Story: Māori composers – ngā kaitito waiata

From early creators of traditional mōteatea (chanted song-poetry) to contemporary composers who draw on introduced musical styles and influences, the Māori world has been home to many important composers.

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
Main image: Tuini Ngāwai and Ngoi Pēwhairangi, 1943

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Māori composers have created traditional music forms and music drawing on both Māori and European styles and influences.

Traditions of composing

Mōteatea is a centuries-old tradition of chanted song-poetry. Mōteatea were composed for many purposes and reasons, and their composers were great poets. Chiefs and leaders were often composers who used music as an important way to communicate ideas.

Traditional composers sometimes composed chants to call on gods or spirits. Gods and ancestors could express themselves in the world through music and the human voice.

Early traditional composers

  • Mananui Te Heuheu, the paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, composed a famous waiata tangi (lament) for his younger brother, Pāpaka Te Naeroa, who died in battle.
  • Te Rangitopeora of Ngāti Toarangatira wrote songs about her many marriages and romances.
  • Mihi-ki-te-kapua was a renowned composer from Ngāti Ruapani and Tūhoe. Her best-known waiata, ‘Taku rākau e’, is still sung by people throughout New Zealand.

Later composers

From the late 19th century Māori concert parties travelled to Māori villages to perform. The visits aimed to encourage tribal identity and sometimes to raise funds for community projects. These included the revival of East Coast marae (led by Apirana Ngata) and setting up Tūrangawaewae marae in Ngāruawāhia (led by Te Puea Hērangi).

  • Paraire Tomoana composed songs in the new ‘action song’ style, which often drew on European melodies. His songs include the famous ‘Pōkarekare ana’.
  • Tuini Ngāwai was an important East Coast composer who wrote many songs, including ‘Arohaina mai e te Kīngi nui’, which became an unofficial anthem for the Māori Battalion during the Second World War.
  • Ngoi Pēwhairangi’s songs included ‘E ipo’, made famous by Prince Tui Teka, and ‘Poi e’, a hit for the Pātea Māori Club.
  • Hirini Melbourne composed many songs for schools, including ‘Pūrea nei’ and ‘Tihore mai’. He played an important part in reviving the use of taonga puoro (traditional musical instruments).
  • Gillian Karawe Whitehead trained in the European classical music tradition and later began using taonga puoro and the Māori language in her music.
How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Māori composers – ngā kaitito waiata', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 22 October 2014