leader Te Puea Hērangi’s troupe, Te Pou o Mangatāwhiri, toured the North Island for some years from 1922, raising funds to build Tūrangawaewae, the Kīngitanga centre at Ngāruawāhia.


20th-century innovations


From the early 20th century, the repertoire of kapa haka groups included modern waiata-ā-ringa (action songs). Waiata-ā-ringa emerged from the combination of European tunes and Polynesian actions underpinned by Māori narrative, using traditional actions created by ancestors. Unlike traditional haka waiata, waiata-ā-ringa include a wide range of actions that are complementary to the words and music.

Apirana Ngata

The widespread popularity of waiata-ā-ringa is largely due to the influence of Māori leader and politician Apirana Ngata. The earliest published reference to modern action songs appears in the programme for the 1908 Young Maori Party conference, whose leaders included Ngata, Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) and Māui Pōmare.

During the First World War Ngata encouraged kapa haka parties to give fundraising performances for his Maori Soldiers’ Fund. After the war he collected many traditional waiata and whaikōrero (speeches), and in 1929 published the two-volume Ngā mōteatea, which has remained a priceless resource for kapa haka performers ever since.

Canoe poi

The canoe poi, in which women sit in a line representing canoe paddlers, is thought to have been invented by Guide Bella of Te Arawa, who led such a performance at the Christchurch Exhibition in 1906–7.

Composing waiata-ā-ringa

Many new songs were written by and for kapa haka groups in this period. ‘Pō atarau’ (‘Now is the hour’) was composed around 1918. This song was later performed and recorded by international artists such as Bing Crosby.

Piupiu and other costumes

The growing popularity of kapa haka in the 20th century encouraged the use of distinctive costumes. These combined traditional Māori garments, which had by then become rare in everyday use, and more modern or reinvented clothing. The piupiu, a kilt-type garment worn by both men and women, is one of the most distinctive parts of a kapa haka costume. ‘Piupiu’ means to sway to and fro. The piupiu is generally made from dried flax, which makes a distinctive noise as its strands move with the vigorous rhythm of performance.

Musical instruments

Many popular kapa haka groups chose to use Western-style musical instruments to accompany their European musical items. The guitar was among the most transportable of these instruments and rapidly became the favourite, although the piano accordion was also evident in the early 20th century.

Urban groups and formal competitions

Kapa haka and urbanisation

The Māori population experienced rapid and extreme urbanisation from the 1930s. The first urban kapa haka groups were formed to provide a cultural connection for those dispossessed of their culture by urbanisation. While these groups continued to serve the earlier functions of fundraising and tourist entertainment, they were also a valuable vehicle for preserving te reo and tikanga Māori (Māori language and customs).

Winning combination

Ngāpō (Bub) and Pimia (Nen) Wehi led their kapa haka teams to win numerous national Māori performing arts competitions – twice with the Waihīrere Māori Club and four times with the Auckland-based multi-tribal group Te Waka Huia. Their groups have also represented New Zealand at four South Pacific festivals, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia. To provide an income for members, Te Waka Huia gave paid performances at the Auckland War Memorial Museum for 14 years.

Pan-tribal kapa haka

Unlike earlier kapa haka groups, many of those formed from the 1930s were pan-tribal (with members from a number of tribes). Ngāti Pōneke was formed in Wellington in 1936. In 1969 Pita Sharples set up Te Rōpū Manutaki in Auckland. Kīngi Īhaka formed the Auckland Anglican Māori Club in the same period. Te Kotahitanga o Waitaha was established in Christchurch in the early 1970s. Other influential groups, still reflecting the traditions of their local tribes, were Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū, formed in Tokomaru Bay by Tuini Ngāwai in 1939, and Waihīrere Māori Club, formed in Gisborne by Bill Kerekere in 1951.

European melodies

The waiata these groups performed typically set Māori lyrics to popular European tunes such as ‘Que sera, sera’ and ‘Don’t be cruel’. Although the groups’ leaders and elders were generally native speakers of Māori and well versed in traditional music, they drew on European musical forms to attract younger members and provide a gateway to traditional culture. Tuini Ngāwai used popular tunes of the day so that young people would listen to the messages in her songs, expressed in classical Māori. For a later generation, Ngoi Pēwhairangi’s Māori-language lyrics were set to a hip-hop beat by Dalvanius Prime. The Pātea Māori Club’s performance of the resulting song, ‘Poi e’, became a huge hit in 1983.

First formal competitions

The growing number of local kapa haka groups led to regular regional and national competitions. These inter-tribal cultural competitions have been a gratifying substitute for the violent demonstrations of tribal pride that were a part of Māori society centuries before. One of the earliest kapa haka competitions was at the 1934 Waitangi Day celebrations, when a trophy was presented for the finest Māori song, oratory and dance.

Taumaunu Shield

Kapa haka groups in the Gisborne region held their first annual competition shortly after the Second World War. From 1953 the top trophy was the Taumaunu Shield, presented to commemorate Karaitiana Taumaunu, a prolific Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti composer. Competition grew so intense that during the rehearsal period teams would deploy ‘spies’ to report on the repertoire of an opposing team.

Making it in America

In 1963 Te Arohanui o Te Iwi Māori, a group of about 150 kapa haka performers based at the Temple View Mormon centre in Hamilton, travelled to Laie, Hawaii, to complete a Māori village at the Polynesian Cultural Centre. The group then toured California and Utah and appeared on the Danny Kaye show, a top-rating nationwide TV programme. Their tour was a critical and commercial success, and was followed in 1972–73 by a further, but less successful, US tour by the New Zealand Māori Company.

Polynesian Festival

By 1972 at least 13 regional competitions were held regularly. In that year the first Polynesian Festival was held at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, as a national competition between the top regional teams. The festival’s original aim was to raise the standard of performance for tourist entertainment, but rising concern about preserving the Māori language and other elements of traditional culture gave it greater importance. In 1983 the Polynesian Festival became the Aotearoa Traditional Māori Performing Arts Festival and teams from other Pacific Island nations were no longer eligible to compete.

Te Matatini

In 2004 the Aotearoa Traditional Māori Performing Arts Festival was again renamed, as Te Matatini o te Rā national festival, held every two years. The name ‘matatini’ (’many faces’) was coined by Dr Wharehuia Milroy in reference to the number and diversity of the participants. Since its formation Te Matatini has been the country’s largest Māori cultural performing arts festival, with at least 30,000 spectators watching the competition between around 40 kapa haka teams, each one the winner of its own regional competition, and totalling some 2,000 members.

Each team performs six disciplines – whakaeke (entrance), mōteatea (traditional chant), poi (women’s dance using balls on strings), waiata-ā-ringa (action song), haka (posture dance) and whakawātea (exit). Waiata-tira (choral song) is an optional extra. Teams also compete for manukura wahine and manukura tane (best female and male leaders), kākahu (best costumes), te kairangi o te reo (excellence in written and performed Māori language), titonga waiata hou (best original composition), and categories for best poi, haka and waiata-ā-ringa.

Kapa haka in the 21st century

Local, regional and national competitions

By the 21st century kapa haka was a firmly established vehicle for sustaining and developing Māori language and culture. Tens of thousands of participants competed, while many more practitioners regularly enjoyed kapa haka as a non-competitive social activity.

In addition to the national Te Matatini competition, local and regional events attract dozens of teams and thousands of spectators. Te Ahurea Tino Rangatiratanga is the Auckland regional secondary schools’ kapa haka competition, held annually since 2000. Te Mana Kuratahi is the national primary schools’ competition.

Maussies at Te Matatini

The Te Matatini kapa haka festival arose from the Polynesian Festival, which admitted teams from throughout the Pacific. It later became a festival of exclusively Māori traditional performing arts. However, in 2010 Te Matatini once more became an international competition with the participation of Manawa Mai Tawhiti, based in Perth, Western Australia. The group defeated eight other Australian kapa haka teams to represent their adopted country at Te Matatini.

Educational benefits

Kapa haka has been found to provide a variety of educational benefits. It can revitalise and promote te reo and tikanga Māori, incorporating other cultural elements such as mau rākau (traditional weaponry) and taonga puoro (traditional Māori music). Teachers have found that kapa haka is an effective vehicle for teaching Māori tikanga such as pōwhiri (welcome rituals), karakia (incantations) and whaikōrero (oratory). It can also teach Māori social values and manners such as whānaungatanga (kinship), manaakitanga (hospitality) and aroha (love), along with life skills such as commitment and discipline, writing and composing ability, and memory strengthening.

At tertiary level kapa haka is a recognised field of academic study, with degree courses at several universities.

Kapa haka in national institutions

In the 2000s a growing number of national institutions, such as the Royal New Zealand Navy, maintained kapa haka teams to greet guests, encourage fitness and team spirit, and give Māori personnel the opportunity to learn and sustain their cultural traditions. All new naval recruits were required to learn the navy’s own haka. The national theatre school, Toi Whakaari, taught kapa haka to all first- and second-year students.

Tradition versus innovation

The kapa haka form continues to develop and evolve, and tensions regularly arise between advocates of tradition and innovation. Prominent leaders such as John Te Rangiāniwaniwa Rangihau of Ngāi Tūhoe, a master of the mere (club), taiaha (fighting staff) and spoken word, was also an uncompromising traditionalist who opposed controversial developments such as the participation of women in the haka. Others such as Bub Wehi (Te Whakatōhea) not only encouraged women to take part, but in 1990 armed them with traditional weapons, provoking uproar in the audience.

Present-day battle haka

Newly composed waiata and haka address not only traditional and timeless themes, but highly contemporary issues. Bub Wehi has written haka on the ‘fiscal envelope’ proposal to cap Treaty settlements, Māori male violence, health issues and the sale of state-owned assets. Wehi maintains that such haka are present-day equivalents of the warlike challenges of pre-European times. ‘These days the wars are not hand-to-hand combat but have become more politically orientated.’1

Tribal identity

Te Rita Papesch, a performer, teacher, composer and judge of haka, has expressed concern at the loss of tribal identity by 21st-century kapa haka groups. In earlier times groups were clearly associated with a specific iwi, and the language, body movements and repertoire of their performances demonstrated and upheld that tribal identity. More recently, however, groups incorporate performing styles from various iwi, and even from other Pacific traditions, such as Hawaiian, Tahitian and Rarotongan cultures.

Professionalising kapa haka

A further matter for ongoing debate is the extent to which kapa haka can be incorporated into the commercial world. Te Matatini has explored professional opportunities for leading exponents such as Arohanui, a large-scale performance staged in Wellington and Auckland during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Kapa haka exponents and theatre professionals collaborated on the two-hour musical, designed to suit a mainstream theatrical audience.

    • Quoted in Bradford Haami, Ka mau te wehi: Taking haka to the world: Bub & Nen’s story. Auckland: Ngāpō and Pīmia Wehi Whānau Trust, 2013, p. 218. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Valance Smith, 'Kapa haka – Māori performing arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by Valance Smith, published 22 Oct 2014