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No. 32 (September 1960)
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The Maori is justly proud of his talents and Maori concert parties meet with well-deserved success. His skill comes from centuries of ritual and a spoken, sung or danced lore. If the Maori had evolved a system of writing I doubt whether the tradition of song and story would have survived so well as it has. Much of the power and beauty of his haka, action songs, and singing would not be of the high standard it is today.

Unfortunately nowadays most songs are Maori words set to European music. As with the songs of the Pakeha, they range from the very beautiful, such as the hymn “Karauna”, to the absolute rot, such as a Maori version of “Rock Around the Clock”. However, if one takes the trouble it is still possible to hear the songs and karakia as they were chanted long ago.

Chants, especially some of the karakia, take some effort on the part of the auditor before full appreciation is possible. But the slight trouble involved is amply repaid. What appears at first almost a monotone with few modulations and following a scale not common in european music takes on a peculiar form of power and beauty. Gradations in tone and a moving feeling. often mystical, intrude upon the hearer, even if he has no knowledge of Maori.

Karakia were songs or chants used to obtain benefits or avert trouble. It was through them that the priests established contact with the gods and the lay asked the gods, usually rather more directly, to assist them in some way.

All karakia were chants but it is very difficult to give the word karakia a literal English meaning. Probably incantation is the nearest we can get in English. They were used to cover almost all contingencies, from the loftiest purposes of bringing health to a sick child and bravery and strength to a warrior to the more plebeian task of expelling a fish bone from the throat of a gutton.

Usually the karakia were not addressed directly to the gods, it being considered more respectful to use an indirect form of invocation. Those chanted by the priests were thought more powerful than those of the common folk; no doubt the priests had closer contact with the gods.

Children had their own karakia composed to amuse them and having no religious significance. One of the most charming of these is a chant to stop the rain:

    • E rere e te kotare

    • Ki runga i te puwharawhara,

    • Ruru ai i o parirau

    • Kei maku o kuao i te ua.

    • Mao, mao te ual

  • Fly O Kingfisher

  • On to the bunch of Astelia,

  • And there shake thy wings,

  • Lest thy young become wet by the rain.

  • Cease, cease the rain!

If you had toothache or stomach ache the requisite karakia might cure it. Next time you eat too well, try this:

    • He aha ra te kai

    • I haere ki roto, ki to puku,

    • Tutu ai, ngangana ai,

    • Aurere ai?

    • He puha pea?

  • What was the food

  • That entered your stomach,

  • Causing trouble, causing disturbance,

  • Causing groans?

  • Perhaps it was puha?

Little patience was expended on guttons although a karakia was chanted to relieve them. This extract shows the chanter's feelings:

    • Kaitoa koe kia raoa,

    • Na to kai tu,

    • Na to kai rere,

    • No to kai tamawahine.

    • Tokowhia aku tama

    • I horomia e koe?

  • Serve you right for choking,

  • Because you ate standing,

  • Because you are hurriedly,

  • Because you ate like a girl.

  • How many of my sons

  • Were swallowed by you?

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One of the most important karakia was used in the tua cermony after severing the navel cord of the child. In Maori lore this was a most important ceremony. The incantation commences with the dedication to god of war, Tu:

    • Tohi ki te wai no Tu!

    • Whano koe—tangaengae,

    • Ki te hopu tangata—tangaengae,

    • Ki te piki maunga—tangaengae,

    • Me homai—tangaengae,

    • Mo te tama ne.

  • Sprinkle with the water of Tu!

  • Go thou—navel cord,

  • To catch men—navel cord,

  • To climb mountains—navel cord,

  • Let these be given—navel cord,

  • For this male child.

The chanting of the more powerful karakia is a beautiful and dignified ceremony, emotive and a privilege to take part in, even as a spectator. If the performance of Karakia was to die out a form of expression peculiar to the Maori race would be regrettably lost.

(Sources: Buck, Williams, and Best).


Mr J. F. Robertson, who has been awarded a Commonwealth Fund Scholarship, has for some time been Administration Officer in the Department of Maori Affairs, and left for America at the end of last month. Mr Robertson will spend a year in U.S.A., studying the problems of reorganisation of government agencies. He will spend seven months at the Centre for Advanced Study at the Brooklings Institute in Washington as a guest scholar, and will be given special facilities for research at the Federal Bureau of the Budget. He will also study State Government reorganisation programmes.