Story: Traditional Māori songs – waiata tawhito

Waiata have always played a vital part in Māori life, recording the deeds of ancestors, lamenting losses, calling to a lover or marking the birth of an important child. Traditional waiata are still sung today, while new waiata are composed reflecting the issues of the day.

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader
Main image: Whānau singing a waiata tawhito

Story summary

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Māori have an extensive tradition of song and dance, with a broad range of styles. Waiata were written to mark important events such as the birth of a child or the death of a chief.

Waiata serve many functions. They can be used to support a whaikōrero (formal speech) or sung to express grief after a death. Waiata were used to help teach children, to urge people to take up a cause, or to mourn in times of loss. Waiata can record a tribe’s past by referring to ancestors, events and places. They are sometimes used to settle historical debates.

Traditional waiata are still sung on marae and at gatherings. New waiata continue to be written, often about current concerns.

Origins of waiata

Like many aspects of Māori culture, waiata are associated with myth. A woman who was skilled at performing waiata was compared to the goddess Hineruhi. Hineruhi is found at dawn, and her dance is the sparkle of light on morning dew. Hineruhi’s companion, Tānerore, is credited with the origin of haka.

The chief Tinirau was betrayed by his tohunga, Kae, who killed Tinirau’s pet whale. Tinirau got revenge on Kae after sending women to entertain him with waiata.

Raukatauri is the atua (deity) of music and Raukatamea is the atua of entertainment.

Types of waiata

Waiata can be grouped according to form and function. The three main types of traditional waiata are oriori (lullabies), waiata tangi (laments) and waiata aroha (love songs). Waiata tangi are laments about issues such as illness, death, loss of land or a wrecked canoe. Waiata aroha often focus on the sad aspects of love, such as a husband away at war or loss of a lover. Waiata aroha were composed for a broad range of topics, including a daughter married into another tribe, traditional lands and guns.

Oriori were traditionally composed for children of rank, and were used as part of their early education.

Other classes of waiata include pātere – songs composed by women in reply to jealousy or insults; kaioraora – cursing songs; ruri – amorous songs; and mata – prophetic songs.


Haka are a large subclass of waiata. Peruperu, performed on the battlefield with weapons, is the fiercest haka. Haka taparahi is a ceremonial dance performed without weapons. Haka pōwhiri are performed during a welcome – usually by men, although the women of Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-a-Apanui also perform these haka.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader, 'Traditional Māori songs – waiata tawhito', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader, published 22 October 2014