According to performing arts expert Tīmoti Karetū, the Second World War was the golden age of the Māori action song, particularly the work of Tuini Ngāwai of Ngāti Porou. Ngāwai was described by Apirana Ngata as a composer of genius. All her songs were written to encourage Māori pride, not least during the patriotic fervour of the war period.
Her 200-odd compositions included the Second World War classics ‘Arohaina mai’, written after a church service for the Māori Battalion, and ‘E te Hokowhitu-a-Tū’, a lament for Victoria Cross winner Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu. In 1939 Ngāwai established the famous Māori club Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū at Tokomaru Bay, a group still in existence the 2000s. After the war she taught Māori action songs in East Coast schools to stimulate children’s interest in the Māori language. She unashamedly borrowed most of her tunes.
Adding Māori flavour
During the 1950s and 1960s Māori showbands, rock ‘n’ rollers and other entertainers continued to popularise Māori action songs and culture as part of their unique Māori-flavoured performances. Māori country and western singer turned rock 'n' roller Johnny Cooper (dubbed the ‘Māori cowboy’) made popular the song ‘Me he manu rere’, first recorded at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, in 1936. ‘Pōkarekare ana’, ‘Hoki mai’ and ‘Pa mai’ were well-known songs performed by the Howard Morrison Quartet.
In 1999 Hinewehi Mohi sang the New Zealand national anthem in Māori before an All Rugby World Cup game against England at Twickenham. The rendition caused huge debate, but it later became common for New Zealanders to sing their national song in both English and Māori.
By the late 1960s the beginnings of a Māori renaissance were influencing the style of Māori music. New clubs and culture groups emerged to foster Māori culture and identity and to encourage new compositions. There was a growing trend away from complete borrowings of European melodies. The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation ran competitions for original compositions in action song and poi. The originality of both composition and tune was a key tenet of the Polynesian Festival in 1972. The event has evolved into the Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival and in the 2000s continued to promote original compositions in haka, poi and waiata-ā-ringa.
Māori singers and songwriters like Prince Tui Teka, Dalvanius Prime, Moana Maniapoto, Hirini Melbourne and Whirimako Black developed a distinctively Māori-influenced style, with the Māori language as a vehicle of expression. The love song ‘E ipo’ made Prince Tui Teka a household name in 1982. ‘Poi e’ was a 1984 number-one hit song by the Pātea Māori Club. Mixing Māori and hip hop culture and sung entirely in Māori, the song reached cult status amongst both Māori and Pākehā.
Both ‘E ipo’ and ‘Poi e’ were composed by Ngoi Pēwhairangi, a niece of Tuini Ngāwai. A Māori-language advocate and teacher, Pēwhairangi was also the author of the famous action song ‘Whakarongo’, which implored Māori to preserve their language. The Māori Language Commission declared it the official song for the Year of the Māori Language in 1995.