Traditional Songs of the Maori

Traditional Songs of the Maori

by Mervyn McLean, Margaret Orbell

Paperback(Third Edition, Third edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781869403140
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 08/28/2004
Edition description: Third Edition, Third edition
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 11.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mervyn McLean is a former associate professor of ethnomusicology and director of the archive of Maori and Pacific music at University of Auckland. He is the author of Maori Music and Weavers of Song. Margaret Orbell is a former associate professor of Maori at the University of Canterbury. She is the author of Maori Poetry, He reta ki te maunga = Letters to the Mountain, and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Maori Myth. They are the coauthors of Songs of a Kaumatua.

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Traditional Songs of the Maori

By Mervyn McLean, Margaret Orbell

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2004 Mervyn McLean and Margaret Orbell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77558-226-7



THE SONGS are classified by the Maori people themselves into song types named according to use or function. The great importance traditionally attached to song function can be seen also from the fact that to sing without an object was regarded as an ill omen, and from the not uncommon reluctance of present day singers to record songs when there is otherwise no occasion for the performance.

Musically, each type of chant can be placed into one of two broad groups according to whether it is sung or recited. Maori recited songs differ from the sung styles by absence of stable pitch organisation, the necessarily through-composed form, the completely non-melismatic (syllabic) style of singing and much more rapid tempos. A point of similarity with the sung styles is the use of additive rather than divisive rhythms.

This chapter will discuss each of the main song types in turn, treating them in terms of function, performance characteristics and music structure.



For lack of another word, the term waiata is sometimes used loosely as generic for all songs. Properly, however, it is a specific song type. The main types of waiata are waiata tangi or laments, waiata aroha which are love songs, and waiata whaiaaipo or sweetheart songs. The latter are always of a personal nature and are distinguished on this account from waiata aroha (see Songs 6, 16, 40 and 42) which can express more generalised love, as of the land. Mostly the two terms can be used interchangeably. Other sub-categories of waiata are exemplified by Songs 3, 24, 25 and 39.

Laments are the most numerous of the waiata and in fact make up about one half of all sung items. Not all laments are for the dead. Elsdon Best points out that they can be composed to bewail any misfortune, even one so trivial as the loss of a fish hook or eel pot. (Best 1925:111, 118). Item 128 in the McLean collection of recordings was composed by a woman who had contracted leprosy and was bewailing her inability to reach her people. Item 154 was composed by a woman who was lonely for her husband. Item 160 is a song of self pity because the composer's potatoes had been eaten by pigs. And many more examples could be given.

Most laments, however, are laments for the dead, intended for use in the tangi or funeral ceremony. Bruce Biggs says:

It is fairly usual for them to begin with a reference to some aspect of nature, often something which is taken as a portent of death:

'The lightning flashes and forks above the mountain peaks.

It is the sign of death.'

The grief occasioned by death is likened to rain, to the moaning of the sea, or to biting winds. And loneliness is a constantly recurring theme.

The circumstances of the death are often mentioned, and if there is a motive, as in the case of death in battle or by witchcraft, plans for revenge may be outlined. (Biggs 1964:46).

An explanation for the numerical preponderance of waiata tangi can certainly be found in terms of social utility. The tangi or funeral ceremony is probably the most important single social institution and songs that serve its needs will naturally be more prevalent than the others. There are, indeed, indications that these needs go much beyond a simple expression of mourning and in this too the songs play an integral part. The Beagleholes believe that the tangi serves as an expression of the values of group co-operation.

As the group works together and sorrows together, its members have impressed upon them once more the security that comes of being members of a tribal group that stretches back into the past by the bridge of tradition, song, and chant and so links them to an ever-changing present. (Beaglehole 1945:115).

The tangi and the songs which go with it are thus seen as an enculturative mechanism which contributes to the integration of Maori society.

Waiata of all kinds are typically performed in unison by groups of singers. A leader, who may be either a man or a woman, begins the song and performs short solos at the end of each line of the text.

A typical example is Song 17 in this book which was recorded from Turau and Marata Te Tomo of Ngaati Tuuwharetoa tribe, at Mokai, on 10th September, 1962, (Item 151 in the McLean collection). Reference to the transcription will show that this song has a strong durational tonic, which in this case also happens to be the initial and the final. The range is small (within a fourth), and the tonal organisation is centric with the tonic somewhere close to the middle of the scale. In keeping with the small range, there are few notes in the scale. Melodic intervals are restricted to major and minor seconds and minor thirds. The form is clearly strophic with two phrases, of which the second is usually longer than the first, to each strophe. The end of the strophe is marked by the leader solo, and the end of the song itself is marked by a characteristic expulsion of breath accompanied by a glissando drop of the voice over the interval of a third or fourth. These traits occur in nearly all waiata and, indeed, in most song styles. Song 17 also happens to be non-diatonic which is a characteristic of some but not all songs. One may surmise that if Maori chant survives at all, this is one characteristic that may disappear altogether, since younger singers who attempt these songs are unconsciously tending to force them into the confines of Western minor and major modality.

In the hands of one such group, the melody of Song 17 becomes transformed to:


Other examples of waiata tangi in this book are Songs 5, 7, 11, 14, 15, 19, 22, 29, 31, 32, 35, 37, 41 and 43.

A basic principle of waiata style, in fact of most Maori song types, is that of melodic continuity. This is achieved by avoiding breaks for breathing. In the case of the solo singer, to sing without break is impossible and for this reason solo singing, except for a few song types such as the tau, is not greatly favoured. The soloist's solution to this problem, when solo singing cannot be avoided, has been described in another publication.

Since he cannot avoid breathing some of the time, a soloist makes the best of things by singing for as long as possible on one breath. He then snatches a quick breath and carries on until forced by a shortage of wind to take breath again. Since, ideally, the breaks for breathing should not occur at all, the breaks may occur anywhere in the song; even at times in the middle of a word. That these breaks for breathing are not planned is shown by the fact that in a duplicate performance they tend to take place at different points in the song. Also, when listening to a replay, softly shadowing their own voices as they do so, singers almost invariably 'run through' the stopping places on the recordings. (McLean 1961:60).

Moreover, transcriptions of the same song by different singers indicate quite clearly that pauses for breath are not usually part of the song and should correspondingly be disregarded in a final transcription. Often too, solo singers will complain at the necessity for breathing breaks or will sometimes sing quicker than usual in an attempt to get a whole phrase into one breath. And in every area, spontaneous remarks by singers confirm that to sing without break is the traditionally approved method. During a replay of one item the writer put this to the test by humming the air across the breathing spaces. For this he received an approving nod and smile and the remark, 'Notice how I stop to rest eh? Shouldn't be like that.'

When two people are singing together, the difficulty is overcome by making sure that the breaks for breathing are never simultaneous. While the one singer takes breath the other continues the song.

With a group, the performance is continuous and individual breaks for breathing cannot be heard. (McLean 1961:60).

In waiata this is achieved largely by the use of leader solos during which the rest of the group can take breath.

It has already been stated that these leader solos take place at the end of each line of the text and bridge the end of one line and the beginning of the next. This usually involves the extension of the previous line by the addition of meaningless syllables, usually 'e' or 'ei'. These often highly melismatic sections of meaningless syllabifying are commonly known amongst Maoris speaking English as 'drags'. Frequently they are highly ornamented and are often responsible for much of the musical beauty of the song. The Maori term for this end-of-line drag is hi or hianga.

Usually the song leader will perform half a line or so solo before the rest of the group joins him and once having begun to lead the song he will hold the lead throughout. This seems to be conventional even when better singers are present, although there are exceptions. At Te Rere Pa, for example, on 13th April, 1964, the writer began a song to illustrate the use of a transcription and was joined by all the singers present. No one took over the lead, and at the appropriate times throughout the song, the others stopped to allow the writer to perform the solo drags.


Pao are generally described as 'ditties', the implication probably being that the purpose of such songs is less serious than that of waiata and other song types. Some support for this view comes from the fact that the term pao is today often applied to non-traditional or 'party' songs with European type melodies. The term 'ditty', however, means simply a song or words to be sung and so could be applied equally well to all songs. Probably there is no single English term that will fit all pao, though 'entertainment song' or 'topical song' come closest.

It might be noted that the term paopao means gossip, and many pao are, in fact, gossip songs whose texts treat the love life of their subjects in very direct and often slanderous terms. Pao of this kind are mostly sung simply for entertainment, but there are other kinds which, like waiata, can be sub-classified according to subject or according to purpose. The pao whaiaaipo concern love, the pao poroporoaki are songs of farewell sung typically at the tangi ceremony on the last night before the burial, and the pao whakautu is an answer to a taunt.

As with waiata, pao are often used as an aid to speech making. One Taranaki man known to the writer, for example, never sings pao in isolation, but only to illustrate points of history. Unlike waiata, pao were, and are still, composed in extempore fashion. At least five examples of pao amongst the writer's recordings are known to have been composed in this way and three were composed spontaneously at the time of recording. Item 278B, for example, was composed by the singer to farewell his own voice going the round of the tribes. Other examples of spontaneous composition were recorded that involved waiata rather than pao, but these occurred because the singers forgot their words and made up the rest rather than break the song. Karanga (see later) and pao are the only song types known to the writer that are typically composed in this way.

In contrast with the long verses of waiata, the verses of pao are only two lines long. Each verse is first sung solo by the composer and is then supposed to be repeated by the chorus while the soloist thinks of the next couplet. Even when a pao is later performed without chorus, the verses are generally each sung twice.

Pao can be easily distinguished from other song types by their musical style. The range may be greater and there are usually more notes. The most distinctive features, however, are an abundance of rapid ornament and an overall melodic movement which is downward instead of moving more or less equally above and below a central intoning note. Iambic rhythms are also common though they do not appear in the transcribed examples.

Song 8 in this book is a pao as sung by Para Iwikau of Ngaati Tuuwharetoa tribe (Item 96 in the McLean collection). The range of this song is only a minor third, but the durational tonic and the final are on the lowest note of the scale, giving a descending contour so far as the range will allow. Another pao of different style is Song 21.


Poi songs of all kinds are those intended as an accompaniment to the well-known poi dance which uses as an accessory poi balls attached to strings which are swung by the performer. Sometimes a single poi is used by each dancer, sometimes two, and the strings may be long, short or medium.

Although poi are now sung, earlier ones were recited. Elsdon Best (1925:54; 1907:707) describes them as haka, while the only one to be included in Sir Apirana Ngata's Nga Moteatea 1961: Song 142) is termed a paatere and is still performed as such. It is transcribed as Song 4. Best (1925:56) says the poi was performed by females (this remains true today), though sometimes youths took part. It was a common pastime and was practised at inter-tribal social gatherings. Sometimes contests were held.

A transitional style is represented by Song 27 in this book as performed by Mrs. Pairoa Wineera of Porirua. This song was the poi performed by the Ngaati Raukawa tribe to welcome the Duke and Duchess of York at Rotorua in 1901. The singer was one of the dancers on this occasion, and was eighty years old when she recorded the song in 1963. The style bears unmistakeable evidence of derivation from haka.

The melody has only two notes — a durational tonic, and another note a tone below. The endings of each verse, however, are spoken and similar in this respect to haka. As in haka, there is a strong compound metre. But whereas in haka footstamping would occur on the first beat of each group, in Mrs. Wineera's recording the slap of her poi ball can be heard.

Most of the poi recorded by the writer are from Taranaki and belong to now declining religious movements which flourished at the village of Parihaka in the eighties and nineties of last century, under the leadership of the prophets Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi. Like the previous example, these poi are sung rather than recited. Many are adaptations of earlier waiata. Some are scriptural or religious in nature while others refer to historical events.

Song 36 is one of the best known of the Taranaki poi songs, as sung by Hannah Nicholas and Tuku Bailey at Waitara on November 17th, 1963.

As in songs from other tribal areas, there is a basic melody which repeats over and over, but there is no drag to mark the end of the line. Instead, the song is performed from beginning to end by the entire group of singers without breaks of any kind for leader solos. Since drags are not used, the meaningless syllabifying which is characteristic of waiata is absent.

The tempo is rapid (224 quavers to the minute) and the slap of the double pois forms a consistent 'off-beat' accompaniment throughout the song. As originally performed, everybody sang while at the same time performing the poi dance. (McLean 1964-6: Pt. 7, p.22).

The melodic material could hardly be simpler. There are only three notes and the range is entirely within a major second. But the rhythms are of extraordinary interest. Throughout the song there is a regular [??] divisive metre as marked by the off-beat slap of the poi balls. Superimposed upon this are syncopations across bar lines, and, within the bar, various additive metres, the most common of which is 3+2+3.


Oriori were songs composed for young children of chiefly or warrior lineage, by their parents or grandparents. Although these songs are usually described as lullabies, their purpose was less to lull children to sleep than to educate them in matters appropriate to their descent.

The texts are typically complex with many references to myth and tradition and to the child's kinship connections. Bruce Biggs (1964:46) says:

As if realising the difficulties of such a text, one composer has included a 'square-off' to be used by slow learners.

When you are asked by strangers the
details of your descent, you may reply:
'I am only a child and forgetful,
But this I do know,
Tainui, Te Arawa, Mataatua, Kurahaupo
and Tokomaru,
These were the canoes of my ancestors,
Who paddled across the great sea ...'


Excerpted from Traditional Songs of the Maori by Mervyn McLean, Margaret Orbell. Copyright © 2004 Mervyn McLean and Margaret Orbell. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
1. HAKA,
8. PAO,
18. HAKA,
36. POI,
46. PUHA,
Index of Song Types,
Index of Maori First Lines,
Index of English First Lines,
Contents for CD included in hard copy version,

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