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Māori composers – ngā kaitito waiata

by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

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.

Composing Māori music

Music, in one form or another, is a ubiquitous feature of human life. Where there are people, there is music. And where there is music, there are composers – people who are able to create new music to give voice to their experiences, ideas and emotions. From times before European settlement to the present day, there have been Māori individuals who have composed music – whether traditional forms such as mōteatea (chanted song-poetry) or using introduced music styles and influences.

Traditional Māori composers

These individuals include traditional composers such as Mananui Te Heuheu Tūkino II and Puhiwahine of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Mihi-ki-te-kapua of Ngāi Tūhoe, Ēnoka Te Pakaru of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Te Rangitopeora of Ngāti Toarangatira. Composers of traditional musical forms can be found in every iwi in the country.

Early 20th century

Early-20th-century composers include Apirana Ngata, Fanny Rose Howie, Tuini Ngāwai and Ngoi Pēwhairangi, all of Ngāti Porou. Others include Paraire Henare Tomoana of Ngāti Kahungunu and Kīngi Tāhiwi of Ngāti Raukawa.

Later 20th century

Later composers include Hirini Melbourne of Ngāi Tūhoe and the newer kapa haka (traditional performing arts) composers, such as Ngāpō Wehi (Te Whakatōhea), Tīmoti Kāretu (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu), Kīngi Ihaka (Te Aupōuri) and Kuini Moehau Reedy (Ngāti Porou). In the 2010s the large number of kapa haka composers throughout the country included Rob Ruha (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou), Kingi Kiriona (Tainui) and Wetini Mītai-Ngātai (Te Arawa).

These composers create new music in te reo Māori (the Māori language), deeply reflecting Māori history and experiences. Their musical language makes great use of introduced song styles.

Western composition crossover

Gillian Karawe Whitehead is a Māori composer who trained in the European classical music tradition and enjoyed a successful career in this area. After she returned from England and settled in Sydney in 1981, Whitehead began experimenting with using taonga puoro (traditional Māori instruments) and te reo Māori in her music. In the early 21st century she was a senior New Zealand composer who created music in a range of styles.

Ngā tikanga tito waiata

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.

Traditional composers and compositions

There were many traditional composers, whose art can be seen within their compositions.

Mananui Te Heuheu

Mananui Te Heuheu was the son of Te Heuheu Herea and paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa of Taupō. He composed a waiata tangi (lament) for his younger brother, Pāpaka Te Naeroa, who died in a battle near Ōtaki. This song, ‘Taku tirotiro noa’ (I look about in vain), is one of the great masterworks of the mōteatea tradition. In his grief, Te Heuheu berates his younger brother for being impulsive and impetuous and asks about his transgressions.

Haere rā e Pā!
I ngā tai whakarewa kauri ki te uru.
Tūtanga pō noa e roto i ahau;
Kei te aha tō hara?
Kei ngā ara tahataha nunui a Tiki-māeroero
Kei te aha tō hara?
Kei ngā tūranga rau a te toa.
Kei ō hīanga i tukua iho ai,
Ka moe koe i te kino; te hoa ē ī!
Farewell, O Sir!
Depart with the kauri-bearing tides of the western sea.
Distracted thoughts abide with me in the night;
Where was your transgression?
Perchance, ’twas on the steep trails of Tiki-the-heedless.
Where was your transgression?
Perchance, ’twas in the crowded pathway of the brave
With your unruly spirit leading you on,
Thus to fall asleep in death; my comrade, alas!1

Te Rangitopeora

Te Rangitopeora was born at Kāwhia early in the 19th century. Her mother was Waitohi of Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa, and her father was Te Rā-ka-herea of Ngāti Toarangatira. Her hapū were Ngāti Kimihia and Ngāti Te Maunu.

Te Rangitopeora was a well-known woman of stature, taking the name Kuini Wikitōria (Queen Victoria) when she was baptised in Ōtaki in 1847. Te Rangitopeora was one of five women who signed the Treaty of Waitangi, and was a niece of Te Rauparaha, the great Ngāti Toa chief. Te Rangitopeora was romantically connected with many men, a topic on which she composed numerous songs. At one point, she fell in love with a Waikato man called Riripō who was already married. She wrote the following waiata to him.

Rangi kōrerehu i marewa atu ai,
Tahuri mai hoki kōrua ko tō kanohi.
Wai hoki te mea ka riua ia rā ki tō wahine;
Taea te hōmai hei whakaara i taku moe.
’Twas a misty-dismal day when you departed,
You gave one backward glance and I saw your face,
Nought now avails for you are gone to your spouse;
All that remains gives me wakeful nights.2


Mihi-ki-te-kapua was a renowned and prolific Ngāti Ruapani and Ngāi Tūhoe composer who lived in the 19th century. Her best-known composition is a lament for her husband, Hikawai, ‘Taku rākau e’, which is commonly sung by Tūhoe people in the 2000s. The following extract is from another waiata about her feelings of loneliness.

Engari te tītī e tangi haere ana, e,

Whai tokorua rawa rāua;

Tēnā ko au nei, e manu e,

Kei te hua kiwi i mahue i te tawai;
Fortunate the tītī [muttonbird], as it cries in flight,

It has the company of its mate;

As for me, my bird, I am like,

The egg, abandoned by the kiwi at the tawai roots.3
    • Āpirana Turupa Ngata, Ngā mōteatea: he maramara rere nō ngā waka maha. Part 1. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004, pp. 284–285. Back
    • Quoted in Nga mōteatea. Part 1, pp. 206–207. Back
    • Quoted in Nga mōteatea. Part 1, pp. 82–83. Back

Later composers

Māori concert parties

Late in the 19th century a new performance form began to emerge in Māori communities. Led by Apirana Ngata of Ngāti Porou and later Te Puea Hērangi of Waikato, this was the Māori concert party, a precursor of modern-day kapa haka. Troupes of Māori singers, dancers and other performers travelled to Māori villages to perform introduced melodies and styles, using instruments such as the violin, piano accordion and banjo. An echo of the traditional whare karioi (travelling troupe of performers), the visits aimed to maintain and foster tribal identity and cohesion, and sometimes to raise funds for community projects. The most famous examples were the revitalisation of East Coast marae (led by Ngata) and the establishment of Tūrangawaewae marae, the seat of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) in Ngāruawāhia (led by Te Puea).

Paraire Tomoana

Born in the mid-1870s, Paraire Tomoana of Ngāti Whatuiāpiti and Ngāti Kahungunu was a pioneer composer of songs in the new ‘action song’ style, which moved away from the small note ranges of traditional waiata and used harmonised tunes, often adapted from European melodies. During the First World War he used his musical abilities to raise funds for soldiers and their families. Some of Tomoana’s compositions remain among the most popular Māori songs; they include the famous love song ‘Pōkarekare ana’, 'Hoea rā te waka nei' and ‘E pari rā’, a waiata maumahara (song of remembrance) for soldiers lost in the First World War. 'E pari rā' was influenced by, and has a similar tune to, the 'Blue eyes waltz'; it was adopted by the Royal New Zealand Navy as its official slow march.

Tuini Ngāwai

Tuini Ngāwai of Ngāti Porou was born in 1910 at Tokomaru Bay. She composed her first song (now lost) aged 14, and from 1931 onwards wrote more than 200 songs, some of which became classics of the modern Māori song repertoire. Her first surviving song, ‘He nawe kei roto’ (Stirred within), impressed Apirana Ngata so much that he asked her to perform it at the opening of the meeting house Te Hono-ki-Rarotonga in Tokomaru Bay in 1934.

In 1939 Ngāwai moved to Auckland and began composing songs for a choir which made many radio broadcasts. During the Second World War she returned to Tokomaru Bay and established Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū, a performing group that assisted in recruiting men to the Māori Battalion. The group performed many of Ngāwai’s compositions at training camps and when farewelling troops or welcoming those returning home. During the war Ngāwai composed her best-known songs, including the famous ‘Arohaina mai e te Kīngi nui’ (Care for us, great King).

Ngoi Pēwhairangi

Tuini Ngāwai’s niece Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi also became known as a composer. A member and leader of Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū concert party, she was groomed by her aunt in performance, composition and leadership. Pēwhairangi’s songs included ‘Kia kaha ngā iwi’, ‘Ka noho au’ and ‘Whakarongo’. Much of her work was composed for specific events, such as the 1983 visit of the prince and princess of Wales, when she organised the official welcome. Her best-known songs are ‘E ipo’, which was recorded by Prince Tui Teka in 1981, and ‘Poi e’, written with Dalvanius Prime, which was a hit for the Pātea Māori Club in 1982. Pēwhairangi was also an important educator who worked unstintingly to promote Māori language and culture.

Hirini Melbourne

Hirini Melbourne of Ngāi Tūhoe was an influential composer whose works and creativity flourished from 1980 till his death in 2003. Melbourne first came to be known through the many songs he composed for schools, which are still sung in the 2000s. ‘Pūrea nei’ (Cleansing), ‘Whiti te marama’ (The moon shines), ‘Tihore mai’ (The sky is clear) and many more are popular favourites and sung throughout New Zealand.

Melbourne is also lauded for his leadership – with Richard Nunns – in the revival of traditional Māori musical instruments known as taonga puoro (sound treasures). Their 1994 CD Te ku te whe was a landmark recording, restoring the sounds of these instruments and introducing a new voice in New Zealand music composition. In the 2010s taonga puoro can be heard in film and television, at sports games, on marae and elsewhere.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Māori composers – ngā kaitito waiata', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 22 October 2014