Wednesday, September 5, 2012


I want to look at a very unusual piece of music: a haka. Or should that be "an" haka? Canadians, of whom I am one, like to throw in an 'n' before words starting with 'h' on the theory that 'h' is an aspiration, not a real consonant. What is 'haka'? Here is the Wikipedia article. The haka is a traditional chant and dance of the Maori of New Zealand but there are other examples from various places in the South Pacific. Of course there are thousands of traditional ceremonies like this from all the cultures of the world. But the haka of New Zealand has become fairly well-known where the others have not. One reason is that the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team have chosen one famous haka, the Ka Mate, and performed it before every game since 1906 (though they started the tradition even earlier, in 1884). Here they are before a match in France in 2006:

Click to enlarge

Here are the words they are singing and the translation:

"Ka Mate"
Leader:Ringa pakia!Slap the hands against the thighs!
Uma tiraha!Puff out the chest.
Turi whatia!Bend the knees!
Hope whai ake!Let the hip follow!
Waewae takahia kia kino!Stomp the feet as hard as you can!
Leader:Ka mate, ka mateI die, I die,
Team:Ka ora' Ka ora'I live, I live
Leader:Ka mate, ka mateI die, I die,
Team:Ka ora Ka ora "I live, I live,
All:Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuruThis is the hairy man
Nāna i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā...Who caused the sun to shine again for me
A Upane! Ka Upane!Up the ladder, Up the ladder
Upane Kaupane"Up to the top
Whiti te rā,!The sun shines!

This haka is attributed to the Maori war leader Te Rauparaha around 1820. The "hairy man" is an allied leader. Here are the All-Blacks with the haka:

Things like opening the eyes wide and sticking out the tongue as far as it can go are displays of dominance: we are going to crush you! Not all haka are war-like, though that element tends to predominate. Units of the New Zealand armed forces each have their own haka. The one below is in remembrance of fallen comrades:

That should dispel any notion that the haka is not serious. What I find interesting is how whole-heartedly New Zealand has adopted the haka. In Canada, a place with probably equally as many indigenous traditions (such as the potlatch), none seem to have penetrated the mainstream culture to the same extent. Perhaps this is because traditions like potlatch are contrary to some elements of Western culture. But haka seems to have a special resonance. A long time ago, the warriors of the New Zealand unit seen above might have sung a hymn in remembrance. But the haka might feel to them more essential, more basic, more elemental, so they prefer it. Just speculation, of course. Despite the near-universal dominance of pop music it is still, fundamentally, something not serious. So on those occasions of great importance, we still turn, usually, to classical music: the traditional music is still often heard at weddings and funerals. But the haka is a possibly unique exception to this: in New Zealand, it can be as serious as you want.

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