by Moniek Darge



Maori proverb



By discussion comes understanding,


By understanding comes light,


By light comes wisdom,


By wisdom comes life.


The Maori are Polynesians living in New Zealand ever since the 11th century. Their exact origin is unknown. They call the islands Aotearoa, 'The Land of the Long White Cloud'.

Their own name is derived from Ma-Uri, which means 'Children of Heaven' . Their nickname is 'Vikings of the Sunrise', because they are fierce warriors. Originally they were hunters, but soon became peasants, living of agriculture. Today the ca. 300.000 Maori are mainly living in the cities, but they remain closely connected to their tribes. Their tribal groupings are derived from the people of each canoe, settling New Zealand in the early times.

Their villages are fortified with in the centre the marae, an open space on which the whare hui, or the meeting house is located. This building is the symbolic body of the ancestor.

Around the fort sites a palisade with watch tower is built. In these watch towers 'pahu', huge wooden plates, functioning as 'alarm gongs', were suspended.


The Maori religion is closely related to nature and to the ancestors. Nature itself is considered a living being and thus the interaction between man and nature is bound by prescripts and rituals. The notion tapu (sacred), from which the word tabu is deduced, is still a central notion in contemporary Maori society.

Tiki are antropomorphic ornaments representing spiritual beings. Many times they have some kind of deformation, like only 3 fingers and they can be both positive and negative towards mankind.

Despite the western influences a good part of the Maori religion remained intact. Many rituals are still carried out and are often associated with traditional visual arts and traditional music. We mainly discuss here the traditional 'revival' music and not the commercial modern Maori music. Also in this revival music strong ties between songs and magic remain.


Traditional Maori Music:

Nowadays the music is mainly vocal. The use of instruments became neglected under influence of christianity, but today there is a strong revival movement. Originally Maori people only used aerophones and idiophones. Of course recently in contemporary commercial music the guitar and ukelele made their appearance too.

The vocal music can be divided in two categories: the recitatives and the songs. The recitatives have no fixed pitch organisation and the tempo is much higher than the song's tempo.



Powhiri : This welcome ceremony is a mixed form. Men shout fiercly, whilst women sing in a melodic way. The Powhiri which was specially executed for us in Christchurch during our New Zealand concert tour started with the men standing in front of the women. They made clear they were ready for a battle by shouting, menacing with their weapons and grimacing. After a while the women came to the front, singing and carrying green leaves they moved gently. The men kneeled down on one knee and put their weapons on the floor.

Most of the times a powhiri ends with a haka (men song) without weapons.

Haka are shouted speeches by men, combined with a fierce dance. Haka Taparahi are performed without weapons and they can give expression to different emotions depending on the situation for which they are performed. Haka Peruperu are performed with weapons and associated with war dances.


Ngeri : This are recitatives used to annihilate any form of tapu.


Karakia are quick incantations and spells.They are used during daily life by both adults and children, but also during rituals. The ritual karakia is difficult and dangerous to execute, because a mistake during the performance will attract bad luck, illness and even the death of the reciter. For very important karakia two priest reciters are needed in order to alternate the breathing pauze, because even the slightest moment of silence could result into disaster.


Paatere are mainly performed in group and composed by women in answer to gossip. The texts of paatere consist merely out of summing up of the kinship connections of the author.


Kaioraora are like paatere answers to gossip but with a rude, offensive text




The SONGS and the SUNG POETRY, also called NGA MOTEATEA:

Nga Moteatea consist mainly out of laments, but sometimes also out of lovesongs and lullabies. In the old times this sung poetry was accompanied by the koauau flute.

There are only few notes in the scale and the range of the melodies is small. The structure is rather typical: one starts with a whole tone down,followed by two semitones up. In old moteatea one sometimes hit a third semitone higher. Sometimes they also used quarter tone inflections.

The category of the songs consists of following forms:


Poi : Poi are songs accompanied by a kind of dance in which women hit their body rhythmically with one or two mainly cotton balls attached to the end of a string.


Oriori are songs composed to teach children of high rank their special descent and history.


Pao : Pao-songs originate out of a kind of instant-composing: the composer sings the first couplet and is then repeated by the chorus, and so on. It are songs of local interest. They can be funny or serious.


Waiata : This is the most frequent catergory of Maori songs. It are laments about different topics. Traditionally waiata are sung in group and in unisono.

Waiata tangi are laments for the deads. The word tangi means weeping. This form is mainly composed by women. During burial ceremonies women were expected to show signs of deep grief , for example by wounding their faces with sharp stones. Sometimes these waiata were very personal, telling about the composer's emotions and feelings towards the dead. When composed by men the waiata tangi can also instruct us about the warrior qualities of the death person.

But laments can also have broader topics. It can make for example allusion to most of the calamities that can befall mankind.

Waiata ahore are love songs and waiata whaiaaipo are songs for the beloved one. It are still laments and tell us about all the misery that a love affair can provoke.


The MODERN, acculturated MAORI MUSIC

In commercial Maori music the typical properties of traditional Maori music has totally disappeared. Ukelele and guitar are used and American entertainment music is of predominant influence.

Unisono singing is replaced by "close harmony". The limited number of notes in the scale is replaced by the western diatonal tonal system. The logogenetic aspect of the Maori music disappeared as well as the stereotype pattern between men and women. Only a quiet 'civilised' little shout at the end of some songs remember the fierce haka style.


But besides this commercial music the revival movement of the traditional Maori music is very strong and alive. Many new 'old forms' of songs and recitatives are composed and it even seems now, that new, so called traditional, instruments are invented and added to the list of already existing and rediscovered aerophones and idiophones.






The category of the flutes:

Koauau : Of all Maori flutes the koauau is the most appreciated. It can be made out of different materials: wood or even a human bone. It is a straight blown flute, blown under an angle, 12 to 15 cm long and with a bore of 1 to 2 cm. When the instrument isn't played, it's worn around the neck. It has 3 fingerholes. There is discussion about the possibility of being a nose flute. Most authors though argue this isn't the case.


Porutu is a flute similar to the koauau but longer: it mesures between 30 and 40 cm. There is doubt about wether it is an original Maori instrument or an imitation of the western flute.


Nguru: this small instrument (8 to 10 cm) is curved at one end, because originally this flute was made out of a whale tooth. It can also be made out of wood, stone, clay. It has one open end like the koauau and one small opening at the curved end. It has 2 to 4 fingerholes.


Whio : A whio is a bone flute made out of an albatros bone. The instrument is 15 cm long, has a diameter of 1,5 cm and 4 fingerholes. The instrument was played by men in order to attract the attention of women they longed for.



The trumpets or PU:

Putara : This instrument is made out of a triton shell. The top of the shell is replaced by a wooden mouthpiece. The instrument had mostly a signal function.


Puukaaea is a wooden war trumpet, made out of two pieces of wood cut lengthwise and hollowed out. Both pieces are again assembled and kept in place by fibres or ropes. The length varies between 1m and 2,5 meter. At one side there is a sculptured wooden mouthpiece and the other side of the instrument is broader and resembles an open mouth. Inside tohu are sculptured, representing the human tonsils and uvula. The puukaaea could be used during the war as a megaphone or as an alarm instrument.


Puutoorino: Another name for the puutoorino is bugle-flute instead of trumpet, because the instrument could also be used as a flute, but originally it was a trumpet. It is about 30 to 60 cm long and is made as the puukaaea out of two pieces of wood, but here widest in the middle and more narrow at both end sides. In the middle a soundhole mostly in the shape of an eight is made as the open mouth of a sculptured face. Near the mouthpiece another face is carved, or a tiki (men/spirit) or a manaia (men/bird). The player placed his hand over the soundhole in order to change the tones of the instrument.

Originally the puutoorino was mainly used to announce the coming and arrival of a tribal chief.


Teetere are flax trumpets simply made by winding a leave to a hornshape. It was probably a children's toy, but could also be used to announce one's arrival in the village.



-non-blown aerophones:

Puurorohuu is a bullroarer made out a piece of wood of 30 to 45 cm long, attached to a rope of ca. 120 cm and a stick as handle of about 90 cm. By swinging the bullroarer around a roaring sound is produced, which the Maori thought to bring rain.

Koororohuu is also a children's toy. It is a whizzer made out of dried pumpkin skin.



Pahuu are wooden gongs: flat slabs of resonant wood, which were horizontally suspended above a platform in the watch tower of the pallisade around the fortified village. It was hit in case of danger, but also used to call the men to go to war.
Some tribes, living in the woods carved their war pahuu out of a hollow tree. The wooden slab was sometimes cut away and separated from the tree or sometimes it remained a fixed part of the tree.

Paakuru: this instrument, which is held between the teeth of the player, can be compared to a jewsharp. It was a simple piece of wood of 40 to 50 cm long, 2 to 5 cm broad and 1 cm thick, struck by a little wooden stick. The sound is changed by the position of the mouth and the movements of the lips. Nowadays the paakuru knows a revival as a whalebone paakuru.

Rooria are similar to paakuru, but smaller: only 7 to 10 cm long. Maori lovers use it for intimate conversations.

Tokere are whalebones used as clappers.



Ukelele and Guitar




Maori music, like all etnic music, has changed rapidly in time under the influence of western culture. Western etnomusicologists have a mainly negative attitude towards these changes. And many times we can agree, because the traditional culture dissapeares under commercialisation along western standards. But in the case of the Maori we would prefer to be more nuanced, because we see next to the commercialisation a strong revival of the traditional Maori music too. So, we prefer to leave the question open. The Maori themselves claime that their nowadays music is their authentic contemporary music and they don't want to be stuck to a historical classification, we westeners impose upon them.

In any case, we cannot deny the fact that Maori Music is alive, as more than 28.000 internetsites on this topic prove.

We like to conclude by quoting Prof. Dr. Jack Body, New Zealand etnomusicologist of the Victoria University of Wellington, specialised on this item:


In fact their are no really authentic (meaning ancient, traditional) CD recordings available. The best collection is the old Folkways LP recording. But I also have to point out that Maori regard kapa haka ("concert party") performances as distinctly Maori Music - guitar and all. It is a living tradition, acculturated though it may be. But it should not be denigrated, since it is an authentic cultural expression of today - a living Maori music. Traditional waiata are still heard - and composed - but the "music" is inseparable from the poetry - the poetry comes first and is regarded as "the composition". The (white) expert on Maori music, Mervin McLean, recently published his book " Maori Music" based on his life's research. As important as it is it was rounded condemned by most Maori, partly for its academic approach, and partly for its dismissal of contemporary musical expressions.... It is all a very sensitive issue, but one does sympathise with them when they see their music being reduced to a "museum culture" - after all, contemporary Western composers are equally incensed by the "Classical Music" industry!!!!



Moniek DARGE,

June 1998


Short Discografy


Back to Moniek Darge's index page

Published on the web on August 6th 1998 by Joachim Brackx