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No. 11 (July 1955)
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I hope my readers will not be disappointed when I tell you at the outset that, under this heading, it is not my intention to deal with the modern Maori songs which, though they have a somewhat wide appeal to the younger generation, cannot be regarded as coming within the category of true Maori poetry or literature. These modern tunes are, of course, derived from pakeha sources, and their music is therefore not really Maori. Thus I am told that, when Bernard Shaw on his visit to New Zealand was entertained with some Maori songs, he was disappointed to recognise the air of a well known German Volkslied. Nor can much be said in favour of the language of these modern Maori songs. Take for example the well known ‘Hoki hoki tonu mai’—sung sometimes to a tune which, though it has a Maori flavour, is not truly Maori, and sometimes, for the purpose of a poi dance, to the tune of ‘Little Brown Jug’. The first verse is passable:—

‘Again and again, the spirit of my loved one returns to me, clasping me once more in fond embrace’.

Hoki hoki tonu mai
Te wairua o te tau
Ki te awhi ringa
Ki tenei kiri, e te tau

But following this comes:

Ka pinea koe e au
Ki te pine o te aroha
Ki te pine o kore nei
E waikura, e te tau.
‘You are pinned by me
With the pin of love
With the pin which will never rust,
O my darling’.

This is poor Maori and maudlin sentiment.

These songs may, however, be regarded for what they are worth as the mode in which the modern Maori youth expresses himself with the aid of a ukelele or other kind of guitar, largely after the fashion of the young Hawaiians. But the Songs of the Maori which form my subject are those which have been current amongst the various tribes from time immemorial, and which constitute therefore the true poetry of the Maori and form a most interesting part of his unwritten literature.

To Sir George Grey, the most distinguished and ablest of our governors, we owe the first attempt to collect the traditions of the Maori and to establish a Maori literature. He set himself to learn the Maori language, not so much with a literary purpose, as from the conception that a knowledge of Maori was necessary to enable him to perform properly every duty to his country and to the people he was appointed to govern. Then, as Grey himself tells us in the preface to his book, he had formed a very high appreciation of the work of the missionaries amongst the Maori, and felt that something should be done to show the full extent of the work they had accomplished and what they had overthrown. Hence it seemed to him desirable that in New Zealand a monument should be raised to show, in some measure, what the country was before the Maoris were converted to the Christian faith; and no more fitting means of accomplishing such an object appeared attainable than that of letting the people themselves testify of their former state, by collecting their traditional poetry and their heathen prayers and incantations, composed and sung centuries before the light of Christianity had broken upon their country. It was also clear, to those persons who study the history of the human race as developed in the history, customs and language of different nations, that such a work would possess a high degree of interest, and it seemed probable that there would be many persons who would study with pleasure the poetry of a savage race, whose songs and chants, while they contain so much that is wild and terrible, yet, at the same time, present many passages of the most singularly original poetic beauty.

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Grey further states that the most favourable times for collecting these poems, and those at which most of them were in the first instance obtained, were at the great meetings of the people or public affairs, when their chiefs and most eloquent orators addressed them. On these occasions, the most effective speeches were invariably those principally made up from recitations of portions of ancient poems. In this case, the art of the orator was shown by his selecting a quotation from an ancient poem which, figuratively but dimly shadowed forth his intentions and opinions. As he spoke, the people were pleased at the beauty of the poetry and at his knowledge of their ancient poets, whilst their ingenuity was excited to detect from his figurative language what were his intentions and designs. Quotation after quotation, as they were rapidly and forcibly chanted forth, made his meaning clearer and clearer; curiosity and attention were by degrees riveted upon the speaker, and if his sentiments were in unison with those of the great mass of the assembly, and he was a man of influence, as each succeeding quotation gradually removed the doubts which hung upon the minds of the attentive group who were seated on the ground around him, murmur of applause rose after murmur of applause, until at last at some closing quotation which left no doubt as to his real meaning, the whole assembly gave way to tumults of delight and applauded equally the determination with which he had formed his poetic knowledge, and his oratorical art, by which, under images beautiful to them, he had for so long a time veiled, and at last so perfectly manifested his intentions.

For more than seven years, Grey tells us, he devoted a great part of his available time to collecting these poems and in arranging them in their proper metre. The information was generally furnished by the former priests, and probably to no other person than Grey would many of them have been imparted while, even during his own time, most of the old chiefs who had aided him in his researches had already passed away. The volume, Ko Nga Moteatea Me Nga Hakirara o Nga Maori—The Laments and Songs of the Maori—published in 1853, contained five hundred and thirty three numbers. It has never been republished and is now comparatively rare. I may add that it has never been completely translated.

After the war in Waikato, when Rangiriri fell to the British, and Rewi Maniapoto was defeated at Orakau, a number of Maori prisoners of war were confined in H.M.S. ‘Curacao’ in Auckland Harbour. One of the guards in charge of the prisoners was a Sergeant McGregor. He suggested that these unfortunates might occupy their time in writing such Maori songs as they knew, and the result was a collection of over four hundred songs published by McGregor in 1893. In White's Ancient History of the Maori are 110 songs, while Davis published 54 in Maori Mementoes. Others are to be found in various publication: Taylor's Te Ika A Maui, Dr. Shortland's Traditions and Superstitions, Te Waka Maori, the Journal of the Polynesian Society, The Transactions of the N.Z. Institute, the Dominion Museum Bulletins, and in the writings of the late Percy Smith and Elsdon Best. In the earlier publications, the writers have not taken the trouble or have been unable to obtain and to offer any information in regard to obscure words and phrases, or to give any explanation of the frequent allusions, and many of these are now entirely lost. In this connection, Grey quotes from some unpublished remarks by the Rev. Dr. Maunsell, one of the most learned Maori scholars of the time:—

‘In observing the construction of Maori poetry, we shall see that it was not only abrupt and elliptical to an excess not allowed in English poetry, but that it also carries its license so far as to disregard rules of grammar that are strictly observed in prose, alters words so as to make them sound more poetically, deals most arbitrarily with the length of syllables, and sometimes even inverts their order or adds other syllables. But it must be remembered that by far the largest measure of the difficulty arises from the peculiar local circumstances, and from the remote and vague allusions so wrought into the piece that even one tribe will often be unable to understand the song of another, especially if it be one of antiquity.

‘Thus it happens that the same song is to be found in each of the different books, though the different versions show a great deal of variation. The bulk of the songs have passed over the lips of men right through both islands, and thus confusion has arisen in certain words or names; words have been dropped while others have crept in. In the writing down of the songs by the pakeha or the ignorant Maori, the same thing has happened, so that it is now very difficult to get the correct version’.

This, then, was the task Sir Apirana Ngata set himself—to seek out the tribes with whom the song originated, to ascertain the words as sung by them so that they might supply any necessary correction, and to provide explanatory notes. The results of his labours have been published in two volumes by the Board of Maori Ethnological Research, while a further 250 songs are contained in the MSS of the third volume now in progress. I know of no research into the language of the Maori equal to this. Sir Apirana took every opportunity to secure as many as possible of the obscure words, phrases and allusions, while those Maoris who do

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know some of them are yet living. Amongst the younger Maoris of the present time, there is a renewal of interest in the traditions of their forefathers, while some of the Maoris have had their spirit awakened at seeing their songs published in Maori magazines, and Sir Apirana was thus assisted by them. On the other hand, some have felt annoyed at seeing their own songs made available to other Maori folk, while others again have been reluctant to part with the information, suspecting that it might be commercialized. Nevertheless, Sir Apirana has secured in these first two volumes, two hundred songs of various types, and has supplied in each case the name of the composer and the circumstances under which the song was composed, with appropriate explanatory notes. In the preface to the second volume, he has included an analysis of the art of Maori poetry. Both volumes are entirely in Maori, and it is with his kind permission and his valued assistance in more difficult passages that I am enabled to place these remarks embodying a translation of this preface before my readers.

In the songs contained in each volume, certain essential characteristics may be noted. These are as follows:—


The majority of the composers are women. Whether from Tainui, Te Arawa, Mataatua, Horouta, Takitumu or Aotea, there is to be found a woman who has composed the laments, the love songs, the patere or songs of derision, the kaioraora or curses, the oriori or lullabies. Thus from the Ngati Porou tribe we have Hinekitawhiti, Hinewahirangi and others; from the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe Te Rohu, Rerehau; or from Waikato, Ngati Maniapoto, and Ngati Raukawa we have Te Kahukore, Te Manawa, Topeora and others; and so on in the case of each tribe. But when all the circumstances are taken into account, it will be seen that it is only natural that women should constitute the greater number of the composers. The songs of love have their origin in the death of the loved one, in his deserting his love, in his transplanting his affections to another, or in the taunts of other women. In the case of the laments for the warriors fallen in battle, it will be found that a woman is the author of the song, giving vent to her grief by lacerating herself, weeping for her fallen man, and so when her child has been burnt in the fire or her kinsman drowned in the sea.

The patere or songs of derision, and the kaioraora or those invoking curses on her enemies, spring from the feelings aroused in the woman by the insults of the company of other women, while, in her intense grief at the loss in battle, she lacerates herself, and under the deepest emotion invokes curses upon the heads of her foes. Then, while her husband has taken the war path to avenge the death of his friends, the woman has to await his return to the village. Her thoughts follow him on his way and she pours out her feelings in song. Those who are inclined to search the depths of the Maori tongue should delve into these waiatas, finding therein the nature of the heart of the Maori woman.


Next, the composers of the ceremonial songs of the tohungas are usually men. Amongst the Ngati Tuwharetoa, the songs of the Heuheus are striking examples; with Ngati Porou we have those of Rangiuia, with Te Aitanga a Mahaki, those of Te Pakaru; with Nga Puhi, those of Taoho and Papahia; and with Taranaki those of Turaukawa and Makere. And so with other tribes who compsed songs of this character. Therein will be found the teachings of the Wharewanaga, the genealogical tables of the tribe and the ancient and obscure words of the Maori tongue. These compositions are terrible in character, exalted in style, reaching right up to the deities, the high priests speaking in their priestly language to their gods. Most of these songs have not yet been printed on account of the difficulty in supplying satisfactory explanatory notes. Thus the lament of Turaukawa for his son, and that of Rangiuia for Tuterangiwhaitiri, the many lullabies of Ngati Kahungunu, and many patere or songs of derision, are not included in the two volumes to which I now refer.


Though each kind of song originates in a different source and has a different basis, there is a similitude of pattern in the construction of each class. Take for example, the kind known as the popo or oriori, that is, the lullaby:—

In these two volumes are given twenty-three lullabies. They all begin in the same way—an affectionate salutation to the child in whose honour the song is composed, to his distinguished ancestors, to his cry of yearning for his dead mother, to his lost people, to the want of food, to the cold and other similar causes. Then the child is exhorted to wake up, and go in search of his ancestors in the places where they dwell, if living, or where they are buried, if dead, or where they fell in battle. Following this, the tohunga composer proclaims the high-born descent of the child, and so in the song we come to the part where the question is asked, “‘Whose child is this’? You will tell them ‘I am the child of Te Au o Mawake’, so that your elder female relatives will salute you. If you are asked ‘Whose child are you?’, tell them ‘We are the children of Mahaki-a-Iranui, of Kahupakari, of Te Aomatangi, of Hinerupe, my child.”’. The tohunga thus seeks a wav

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in which he may proclaim the high descent of the child, and the proud mother carrying her baby amongst the various kaingas on the coast will afterwards sing this song to establish her child in her rightful place amongst the people. This accomplished, the tohunga recites the famous stories of old, the battles won, the famous warrior leaders, the spots made famous in the history of the tribe.

The lullaby composed by Te Pakaru begins by referring to the child's cry for food. Thus “Hush!! hush! my son crying for food”. Having struck this note, the composer uses it as the motive for introducing the story of how the kumara was brought from Parinui-te-ra in Hawaiki. This is one of the tohunga lullabies of the race, which cannot be properly understood unless one is familiar with the traditions and customs of the ancestors of the Maori. The lullaby composed by Te Rangitakoru of Ngati Apa for his daughter, Wharaurangi, should be of special interest to readers in the Wellington province:—

Oh, my daughter, when you came from afar,
And your hands were formed and your feet and your face
Oh! then was launched Kurahaupo, the canoe of Ruatea.
You and I embarked in the Aotea, the canoe of Turi,
We forded the Whenuakura at its mouth
Then was founded the house of Rangitahi.
Planted was the kumara, and the karaka was sown
In the lands bordering the sea.
Hau took up some sand, in his hand he held the staff of Turoa
When he crossed the river, he found it wide and called it Whanganui
Where he splashed the water, that was Whangaehu
Then a tree was felled—that was Turakina
He lifted his feet many times and so; Rangitikei
When his heart sank within him, that was Manawatu
When the wind whistled past his ears, he called the place Hokio
The small river he called after himself—Ohau
Where he carried his staff levelled out was Otaki
Where he prayed, O daughter, it was Waimea
When he looked out of the corner of his eye—Waikanae
When he became weary, there, my daughter, you will see Wairaka
He cast a spell over her and she was fixed above and below as a rock in the sea
When his eyes glistened with delight,
He called the place Wairarapa
This was the rejoicing of your ancestor, o daughter.

This oriori, then, gives the origin of the names of every settlement from Wanganui to Wairarapa, and is a striking example of the manner in which some of our Maori place names originated.

The lullably composed by Hautu in honour of Te Parekanga is another tohunga song. It deals with the skill of the woman in handicraft in plaiting and weaving garments. Still, it is in the same class. Some of the orioris addressed to sons deal with the activities of men, with the art of war and skill in the handling of warlike weapons. Those addressed to daughters, however, speak of the activities of women.

Through all the songs, including the oriori, occur words which refer to the personal adornment of the Maori:—

Nau te mau mai i nga taonga o Wharawhara
Ko te Paekura ki to taringa, ko Waikanae ki to ringa
Hei taputapu mohou, e hine.
“Bring with you the treasures of Wharawhara, the graceful feathers of the albatross,
The famous greenstone Paekura in your ear and the axe Waikanae in your hand
As your rightful adornment, o daughter.”
Tenei, e tama, te whare i tohia te kaka o te waero
Kai o tuakana; e mau ana mai Tamore i te kaki
Hei ata mohou, tu ake ki runga ra.
“This, o son, is the house in which was dedicated the famous dogskin cloak with your elder brothers
Wearing the heitiki, Tamore, on your neck to enhance your beauty,
Stand up before them all.”

It will be noted that all the tohungas do not belong to one tribe. But whether from Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngati Apa, Te Tai Rawhiti or Ngapuhi, they all appear to follow the one pattern, turning aside only in minor matters to make their compositions vary. The reader who is interested in Maori, upon searching carefully through these songs, will be amazed at the abundant evidence of the art with which each tohunga has contrived devices to dress fittingly the words which clothe his thoughts.

(To be continued)