Can Maori Chant Survive?
In almost every tribal area the traditional songs or waiata of the Maori people are now being heard less and less, and competent performers are becoming fewer. One is constantly told, ‘When the old people were alive it was different, but now there's hardly anyone left.’
At tangis and huis it sometimes happens that none of the old songs is performed at all, and it is left for action songs to fill the gap.
Why should this be so? And can anything be done about it?
This article will examine some of the reasons for the current decline of the traditional songs, and will try to suggest remedies. At the conclusion of the article, new means will be described which are becoming available to aid the revival of the songs.
That the songs are worth saving there can be no doubt. Their literary merit has been attested again and again. And it is beginning to be realised also that their musical merit is just as great.
A Number of Problems
The most obvious reason for the failure of the younger generation of Maori people to learn the old songs can be found in the decline of the language itself. More and more, the language of the younger city-dwelling generation tends to be English, and with inability to speak Maori, an inability to learn the songs naturally follows.
The remedy here is not difficult to find. Many young people are now gaining their first appreciation of the language through textbooks and Adult Education classes. In these classes the introduction to classical Maori is apt to be made through the texts of the traditional waiata and patere.
A song is of course much more than a text, and for some people there are difficulties intrinsic to the singing style. The conventions are unfamiliar and at first the melodies sound strange. Here, reference may be made to the article, ‘The Music of Maori Chant’ which appears elsewhere in this issue.
To some, lack of opportunity presents a barrier. At one time most singers picked up their songs simply by attending meetings and listening to the songs as they were performed. Nowadays, not only are the songs performed less often, but younger people, through pressure of work and other interests, have fewer opportunities to attend the meetings. As a result, the songs can seldom be learned in the old manner. If they are learned at all it is not because they are just ‘picked up’, but because a conscious effort is made to learn them and because someone has taken the trouble to teach them.
The remaining difficulties in the way of the person who wishes to learn the traditional songs are nearly all concerned with custom.
Tradition Can be a Barrier
It is well known that when a song is performed, it must be appropriate to the occasion. At a tangi for instance, the waiata sung will be appropriate to the dead person or will show a connection between the home tribe and the visiting tribe. Some upholders of tradition go further than this and say that a song should only be sung when there is occasion for its use. In some areas this has caused songs to die out altogether because the songs were performed so seldom that those who wished to learn them were unable to do so. If the songs still known are to survive, this is clearly one custom that will have to be modified. When the object is to learn a song there should be no barriers to performance and the occasion of teaching a song will have to be thought of as important enough to justify its performance. There are encouraging signs that such an attitude is now becoming usual. Most performers questioned by the writer said they learned their songs from individuals, and except amongst very old singers it is found that very few songs had been learnt by being simply ‘picked up’. This means that the convention restricting performance to the occasion must already have broken down to a large extent.
To some, superstition is a barrier. In a few areas, memory lapses are still regarded as a sign of death or disaster, and some young people say they would sooner not try to learn
songs than run the risk of not performing them correctly. These beliefs however are unlikely to discourage anyone with real aptitude for singing. The remedy is surely to sing the song in public only when it has been properly learnt.
A very real problem has been the decline of memorising ability which has corresponded with the rise of literacy. There will be few people today capable of memorising a song at one or two hearings, and the writer knows of no-one of the calibre of one of Elsdon Best's informants, who was said to have given him more than 380 songs. Most people however will be satisfied with a modest half dozen or so, and the best way of getting around lack of memorising ability is to begin with a text. Some learners are already taking song texts with them to meetings, and this—since it allows one to concentrate on the air—seems a practice worth following.
Restrictions Due to Ownership
The most important of the remaining barriers to the passing on of the traditional songs is that of song ownership. Here again, if there is to be a revival of interest in Maori chants there will have to be further relaxation of the traditional restrictions on performance.
Often it will be found that a singer is quite willing to give out a song that belongs to his own family, but draws the line at passing on a song that belongs to someone else even if he knows perfectly well that there is no-one else who can sing the song. This rather exaggerated respect for other persons' property is admirable in its way but often results in songs becoming needlessly extinct.
Most songs belong not to the individual but to the tribe, and fears are often entertained by the members of one tribe that their songs will get out to another. Most of these fears are however groundless, and so need not be a barrier to the transmission of the songs. Generally the singers of one tribe are not much interested in the songs of another tribe unless there is some connection with them. In the past, rather than risk their songs getting out of the tribe, many singers preferred to let songs die with them. Now, fortunately, a more liberal attitude is becoming the rule, and singers are beginning to make the survival of songs their first concern.
Only one further barrier to transmission need be discussed, and this is the bogey of commercialisation. Honest attempts to preserve traditional chants are being hindered because the cry is raised that money will be made on them. The origins of these fears are quite easy to see.
Firstly, collections of traditional texts such as those of Grey, McGregor, and more recently, Apirana Ngata and Pei Te Hurinui, have appeared with a price set upon them. The surprising thing is that there are still people who consider this to be evidence of commercialisation. Even if the compiler receives nothing for his work it should be quite clear to anyone that it still costs something for paper, for printing, for binding and for distribution. Since the books cannot be distributed free it is not very reasonable to complain that they commercialise their contents.
Secondly, recordings made by the N.Z.B.C. and by the Maori Purposes Fund Board have been broadcast. Again people have jumped to the conclusion that the songs concerned have been sold. The truth is that beautiful as these songs are, their commercial value is small. Even if their worth becomes more generally recognised they are unlikely ever to have much popular appeal.
Having discussed the conditions which stand in the way of song survival, we must now turn to the means for song preservation.
Methods of Preservation
Fortunately, the preservation of the words of the songs presented few problems; they can be written down, and have been so written for generations. Thousands of texts are available, either from printed collections or from the manuscript waiata books still held by many families. In Pei Te Hurinui's revision of Sir Apirana Ngata's ‘Nga Moteatea’ there are already 200 fully annotated songs complete with song histories and translations into English. Here alone there is a wealth of material, and it can be had at any book shop. Some time this year, Part Three of ‘Nga Moteatea’ is due for publication; this will add a further 100 songs to those already published.
At least as important as the words of the waiata are the airs. There are two methods of preserving the airs. The first method is by musical notation, and the second is by means of sound recording.
Notation forms a permanent record, and like its counterpart in the written word, it makes possible the study of the song at leisure. It does, however, require training to interpret, and even so the musician needs to be familiar with the style. It can be used unaided for learning a song, but is more useful as a
supplement to other methods.
Tape recordings offer by far the most useful means of first preserving and then learning the songs. In a tape recording, the song is captured complete in all its detail and the recording can be played again and again without noticeable loss of quality.
Collections of Recorded Waiata
There are now two main collections of recorded waiata in New Zealand. One is that of the N.Z.B.C. which now includes all of the material recorded from 1953 onwards by Mr W. T. Ngata for the Maori Purposes Fund Board. From time to time these recordings are broadcast. Anyone with access to a home recorder may then re-record them for this won use. Some of the Maori Purposes Fund Board recordings have also now been issued on gramophone records.
The second collection is that made by the present writer, with financial assistance from the University Grants Committee. At the time of writing it includes 619 items from several tribal areas. To allay fears of commercialisation it is not intended to allow these recordings to be broadcast. Instead, arrangements are being made to deposit copies with tribal authorities in each area. Each area will receive only its own songs; the recordings are being given over entirely without charge; and the condition is made that the recordings must be made available to groups within the area wishing to make use of them. Later it is hoped to publish in these pages a complete list of the recordings available, together with the names of the institutions which have accepted custody of them.
In the meantime there can be found elsewhere in this issue a discussion of the musical style of Maori chant and beginning with the next issue there will be a series of transcriptions of chants in musical notation. Most of the transcriptions will be of songs which have already spread beyond their tribal boundaries and none will be published unless it has been fully released by the performers.
It is hoped that the recordings and the transcriptions will together play some part in the active preservation of a unique form of music which New Zealand can ill afford to lose.