Story: Waiata hōu – contemporary Māori songs

Page 1. Origins of contemporary waiata

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In the 19th century traditional Māori waiata continued to be composed with some changes in content. Adaptations of European styles of music using te reo Māori (the Māori language) also began. Māori-language musical style and compositions through the 20th century reflected the changing time, and social and political issues, as well as the more ordinary matters of Māori daily life.

Songs were composed to welcome and farewell people, to memorialise an event or to exalt a person’s life. Other waiata expressed sentiments of love or sorrow; humorous tunes were written for evening sing-alongs. Songs of protest and resistance, about topical issues such as Māori self-determination and language revitalisation, were incorporated into haka or more melodic tunes.

Iwi anthems

Some songs became anthems or signature songs for particular iwi. These anthems often share part of the tribe’s unique history, and their singing invokes tribal pride. One such waiata is Ngāti Kahungunu’s ‘Rongomaiwahine’, which was composed by Tommy Taurima. It tells the famous story of how the ancestor Kahungunu wooed the beautiful Rongomaiwahine.

European and American influence

In the 20th century European and American melodies increasingly influenced Māori songwriters and singing styles. Angela Ballara and Ngatai Huata, writing about Ngāti Kahungunu composer Paraire Tomoana, noted that ‘classical Māori songs … used small note ranges, no harmony and irregular metre’ while the new Māori composers ‘wrote words to fit harmonised tunes written in diatonic scales and generally deriving from European songs’.1

Māori politicians

According to Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), in the early 1900s fellow Māori politicians Apirana Ngata and Hōne Heke Ngāpua would amuse themselves in Parliament by translating the popular songs of the day into Māori and singing them together. They used Māori expressions and idioms, rather than literal translations. One of the better-known interpretations was Ngata’s ‘Te kāinga tupu’, sung to the tune of ‘Home sweet home’, an American melody of the early 19th century. Some of their other songs can be found in the book Souvenir of Maori Congress, which Ngata and Heke published in 1908.

Indecent song?

In 1940 it was reported from New York that NBC (National Broadcasting Company) officials, on the ground of decency, wanted the Māori word ‘piupiu’ omitted from a broadcast of Alfred Hill's song ‘Waiata poi’. The report noted that even when it was explained that ‘piupiu’ meant a grass skirt, the officials were still dubious.

Changing waiata

Rīpeka Paiātehau of Ngāti Porou composed a unique waiata in the 19th century – a drinking song sung to refute the tribe’s policy against alcohol. Another unique waiata was composed in the early 1900s by Guide Bella, the half-sister of Mākereti Papakura. ‘Pakete whero’ (red scarf) was a love song in the format of a waiata poi, with contemporary lyrics. It talked of two lovers – one wearing a red scarf and the other a red cravat.

Alfred Hill

In the late 1930s the Pākehā composer and conductor Alfred Hill lamented the influence of Hawaiian music (including the ukulele) on Māori music. Hill’s interest in Māori music led him to produce several Māori-themed musical works including a ‘Maori’ quartet in 1913 and the song ‘Waiata poi’, which was adopted by many Māori concert parties and choirs. Hill claimed Māori traditionally had no knowledge of the falsetto voice, something they learnt from Europeans. He also maintained that traditional Māori female singing was limited to chest voices, far different to the harmonies later exhibited by Māori performers. Hill advocated a national Māori cultural competition in the interest of preserving traditional melodies.

  1. Angela Ballara. 'Tomoana, Paraire Henare.'Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 21 July 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

Piri Sciascia and Paul Meredith, 'Waiata hōu – contemporary Māori songs - Origins of contemporary waiata', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 December 2023)

Story by Piri Sciascia and Paul Meredith, published 22 Oct 2014