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Waiata hōu – contemporary Māori songs

by Piri Sciascia and Paul Meredith

In the 20th century Māori waiata were increasingly influenced by European melodies, with some prominent composers borrowing tunes. Many waiata were written and performed during the world wars as fundraisers, to encourage Māori pride or as laments for those lost. Later, the Māori cultural renaissance included a resurgence in Māori-language songs.

Origins of contemporary waiata

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 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.


First World War waiata

At the outbreak of the First World War, Apirana Ngata printed another small booklet, Songs, haka and ruri for the use of the Maori Contingent. This was a collection of popular patriotic songs and romantic ballads translated into Māori. Ngata was active in organising Māori song-and-dance groups during the war to raise funds for Māori soldiers.

Hit songs

The first large-scale recordings of Māori songs were made in 1930 by the Columbia Graphophone Company. The collection of 30 Māori songs, love tunes, farewell and welcome songs were still selling some 30 years later.

Paraire Tomoana

Paraire Tomoana, who like Ngata was a Te Aute College old boy, also supported the fundraising effort through new compositions and his own group, Te Poi o Heretaunga. Tomoana’s best-known songs were 'Te ope tuatahi', ‘Tahi nei taru kino’, 'Hoea rā te waka nei', ‘Hoki hoki tonu mai’ and the iconic New Zealand love song ‘Pōkarekare ana’. Perhaps his most famous song is the still popular 'E pari rā', a waiata for Maku-i-te-Rangi Ellison, whose son Whakatomo died in the First World War. This waiata maumahara (song of remembrance) and waiata-ā-ringa was influenced by, and has a similar tune to, the ‘Blue eyes waltz’. It was adopted by the Royal New Zealand Navy Band as their official slow march.

In September 1917 the Māori newspaper Te Kopara reported the fundraising activity of Te Poi o Heretaunga at the Wellington town hall on the invitation of Āpirana Ngata. The audience was introduced to the song ‘Hoea rā te waka nei’, and £550 was raised over three nights for the Maori Soldiers Fund. ‘Hoea rā’ would later be adapted into a love song.

Ana Hato and Deane Waretini

Many First World War songs were made popular amongst New Zealanders through radio broadcasts of the recordings of Rotorua singing duet Ana Hato and Deane Waretini in the 1930s and 1940s.

Waiata-ā-ringa – Māori action songs

There are a number of early pioneers of the waiata-ā-ringa (Māori action song). Apirana Ngata composed waiata-ā-ringa in the early 1900s. Te Puea Hērangi of Waikato is also regarded as a pioneer of the action song. In 1917 she composed ‘E noho e Rata’. It was a tribute to the Māori King Te Rata, but is now sung with reference to the present Māori King.

Te Pou o Mangatāwhiri

Te Puea Hērangi formed Te Pou o Mangatāwhiri concert party, which toured the North Island to raise funds for the creation of Tūrangawaewae marae at Ngāruawāhia. According to historian Michael King, it was the first group to popularise string instrument backing for Māori songs.

Mākereti Papakura also led early touring concert groups to Sydney (1910) and England (1911). There are early references to Māori performing ‘action songs’. The Ashburton Guardian reported in 1900 the performance of a Māori party which included a ‘Maori action song’, which the reporter found ‘very interesting and amusing’.1

Popularity of action songs

Māori action songs became a popular part of Māori performance from the First World War onwards. Ngata, Paraire Tomoana and others were arranging words and actions for songs at this time, and many of those songs became classic Māori action songs. However, the modern waiata-ā-ringa was not an integral part of Māori performing groups’ repertoires until the mid-1930s.


The piano and violin were instruments of choice for early composers and performers. Kīngi Tāhiwi from Ōtaki, founder of the Ngāti Pōneke Māori club in Wellington, composed much of his music on a long-necked five-string banjo. Tāhiwi’s most famous song is perhaps the flirtatious tune ‘He pūru taitama’.

Composer Tuini Ngāwai of Ngāti Porou played the mouth organ, ukulele, Jew’s harp, kōauau (traditional Māori flute), saxophone, piano, drums, violin and other instruments. In the 2000s the guitar was generally used to accompany performances, but its dominance only dates from the mid-20th century.

Revival of traditional instruments

Since the late 20th century there has been a revival of traditional Māori instruments such as the kōauau and pūtōrino (flutes) and pūrerehua (bull roarer). The late Hirini Melbourne of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu and ethnomusicologist and performer Richard Nunns led this revival. In the 2000s these instruments could be heard in both traditional and contemporary performances.

    • Ashburton Guardian, 24 September 1900, p. 2. Back

Second World War to cultural renaissance

Tuini Ngāwai

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.

Māori anthem

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.

Cultural renaissance

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.

The modern Māori waiata

Māori-language broadcasting

The advent of Māori-language broadcasting on both radio and television and a new generation educated in the Māori tongue have helped to foster the continued growth of songs in Māori. Many of these reflect the modern Māori challenges of urban identity and the revitalisation of language and culture.

Waiata awards

The Waiata Māori Music Awards were instigated in 2008 to acknowledge Māori composers. The categories include best Māori traditional album (te reo Māori), best Māori urban rap/hip hop/R&B album, best Māori pop album, best Māori male solo artist, best Māori female solo artist, best Māori song and best Māori songwriter.

Contemporary popular music and te reo

Contemporary songs illustrate the heavy black American influence on current generations, who draw on rap, R&B or hip hop styles, as well as reggae. Upper Hutt Posse was a reggae-influenced hip hop group at the forefront of New Zealand’s rap scene. Songs such as ‘E tū’ spoke of racial inequalities, but were mostly in English. The band’s fourth album, Te reo mixes, was a remix of earlier favourites featuring only Māori-language lyrics, a reflection of the group’s own acquisition of the Māori language. Aaria, another hip hop group, were positive young Māori-speaking role models and had a hit with ‘Kei a wai te kupu’.

Maisey Rika

Maisey Rika enjoyed early success with her album E hine, a collection of classic Māori songs. She went on to compose songs in te reo Māori (the Māori language), such as ‘Tangaroa whakamautai’, a journey into Māori legend and the ocean. The song was included in her third studio album, Whitiora, which was completely in te reo Māori. Rika became a regular finalist and sometimes a winner at the Waiata Māori Music Awards and in the Māori section of the New Zealand Music Awards.

Ruia Aperahama

Another well-known Māori-language singer and songwriter was Ruia Aperahama. His Bob Marley tribute album in te reo Māori, Waiata of Bob Marley, demonstrates the fondness of many Māori for reggae.

Survival of traditional songs

Despite the new styles of music, many traditional chants have survived into the 21st century, partly due to the efforts of Āpirana Ngata, who began collecting and annotating these songs in the 1920s. He was assisted by translator Pei Te Hurinui Jones and later Hirini Moko Mead. Their work became the classic four-volume Nga moteatea. The University of Auckland’s sound archives include some 1,300 items of traditional Māori chant collected by Mervyn McLean. The poetry and literary artistry within these arrangements have influenced many modern Māori compositions.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Piri Sciascia and Paul Meredith, 'Waiata hōu – contemporary Māori songs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2021)

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