IN this penultimate edition of ‘Monday’s Musical Musings’, Classics Teacher and All Blacks fan, Ms Tyrrell, talks about the New Zealand haka…

Perhaps one of the most famous things that comes to mind when you think about New Zealand, besides mountains, hobbits, sheep, Crowded House and sauvignon blanc, is the mighty rugby team of the All Blacks and it wouldn’t be an All Black game without the ‘haka’.

The All Blacks perform the haka:

For years, the haka has been performed by New Zealand rugby players at the beginning of international matches, as a way to intimidate the opposing team before a match. Some critics have argued that it should not be performed as no other teams perform a ritual intimidation and I have known many people to ridicule and mock the haka over the years. This has always made me uncomfortable and rather offended, given the importance the haka has in New Zealand culture. However, for the most part, international audiences look forward in anticipation and respectful admiration to the moment when the All Blacks run on to the pitch and the crowd goes silent as the cameras zoom into the All Blacks’ faces and the leader of the haka begins to yell the first calls. As an English girl who was raised in New Zealand, I certainly know that the hairs always stand up on the back of my neck when this happens, ever since I first saw the haka performed at the age of seven. But the haka is so much more than a ritual dance and chant that is performed before rugby matches.


What is the haka?

The haka is a ceremonial Māori dance which is usually performed in a group and involves vigorous movements including the stomping of the foot, the protrusion of the tongue and rhythmic body slapping to accompany a loud chant or song, which poetically describes a story involving ancestors and events of a Māori tribe. The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand who travelled (by canoe) from Polynesia and settled in Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the 14th century AD. There are many iwi (tribes) of Māori around New Zealand and each iwi has its own distinct haka which represent the tribe’s pride, strength and unity. Traditionally the haka was first performed as a war dance. This is called a peru peru haka. It was an ancestral war cry and was performed on the battlefields for two reasons. Firstly, to scare their opponents, the warriors would use aggressive facial expressions such as bulging eyes, poking of their tongues and would grunt and cry in an intimidating way, whilst beating and waving their weapons. The second reason was to call upon the god of war to build their own morale. This type of haka was heavily choreographed and performed in time to prepare the warriors mentally and physically for battle.

“We Māori use our whole body to express ourselves…whether that be through the use of eyes, hands, legs, voice or tongue, the whole body is used to speak. When I do haka, I feel alive, connected with my tupuna [ancestors]. Through haka, I can express myself. I can celebrate, grieve, support or protest.”

Kateia Daniela Burrows (owner of the Manaia Performing Arts Company)

The ‘Ka Mate’ haka

‘Ka Mate’ is the haka that is performed by the All Blacks when they play against international teams. It is a ceremonial haka, and it was written by Te Rauparaha. It is a celebration of life triumphing over death. Te Rauparaha created the haka after he narrowly escaped death at the hands of enemy tribes from Ngāti Maniapoto and Waikato by hiding in a dark food storage pit. When he came out of it, he was greeted by light and a friendly tribal chief who was famously hairy! The words are below:

Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora! I die! I die! I live! I live!
Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora! I die! I die! I live! I live!
Tenei te tangata puhuru huru This is the hairy man
Nana nei i tiki mai Who fetched the Sun
Whakawhiti te ra And caused it to shine again
A upa … ne! ka upa … ne! One upward step! Another upward step!
A upane kaupane whiti te ra! An upward step, another.. the Sun shines!!
Hi !!!

The first haka in an overseas representative rugby match was performed by the New Zealand Native Team to tour Britain in 1888-89. The drawing shown below originally came from the Illustrated London News and depicts the very first haka performed in Britain by a New Zealand rugby team. It is entitled, “Their war cry before starting play”. It isn’t clear whether or not it was ‘Ka mate’ which they performed, but it is probable.

The evolution of the haka

Over time, the haka evolved. It became a way for communities to come together and it was a symbol of community and strength. This type of haka is called a ngeri haka and does not use weapons. The movements are freer, giving each participant the freedom to express themselves. Both males and females can perform a haka and there have been special ones created for just women.

Here is a link to the NZ Women’s Rugby team, the Black Ferns, performing their haka:

Today, all over New Zealand, the haka is still being used during ceremonies and celebrations to honour guests and show the importance of an occasion. Nationally, it is performed at important events. It can also be performed for personal reasons too, such as family events, birthdays, graduations, weddings and funerals. The haka is not exclusive to Māori; anyone is welcome to perform a haka, as long as it is performed with the seriousness and respect that it deserves and as long as the performers are aware of what they are doing and what it means. As well as sports teams, many schools and university colleges have their own haka. My own university college, Selwyn College, Dunedin, used to perform their haka to a rival college during sports, music, drama and debating competitions. As women, we would stand behind the rows of men as they challenged each other. They would spend a few minutes ‘getting in the zone’ by breathing deeply and quickly, almost sending them into a trance-like state. During the performance, some men performed so intensely that they would scratch their chest and draw blood. It was an intense and awesome sight and experience, one that I will never forget and at times, felt almost transcendental. Below are two moving examples of when the haka have been used to honour people. One is a boys’ school farewelling their teacher and the other is the response of school students from around New Zealand to the terrible mosque shootings that happened in Christchurch in 2019 (the first terror attack on NZ soil). Students used the haka to honour the victims of the shootings.

Students farewell their teacher with the school haka:

Students honour the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings with the haka:

As you can see, the haka is so much more than an intimidating dance performed by All Blacks at rugby internationals. It is an integral part of Māori and New Zealand culture.

Elisabeth Tyrrell (Teacher of Classics and All Blacks fan).

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