Haka – Ka Mate

Haka is the common term for all Maori dances. It is performed for different reasons, such as celebrating success, welcoming guests or as a pre-battle challenge. Haka is not performed only by men. Some are performed by women and some simple haka are performed even by children.  Peruperu (War haka) were originally performed by warriors before a battle, affirming their strength in order to intimidate the enemy. Various actions are performed in Maori haka performance like chanted words, a variety of cries and grunts in which different parts of the body represent many instruments.

Maori Haka

Alan Armstrong provided the definition of Haka performance: “Hands, feet, legs, body, voice, eyes and tongue all play their part in joining together to bring in their fullness the challenge, welcome, exultation, defiance or contempt of the words. It is disciplined, yet emotional. More than any other aspect of Maori culture, this complex dance is an expression of the vigour, passion and identity of the race. It is at its best, truly, a message of the soul expressed by posture and words.” Also essential to the Maori haka are pukana (dilating of the eyes), whetero (protruding of the tongue which is perdormed by men only), ngangahu (similar to pukana, performed by both sexes), and potete (the closing of the eyes at different points performed by women only).  These expressions are used at different times to give meanings to the words.

 Types of haka

There are different types of haka such as peruperu which in former times was performed before a battle to call upon the god of war and to frighten the enemy.  If haka was not performed in total unison, this was regarded as a bad sign for the battle.  Warriors often went naked into battle, only with a plaited flax belt around the waist.  The aim of warriors was to kill all the members of the enemy so that no survivors would be able to take revenge.

The ngeri is another kind of Maori haka performed without weapons; its purpose was to encourage the warriors psychologically. The movements are free – each performer is expected to be expressive of their feelings.  Another interesting haka was Manawa wera which was associated with funerals or other occasions involving death, it was performed without weapons and there was little or no choreographed movement.

All Blacks Haka

Haka Performed By All Blacks on RWC 2011 Opening Day

All Blacks Haka

In 1884 the first haka was performed for the eight matches in Australia by the first New Zealand rugby team. The picture below shows the haka performed in Britain by the same rugby team in 1888-89. Ka mate is the most widely known haka in the world because it has traditionally been performed by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s international rugby union team, with the Kiwis, New Zealand’s international rugby league team.  The All Blacks are believed to have first used the Ka Mate haka in 1906. This tradition lives on today.

The Origins of Ka Mate

Te RauparahaIt is said that around 1820 the Ngati Toa chief, named Te Rauparaha, composed Ka Mate. The Maori people were wrapped up in a bloody inter-tribal war between the Ngati Toa and Waikato tribe. Once when Te Rauparaha was chased by his enemy, he came to chief Te Wharerangi asking for protection. Eventually, he agreed to help him and hid him in a kumara (sweet potato) pit with his wife sitting over the entrance.  This strange act has interesting explanations. Firstly, no self-respecting warrior would dare to hide beneath the genitalia of a woman, but that really confused the enemy. Secondly, the female organs were believed to have a shielding effect.

As the pursuers arrived, Te Rauparaha muttered, “Ka Mate! Ka Mate!” (I die! I die!); when the enemy had gone, he murmured again, “Ka Ora! Ka Ora!” (I live! I live!); and continued, “Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru nana nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra!  (“This is the hairy man who has fetched the sun and caused it to shine again!”).

Explanations of Ka Mate

The “hairy man” is considered to be the chief Te Wharerangi who protected and gave him a life.  “Upane” literally means a “terrace” and refers to the steps. Each “Upane” or each step in the haka represents the steps Te Raparaha made from the pit to see if the coast was clear. At last, when he had came out of the dark kumara pit into the daylight, he said, “Whiti te ra! Hi! ” (“The Sun shines!”).

Six authors have written about kumara-pit chant, but not one of them has given a word-for-word translation. The most noticeable comment about it was written by John Te Herekiekie Grace. He gives the full text of a slightly different version of the chief’s haka, but no translation. He explains the first four lines as being an expression of relief by Te Rauparaha that the genital organs of the woman above him were Te Rauparaha on kumara pitneutralizing the incantations of his searchers. He explains the remaining lines as words that Te Rauparaha uttered to neutralize sexual advances the chief was making to his wife, advances that could have led to Te Rauparaha’s discovery. Yetthe Maori text does not seem to fit this explanation, it is dubious that the chief would have been thinking about recreational sex when his pa was being searched by very annoyed kinsmen of Te Rauparaha’s victims. If Te Rauparaha had been found, there would have been severe consequences for the chief and his people.

The story that Te Rauparaha composed Ka Mate while hiding in the Kumara pit has become society’s version of the universal myth that tells of the inevitability of the death of our society, and of its rebirth in a new form.