Alan Armstrong, the writer of this article and an expert on action songs and hakas, is Adjutant of the Second Battalion of the New Zealand Regiment. He has recently returned from Malaya, where he was also director of the Battalion's very successful Maori Concert Party.
Maoritanga in the Mire?
Three years ago in Te Ao Hou a critic writing an appreciation of the show ‘Maori’ (which later toured Australia) said: ‘Too often in the past, Pakehas have had their views on Maori music and culture coloured by ragged improvised performances which reflect poorly on the race as a whole and on the things which they are trying to portray. ‘Maori’ should set a standard to be aimed at by all future concert parties …
Having been absent from New Zealand for over two years, I was anxious on return to attend as many Maori concerts and entertainments as I could—partly to see what was about in the way of new songs and haka, partly to enjoy again some ‘typically New Zealand’ entertainment and to try and record it from the viewpoint of an overseas visitor, and finally in the hope that perhaps ‘Maori’ had set some sort of a standard for others to follow.
It was a bitter and chastening experience. From Auckland to Christchurch I saw Maori concert after Maori concert for which the description second-rate would have been praise indeed. After it all, one could only be left with the feeling that the true song and story of the Maori is in grave danger of being relegated to the category of second-class entertainment, of becoming a fill-in for jazzy rock 'n roll type programmes, unless a great number of Maoris leave alone what they do not intend to take seriously or perform properly.
There were of course some polished and capable performances but these were few. One of the worst was in no less a place than the Auckland Town Hall before a very large audience indeed. Most of the concerts gave the impression of being slapped together and poorly rehearsed and then presented in a way which was an insult to the audience. All too often comperes prefaced their announcements with remarks such as ‘we haven't been rehearsing for very long’, or ‘a lot of the chaps don't know this next item but we hope you'll enjoy it so give them a big hand to help them along’. I will try and catalogue some of the faults. If you have attended a Maori concert lately which has been devoid of all these, you are indeed fortunate.
Whilst the modern passion for strict time is often exasperating, there must be no such thing as ‘te taima Maori’ when a concert is advertised to start at a certain time. A late start is at the best an admission of incompetence and at the worst outright bad manners to one's guests—a most un-Maori fault.
Not only is a great deal of time wasted before each item getting the note and deciding who is to start the thing off, but many performers almost seem to think it ‘infra dig’ to join in before the verse is half over.
Sports trousers rolled to the knees or gardening shorts under the piupiu just did not do. Wearing dress rings and wristlet watches with traditional costume is just as spurious as the grease paint tattoo which many groups affect. I cannot speak too strongly against this latter practice. The Maoris are a handsome race and it adds nothing to disfigure the performers' faces with obviously artificial scrawlings which are rarely well or artistically executed and which gradually smear and rub off as the evening progresses. I had heard these scrawlings defended as adding to authenticity which is nonsense. If ‘authenticity’ is to be the catch-cry then performers must not confine themselves to ‘tattoo’ on their faces alone.
This is particularly bad. Many groups shamble on and off the stage in a ungraceful manner which often contrasts most strongly to their movements as they perform. Groups must realise that their presentation starts from the moment the curtain opens or the first person sets foot on stage. Once a group is on stage it should move as little as possible. I attended
one concert at Rotorua where at the end of each item practically the whole caste would turn their backs on the audience and bolt off the stage. They would have to be recalled by the leader as the next item commenced. The first verse was usually well towards completion before everyone appeared.
No one objects to humorous items but we should be spared always the commentator who tells jokes about ‘Hories’. Similarly inappropriate are tasteless parodies of traditional items and also the type of humour practised by the performer who wants to be star of the show. Usually this mis-guided individual has left his false teeth at home and he continually interrupts good items with extravagant posturing, pukana and grimaces.
Mixing Pakeha with Maori Items
Many will not agree with this, but to me it immediately strikes a discordant note to see performers who have a minute or so ago been performing chants, to come out in their piupiu and perform the twist or some rock 'n roll opus. Interludes are sometimes welcome in a concert programme (if they are of sufficiently high standard) but they should be kept to a minimum in length and limited to one interlude for each half of the programme.
To the discriminating Maori many of the groups have grave faults in technique which can only be the result of a ‘near enough is good enough’ attitude. All too often wrong words are sung which make the songs or haka meaningless. Ugly wriggling of the fingers masquerade as wiriwiri. Extravagant posturing, bodies sagging from the waist instead of bending at the knees, eyes which do not follow the hands all detract from the grace of the action song. Groups performing fling their limbs about like sawdust gollywogs and grin foolishly as if half ashamed of what they are doing.
Commentary and Explanation
Maori groups playing to non-Maori audiences have a duty to explain and interpret their items so that they make sense to the uninitiated and are enjoyed, understood and appreciated by them. This means a brief explanation as to what the item is. A haka or an action song could be a fertility rite for all the average tourist knows. Therefore a few words about the origin and significance of the haka etc. is necessary. Then the complete must explain what the particular item is about—what the words and actions are trying to say.
Most of the concerts I attended were before predominantly pakeha audiences. Many of these were well-wishers supporting projects in aid of the Maori Education Foundation. One presumes that they came to these entertainments because they are interested in Maori culture and well disposed towards the aims and ideals of the race as expressed through the Foundation. It should be of serious concern to all of us what impression these people take with them after viewing ill-mannered, slipshod and mediocre performances comprising more twist than tradition and more rock'n roll than reverence for the rich cultural heritage of the Maori race. The present standard of performance shows a disquietening unawareness by many concert groups of their responsibilities towards those who pay cash to see them and, more importantly, towards enhancing the mana of their tribe and people in pakeha eyes.
What can we do about this state of affairs? In contests, groups must be judged from the first moment they appear on stage to the last moment they leave it. When in an audience, we must show our displeasure in the paucity of our applause for those groups who foist on us mediocre standards. Finally in clubs, schools, youth groups, training colleges and the like, we must reiterate the theme that these groups have a duty to present their culture in a way which does not debase it or make it redolent of the second rate. A sense of reverence and of understanding the significance of the items as well as attention to good presentation, makes for memorable entertainment. Smoothly performed with intelligent explanation and in imaginative settings, our indigenous culture will assume a meaning and a significance for the pakeha which it has not previously had. Thus it becomes yet another way of promoting greater understanding between the two races of this country.
The formation of a trust board to promote better understanding between Maori and Pakeha has been approved in principle by a meeting of representatives of a number of Auckland organizations.
Organizations represented were the Auckland City Council, the Auckland Suburban Local Bodies' Association, the Auckland Employers' Association, the Waitemata District Council of Maori Tribal Executives, the Maori Women's Welfare League, the Maori Education Foundation, the National Council of Women and the Auckland Metropolitan Junior Council Organization. A representative of the Maori Affairs Department was present as an observer.
The chairman and convener of the meeting, Mr Selwyn C. Clarke, said tasks which the trust could undertake included assisting Maoris with home budgets, work for the Maori Education Foundation, and the provision of a forum to discuss topical questions and originate informed comment on racial and other questions.
Those present agreed to refer the matter to their respective organizations before setting up a body and deciding upon its constitution and exact role.