Story: New Zealand culture overseas

Page 3. Music and dance

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Kapa haka

As well as entertaining visitors to New Zealand, kapa haka (Māori performing arts) groups toured overseas from the 19th century. One of the first concert parties went to Sydney and Melbourne in 1862, and on to London in 1863. In the 2000s professional kapa haka groups continue to perform around the world.

Like Māori taonga (treasures), kapa haka performances were used to draw attention to New Zealand’s distinctiveness at international exhibitions. In the later 20th century the invigorating blend of waiata, poi dance and haka drew enthusiastic crowds at expos. In the 2000s kapa haka groups represented New Zealand at cultural and sporting events, including Commonwealth and Olympic games.

Two traditions

Unusually, the official New Zealand opening ceremony at Expo 70 blended elements of the traditional Māori welcome with triumphal band music. It featured Māori kapa haka performers and the National Band – both at Expo before embarking on world tours.

Cross-cultural influences

Māori music was influenced by European music and vice versa, with songs like ‘Pō atarau’ (Now is the hour) becoming known beyond New Zealand shores. Māori and Pasifika languages and musical traditions also infiltrated international styles such as classical, jazz, reggae and hip hop. Some New Zealand composers and songwriters produced works based on traditional Māori music or using taonga puoro (Māori instruments). Composers also took inspiration from New Zealand’s turbulent history and spectacular environment.

Classical musicians

From 1974, when it first toured overseas, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra championed the works of New Zealand composers, and also built a worldwide following through recordings. Since the 1990s other classical musicians such as the New Zealand String Quartet and the New Zealand Youth Choir have acted as cultural ambassadors. And since the early 20th century numerous New Zealand opera singers have become internationally famous.

Three in one

Footrot Flats: the dog’s tail tale (1986), which was a huge success on both sides of the Tasman, spanned several art forms. The film was based on Murray Ball’s internationally successful comic strip, Footrot Flats, and the title song ‘Slice of heaven’ was a massive hit for Dave Dobbyn and Herbs.

Popular musicians

Kiwi popular culture and idioms made their way into the music of travelling jazz, pop and rock artists. New Zealand jazz musicians were performing in Australia from the 1920s, and later globe-trotting stars included pianist Mike Nock and saxophonist Nathan Haines.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Māori showbands – the Maori Volcanics, the Maori Hi-Five and others – toured clubs and casinos in Australia, Asia, the United States and northern England, bringing their own sense of humour and singing style to an international repertoire. Soloists such as John Rowles achieved fame overseas at this time with unmistakably New Zealand songs.

From the 1970s New Zealand rock bands such as Dragon made a name for themselves in Australia, and in the case of Split Enz, further afield. The local recording industry, notably the Flying Nun label, brought original local bands like Straitjacket Fits to international attention. Bands like Shihad made it overseas from the 1990s. In the early 2000s solo artists including Kimbra, Ladyhawke and Lorde became highly successful with Kiwi-inflected pop.


From the 1950s New Zealand dancers and choreographers became internationally known. In the 1980s the Royal New Zealand Ballet began to tour other countries, playing a similar role to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as a cultural standard-bearer.

Modern dance companies such as the Douglas Wright Dance Company, Black Grace and MAU also toured from the 1980s. New Zealand hip hop crews won trans-national dance competitions in the 2000s.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'New Zealand culture overseas - Music and dance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014