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Waiata tawhito - traditional Māori songs

by Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader

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.

Traditions of waiata

Range of traditional waiata

Māori have an extensive tradition of song and dance which encompasses a broad range of styles. The range of waiata is evident in the many names that demonstrate both form and function, for example waiata aroha (songs of love) or waiata whakautu (songs of reply). Types of waiata are also distinguished by the music and performance.

The emotionally charged circumstances under which waiata were composed are reflected in their highly poetic language, which is rich with allusion, metaphor and imagery. Oriori (lullabies) were written for the birth of an important child and waiata tangi (songs of mourning) upon the death of a rangatira.

Function of waiata

Waiata serve many important functions and are used in a variety of contexts in Māori culture and society. A waiata may be used to support a whaikōrero (a formal speech) on the marae or sung as an expression of grief at the loss of a loved one. Waiata were used to assist with the education of children, to urge the people to take up a cause and to mourn in times of calamity and misfortune. Additionally, waiata document history, recalling the past through mentions of ancestors, events and places. Traditional waiata memorialise particular conflicts from the perspective of the composer and his or her people. Waiata are also called upon to settle historical debates or to illustrate or add weight to a contemporary or historical point.

Traditional waiata in contemporary times

Many traditional waiata continue to be sung in the 21st century on marae and at other tribal, hapū and whānau gatherings. While the social and political context in which traditional waiata were composed and sung has changed dramatically, waiata live on. They continue to be composed anew and to adapt and to be adapted to fit new and novel circumstances. As te reo Māori and performing arts expert Tīmoti Kāretu has noted, ‘Haka have always reflected the cares, concerns and issues of the time.’1 Although he is referring specifically to haka, the same statement can be applied to all other styles and forms of Māori waiata.

    • Tīmoti Kāretu, Haka: te tohu o te whenua rangatira: the dance of a noble people. Auckland: Reed, 1993, p. 49. Back

Origins of waiata

Mythological precedents

Like many aspects of traditional Māori culture, waiata have mythological precedents. Deities who are strongly associated with waiata and haka include Hineruhi, Tānerore and Rēhia.


Hineruhi is a deity found at dawn, and her dance is said to be the sparkle of light that is reflected in the morning dew. When a woman performed in the whare tapere (house of entertainment) and excelled her performance would be described by the proverb ‘Ko Hineruhi koe, nāna i tū te ata hāpara’ (You are Hineruhi, the one who brings about the dawn).

Poi whakapapa

The poi has its own whakapapa, which can be traced to Tānemahuta, the ancestral god of the forests and all things living in it. Tānemahuta mated with Hineiterepo (the swamp maiden) and they produced raupō (bulrush). Tānemahuta also mated with Pakoti (Pakoki) and created a superior species of harakeke (flax). Raupō and harakeke are the main traditional sources for making poi.


Hineruhi’s companion is Tānerore, another deity from the natural world who relates to the behaviour of light. Tānerore is the son of Tamanuiterā (the sun god) and Hineraumati (the summer maid) and is credited with the origin of haka. The dance of Tānerore is the shimmering, rising, trembling air as seen on a very hot day. This trembling is represented by the wiriwiri (quivering of hands) in the dance, hence the saying, ‘Te haka a Tānerore’. ‘Ngā mahi a te rēhia’ is another phrase which refers to the pursuit of pleasure, and is often used in conjunction with the notion of performing arts.

Tinirau and Kae

In the story of Tinirau and Kae, the rangatira Tinirau and his wife Hineteiwaiwa had a child called Tūhuruhuru, upon whose birth Tinirau sent for the tohunga Kae to perform the tohi (baptismal ceremony). In payment, Tinirau gave Kae a piece of flesh from his pet whale, Tutunui. After partaking of a little of the sweet flesh, Kae stole the whale and took him to his island, where Kae and his people killed and ate the animal. Tinirau learnt of Kae’s treachery from the scent of Tutunui’s cooking flesh wafting to his kāinga some distance away. Upset at this treatment of their pet, Tinirau and Hineteiwaiwa convened a troupe of women, who tricked Kae by entertaining him in his house. Kae was kidnapped by the women and taken to Tinirau’s island, where he was killed in retribution.

Raukatamea and Raukatauri

Two atua wāhine (female deities) who commonly feature across the different tribal versions of the tradition of Tinirau and Kae, Raukatamea and Raukatauri, are seen as deities in their own right. Raukatamea (or Hineraukatamea) is the atua of entertainment, and Raukatauri (or Hineraukatauri) is the atua of music. Hineraukatauri is personified as the case moth, on which the pūtōrino flute is modelled.

The whare tapere

Traditional Māori waiata are also connected to the whare tapere, a dwelling house or guest house that was used for the purpose of recreation. Charles Te Ahukaramū Royal notes, ‘Whare Tapere were pre-European Māori village “houses” and events of entertainment and amusements of various kinds. They included storytelling, songs and singing, dance and dancing, musical instruments, puppets and many games.’1 Whare tapere feature regularly in tribal histories and traditions and were often the venue where important ancestors met and fell in love.

Other traditions

Other traditions also refer to song and dance. These include the story of the famous demigod Māui and his quest to be reunited with his parents and brothers, the Te Arawa tradition of Tamatekapua and Whakatūria’s narrow escape from the wrath of Uenuku and his people, and the Ngāti Raukawa story of Wairangi’s haka. Waiata feature in these and other iwi narratives, underscoring the important role of song and dance in traditional Māori society.

    • Charles Te Ahukaramū Royal, ‘Te whare tapere: towards a model for Māori performance art.’ PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1998, p. 3. Back

Types of waiata

Classes of waiata

Waiata can be grouped into classes and subclasses according to both form and function. Apirana Ngata gives the three main types of waiata mōteatea (traditional chants) as pōpō or oriori (lullabies), waiata tangi (laments) and waiata aroha (songs of love). He names seven subclasses of waiata tangi. Other forms include ruri (amorous songs), mata (prophetic songs), haka (war dances and rhythmically shouted words) and karakia (chants).

Waiata tangi

Subclasses of waiata tangi include:

  • laments by invalids because of some affliction
  • laments for warriors, for chiefs or for a tribe defeated in battle fought in the light of day
  • laments for men killed by treachery or murder
  • laments for chiefs who die a natural death
  • laments for deaths by misadventure or by accident
  • laments for a child, for a husband dead or gone away, for a husband who has been taken by another, or for a lover
  • laments for land deserted, for the loss of a tribe, for a canoe wrecked or stranded, for seed lost through rot, for a diseased neck or for a plantation with a rotted crop.

Variations of main types

Other types of waiata can be added to this list either as subclasses or as types in their own right, as defined by their form, function or subject matter.

Waiata whaiāipo, for example, were a particularly bold, witty and flirtatious type of love song, while pātere (songs composed by women in reply to jealousies or slander) and kaioraora (cursing songs) constitute an individual class of abusive and defiant songs. Apakura are a form of waiata tangi composed by women in the wharemate (resting place for a body) during the tangihanga as part of the grieving process.

Other classes of traditional waiata include:

  • pao – short chanting songs
  • ruri – songs of an amorous nature
  • matakite – songs pertaining to or communicating visions
  • mata – prophetic songs
  • waiata whakaaraara – sentinels’ songs
  • waiata karakia – ritualistic songs
  • waiata whakautu tono pākūwhā – songs to answer marriage proposals
  • waiata mō te moe punarua – songs for marriage to two wives
  • waiata nā te tūrehu – songs from the ‘fairy folk’
  • waiata whakautu whakapae – songs replying to statements made about a person
  • waiata wawata – songs expressing a desire for another.

Waiata aroha and waiata tangi

The differences between each type are not always clear-cut, and may depend on the emphasis placed on particular aspects of the waiata. Waiata tangi, for example, have a lot in common with waiata aroha. Both lament experiences of separation through death and in life. Waiata tangi and waiata aroha both take the form of rhetorical complaints – they were sung to express or relieve feelings, and to appeal to others’ emotions or for help.

Rather than celebrating the joyous and happy phases of love, waiata aroha typically complain of the distress and worry that accompany love. Waiata aroha record concerns as diverse as anxiety over a husband away at war, love for a husband, longing for a lover and desertion by a lover. Waiata aroha were also composed for a daughter married into another tribe, for a daughter mistreated by her husband, for traditional lands and for guns. The number of possible subjects for composition appear to have been limitless, as evidenced by this broad range of topics.


A waiata oriori was traditionally composed for a child of rank, and is often translated as ‘lullaby’. However, the waiata oriori was not intended simply to pacify or entertain a young child. It was an important tool for informing children about their origins and history. The famous East Coast oriori ‘Pō! Pō!’, for example, recounts the transmission of the kūmara from the Polynesian islands to the north of New Zealand.

These songs were chanted to children from infancy as part of their early education. Oriori often urged children to take on the responsibilities of their elders in later life.

Waiata poi

Poi (light balls on strings) were traditionally swung and hit to the tune of a chant, such as the famous ‘Poia atu taku poi’ by Erenora Taratoa of Ngāti Raukawa. Often a journey would be taken in these waiata, and the poi was symbolic of leading the listeners on this journey.


Haka – a type of waiata

Haka can be said to form a particularly large subclass of waiata. In 1975 Arapeta Marukitipua Awatere explored the features of different types of haka and their uses. He noted, ‘Each class and sub-class has its own convention: its own style of actions, postures, accoutrements, and presentations, and fulfils a social function in a social situation, be that situation physically actual and factual or be it, in the mytho-poetic mind, there and then, an imagined, symbolic one.’1 Awatere gave a list of five haka types distinguished according to function:

  • haka taparahi – a ceremonial dance performed without weapons
  • tūtūngārahu (also known as ngārahu, whakatūtū-waewae an whakarewarewa) – a divinatory dance performed by a war party with weapons, before elders and experienced warriors who judged from their performance whether they were ready to go into battle
  • ngeri – an exhortation to rouse a group to achieve its objective, performed without weapons
  • peruperu – the true war dance, performed with weapons when the warriors come face to face with the enemy in battle
  • puha – a kind of peruperu, which can be used to alarm and call kinsmen to arms, not on the actual battlefield but in their and homes (whereas the peruperu is used only in battle).


The peruperu, performed on the battlefield with weapons, has been described as the fiercest haka. Awatere described the peruperu as the ‘true war-dance’:

Hard conditioning makes the warriors physically and mentally fit to perform this dance which has the psychological purpose of demoralising the enemy by gestures, by posture, by controlled chanting, by conditioning to look ugly, furious to roll the fiery eye, to glare the light of battle therein, to spew the defiant tongue, to control, to distort, to snort, to fart the thunder of the war god upon the enemy, to stamp furiously, to yell raucous, hideous, blood-curdling sounds, to carry the anger, the peru, of Tuumatauenga, the ugly-faced war-god, throughout the heat of battle.2

Tribal uses of haka terms

While the terms for different haka may vary between iwi, for most tribes the nomenclature has remained constant. Awatere noted a number of tribal differences, including that for Te Arawa, the peruperu can also be known as the puha. A recited song expressing great sorrow was generally known as maemae, but also as pōkeka to Te Arawa, ngākau-maemae or kiriwera to Ngāti Porou and manawawera to Ngāi Tūhoe. The divinatory dance known as ngārahu or tū ngārahu was also called whakarewarewa (Te Arawa), whakatūwaewae (Ngāti Porou) and tūtūngārahu (Waikato).

Haka pōwhiri

Haka pōwhiri are haka performed during a welcome. While these are performed across the country, the haka pōwhiri performed by the women of Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-a-Apanui appear to have no counterpart elsewhere.

    • Arapeta Awatere, ‘Review of Mitcalfe, Barry. Maori poetry: the singing word.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 84, no. 4 (1975), p. 513. Back
    • ‘Review of Mitcalfe, Barry,’ p. 514. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader, 'Waiata tawhito - traditional Māori songs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2021)

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