Story: Māori composers – ngā kaitito waiata

Page 2. Traditions of composing

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Mōteatea is a tradition of chanted song-poetry that has been maintained in Māori communities for hundreds of years. Mōteatea were composed for innumerable purposes and reasons. A brief list of song types hints at their various purposes:

  • pātere – songs composed by women as a reply to jealousies or slander
  • apakura – laments
  • pao – short chanting songs
  • ruri – songs of an amorous nature
  • oriori – lullabies
  • matakite – songs pertaining to or communicating visions
  • mata – prophetic songs
  • kaioraora – cursing songs
  • waiata aroha – love songs.


The Māori traditional composer is the composer of mōteatea and its related forms. The traditional composer is a Māori-language master poet, who makes use of a vast array of metaphor and symbolic imagery built up over generations to express emotion and communicate ideas.

Haka composition

As chanted song-poetry also appears in haka (dance), the traditional composer is sometimes also a choreographer and a dancer. Here the kaupapa (purpose) of the composition moves the composer so much that the entire body needs to be involved – whether for the purposes of expressing anger or asserting identity, or in the seductive dances of the whare tapere (house of performance and entertainment).

Ritual and incantations

The traditional composer can also be an expert in ritual and incantations. Karakia (spoken prayers and incantations) are a related form of song poetry, and the composer may sometimes produce ritual incantations for the purpose of invoking a god or spirit to cause a transformation in the world.


Rangatira (chiefs) were also composers. It was rare to find a leader of an iwi, hapū or whānau community who did not at some point create compositions of one kind or another. Song-poetry compositions, whether brief or lengthy, were important ways by which a leader expressed himself or herself, and by which ideas were communicated and preserved across generations.

The voice of the gods

In all of these forms, the words and the voice are paramount. Words are not merely abstract representations of life – they are the voices, the reo (language) of life itself come alive in composition and performance. The human voice is an avenue for ancestors and for gods to express themselves in the world. Ultimately, the composer becomes one with the spirits, ancestors and gods of the world. The composer is the voice, the reo.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Māori composers – ngā kaitito waiata - Traditions of composing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 22 Oct 2014