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Kapa Haka

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 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 of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu, 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 that permeates every aspect of the art. Haka draws on the performers’ spirits as well as their thoughts. 


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 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 everyday tasks such as weaving. Although the poi is now largely performed to European melodies, pre-colonial poi were recited in a similar manner to haka, especially by the people of Taranaki.

Waiata in haka

Waiata are a central element of kapa haka. In contrast to haka, these are items that are sung to tunes or chants, which include waiata tira (choral), waiata tawhito (traditional chants), waiata ā-ringa (action songs), poi, whakaeke (entrance) and whakawātea (exit). Waiata Māori transmit the feelings of a person or group, recording personal and prominent historical events and imitating oral narratives. Waiata are used to transfer knowledge within Māori communities.

Haka and social status

Haka is a custom of high social importance. The reputation of an iwi or hapū often rises or falls on its members’ ability to perform haka. The leader has to be an expert who can influence the performance of their team by the timing of voice and movement.

First kapa haka

There are many atua Māori (deities) associated with the art of kapa haka, including Hineruhi, Tānerore, Hinerēhia and Rūaumoko The earliest kapa haka was said to have been a convention of women gathered by Tinirau, a son of Tangaroa. As a means to inflict utu on his nemesis Kae, Tinirau instructed the women to entertain Kae and his people, and make him laugh so he could be identified by his distinctive teeth. The plan was successful – Kae finally laughed, and was killed.

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 draw 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. Physical and mental toughness play an important role in the execution of haka. Performers of haka in wartime aimed to intimidate their opponents with pūkana and whētero.

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 try to prohibit all haka, waiata tawhito and other traditional chants as accompaniments to hymns.  Williams and other missionaries 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. In about 1871, King Tāwhiao’s bodyguards were heard singing Māori songs to English melodies at Horahora.

Entertaining tourists

The first local haka concert groups appeared in the 1880s. European tourists preferred to hear live performances by Māori of songs with European melodies, as many Pākehā found the style of traditional chants distasteful. Kapa haka used popular English tunes of the day, replacing the English lyrics with Māori poetry.

First overseas tours

Haka and waiata tawhito survived as part of the repertoire of haka concert parties. Several kapa haka, 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 United Kingdom 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 Rātana Church, the Kīngitanga 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 United Kingdom 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

Waiata ā-ringa

From the early 20th century, the repertoire of kapa haka included modern waiata ā-ringa. Waiata ā-ringa emerged as a combination of European tunes and traditional actions created by Polynesian ancestors, underpinned by Māori narratives. Unlike traditional haka and waiata, waiata ā-ringa include a wide range of actions that complement 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 of Ngāti Porou. The earliest published reference to modern action songs appears in the programme for the 1908 conference of the Young Maori Party, whose leaders included Ngata, Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) of Ngāti Mutunga, and Māui Pōmare of Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Toa.

During the First World War, Ngata encouraged kapa haka to give fundraising performances for his Maori Soldiers’ Fund. After the war he collected many traditional waiata and kōrero, and in 1929 he 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 in this period. ‘Pō atarau’ (‘Now is the hour’) was composed around 1918. This song was later performed and recorded by international artists, including the American crooner Bing Crosby.

Piupiu and other costumes

The growing popularity of kapa haka in the 20th century encouraged the use of distinctive outfits. These combined traditional Māori garments, which had by then become rare in everyday use, with more modern or reinvented clothing. The piupiu, a skirt-type garment worn by both men and women, is one of the most distinctive parts of kapa haka attire. ‘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 the performance.

Musical instruments

Many popular kapa haka chose to use Western musical instruments to accompany their European musical items. The guitar was among the most portable of these instruments and rapidly became the favourite. The piano accordion was also popular in the early 20th century. At Te Matatini 2017, Te Reanga Mōrehu o Rātana incorporated instruments characteristic of the Rātana Church’s brass band.

Urban groups and formal competitions

Kapa haka and urbanisation

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

Winning combination

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

Pan-tribal kapa haka

Unlike earlier kapa haka, many of those formed from the 1930s included members from a number of iwi. Ngāti Pōneke was formed in Wellington in 1936. In 1969 Pita Sharples of Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Te Kikiri o te Rangi and Ngāti Pāhauwera set up Te Rōpū Manutaki in Auckland. Kīngi Īhaka of Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa 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 iwi were Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū, formed in Tokomaru Bay by Tuini Ngāwai (Ngāti Porou) in 1939, and Waihīrere Māori Club, formed in Gisborne by Wiremu (Bill) Kerekere (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki) in 1951. There were around 50 active senior kapa haka in New Zealand and Australia in 2022.

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 the Māori language 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, Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi of Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Koi set Māori-language lyrics to a hip-hop beat by Dalvanius Prime of Tainui, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngā Rauru, Pakakohi and Ngāi Tahu. The Pātea Māori Club’s performance of the resulting song, ‘Poi e’, became a huge hit in 1983. Pēwhairangi and Prime brought te reo Māori and kapa haka into the mainstream, and the international recognition made New Zealanders proud.

First formal competitions

The growing number of local kapa haka led to regular regional and national competitions. These events became a substitute for the warlike demonstrations of tribal pride that were a part of Māori society for centuries. One of the earliest kapa haka competitions was at the 1934 Waitangi Day celebrations, when the Terahi Rose Bowl trophy was presented to the iwi scoring the highest overall points for Māori song, oratory and haka.

Taumaunu Shield

Kapa haka in the Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (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 their opponents.

Haka goes global

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. Pātea Māori Club also toured the US, playing at the Irving Plaza and Disneyland’s 30th anniversary celebrations. A number of kapa haka have performed at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hawaii and the annual Te Maeva Nui festival in Rarotonga.

Polynesian Festival

By 1972 at least 13 regional competitions were taking place 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 renamed Te Matatini. The term ‘matatini’ (‘many faces’) was coined by Wharehuia Milroy (Ngāi Tūhoe) in reference to the number and diversity of the participants. Te Matatini, held every two years, has become the country’s largest Māori performing arts festival. Te Matatini ki Te Ao, held in Wellington in 2019, reached almost 1.4 million people, most of them online. Audiences could access a simultaneous English translation service throughout the live stage performances. About 40 haka teams, totalling some 2,000 performers, made it to this national competition after doing well in regional competitions.

Each team performs six disciplines – whakaeke (entrance), waiata tawhito (traditional song), poi (song with poi), waiata ā-ringa (action song), haka and whakawātea (exit). Waiata tira (choral) is an optional extra. Teams compete for the winning manukura wahine and manukura tāne (female and male leaders), kākahu (clothes), te kairangi o te reo (excellence in Māori language), and titonga waiata hou (new composition).

In 2022, Te Matatini celebrated its first 50 years by releasing a book and web series that followed the making of three albums of waiata from across the half-century of competition. Led by music director Rob Ruha (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou), Te matatoa featured a remastered item from each winning bracket. Te matakāinga contained re-recorded waiata from each of the 13 regions, and Te matakōkiri was a selection of popular waiata, re-recorded.

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 people compete, while many more regularly enjoy kapa haka as a social activity.

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

Copyright issues

Since all major competitions are televised and broadcast online, the desire of groups to use popular music from artists across the globe can cause difficulties. At the national secondary school competition in 2022, for example, two of the 90 items could not be broadcast as the original artists declined permission for their use. Some tutors see this as an opportunity for kapa haka to produce more original works.

Impact of COVID-19 on kapa haka

Competitive kapa haka experienced a two-year hiatus from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Te Matatini Herenga Waka, Herenga Tangata, due to be held at Ngā Ana Wai (Eden Park) in 2021, was postponed, and the national secondary school competition was moved online. In their place, a series of regional, non-competitive events known as Haka Ngahau ā-Rohe were staged around the country. In July 2022 Tāmaki Makaurau hosted Tāmaki Herenga Waka, Herenga Tangata Hakangahau.

Mozzies at Te Matatini

Te Matatini kapa haka festival arose from the Polynesian Festival, which accepted teams from throughout the Pacific. It later became a festival of exclusively Māori traditional performing arts. In 2010 Te Matatini once again became an international competition with the participation of Manawa Mai Tawhiti, based in Perth, Western Australia. The group had defeated eight other Australian kapa haka to win the right 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 cultural elements such as mau rākau and taonga puoro. Teachers have found that kapa haka is an effective vehicle for teaching tikanga Māori, including pōwhiri, karakia and whaikōrero. It can also teach Māori social values such as whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and aroha, along with life skills such as commitment and discipline, writing and composing, and improved memory.

Kapa haka is a recognised field of academic study, with degree courses at several universities.

Kapa haka in national institutions

In the early 21st century a growing number of institutions, such as the Royal New Zealand Navy, maintain kapa haka to greet guests, encourage fitness and team spirit, and give Māori personnel the opportunity to learn and sustain their cultural traditions. All recruits are required to learn the navy’s haka. The national theatre school, Toi Whakaari, teaches kapa haka to all first- and second-year students.

Welcoming celebrities

Esteemed guests and touring celebrities are often welcomed into the country by kapa haka and the formalities of a pōwhiri. Members of the royal family, former United States president Barack Obama, singer Billie Eilish and actor Jason Momoa have all been welcomed in this way.

Tradition versus innovation

The kapa haka form continues to develop and evolve, and tensions regularly arise between advocates of tradition and innovation. Some prominent leaders, such as John Te Rangiāniwaniwa Rangihau of Ngāi Tūhoe, a master of the meremere (short stone weapon), taiaha (long wooden weapon) and spoken word, were uncompromising traditionalists who opposed developments such as the participation of women in haka. Others, such as Bub Wehi (Te Whakatōhea, Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) 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 both timeless traditional themes and contemporary issues. Bub Wehi wrote haka on the ‘fiscal envelope’ proposal to cap the amount of Treaty settlements, Māori male violence, health issues and the sale of state-owned assets. Wehi maintained that such haka were 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 of Waikato-Maniapoto, Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Whakaue, a performer, teacher, composer and judge of haka, has expressed concern at the loss of tribal identity in 21st-century kapa haka. 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 have incorporated performing styles from various iwi and 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 a large-scale performance staged in Wellington and Auckland during the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament. Kapa haka exponents and theatre professionals collaborated on Arohanui, a two-hour musical aimed at a mainstream theatrical audience.

Valuing kapa haka

Several academic studies have been completed into the value to the nation of kapa haka. One study in 2022 by Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Māori Centre of Research Excellence found that kapa haka provided Māori with ‘precious opportunities to be completely and unashamedly Māori, to stand with pride and enjoy a sense of belong’, as well as pathways to access mātauranga in a uniquely Māori context. It also found kapa haka provided opportunities for Māori to express themselves and perform as Māori within a largely monocultural society, and improved the well-being of the wider Māori community. They argued that kapa haka is ‘life-saving and life-enhancing’.2

    • 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
    • Linda Waimarie Nikora et al., The value of kapa haka: an overview report. Auckland: Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, 2022, p. 2. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Valance Smith, 'Kapa Haka', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Valance Smith, published 22 October 2014, reviewed & revised 9 February 2023