Story: Kapa Haka

Page 3. 20th-century innovations

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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.

How to cite this page:

Valance Smith, 'Kapa Haka - 20th-century innovations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2022)

Story by Valance Smith, published 22 Oct 2014