Te Matatini Kapa Haka Competitions 2013 – a curator’s excitement

“No Māori ceremony is complete without haka. It is as fundamental to our rites of passage as the language…”

Tīmoti Kāretu, Haka!: The Dance of a Noble People, 1993.pp. 13-14)

Everyone is very busy here at the museum, but I wanted to take a moment and write a quick blog post about an exciting event taking place next weekend in Rotorua.


Image reproduced courtesy of Te Matatini 2013.

Te Matatini Kapa Haka Competitions 2013.

“Kapa haka is commonly used to describe modern day performance of traditional and contemporary Māori song.  It is an avenue for Māori people to express their language, culture and heritage through song and dance.

 Kapa haka is heavily influenced by traditional forms of Māori pastimes; haka, mau rākau (Māori weaponry), poi (tiny ball attached to rope or string) and mōteatea (traditional chants or dirges).

 A modern kapa haka performance can be competitive or non-competitive. It can be performed by any number of people, men and women, young and old.” (quoted from Te Matatini website (http://www.tematatini.co.nz/Rotorua2013/about_kapa_haka.htm)

 Every two years since 1972, this enormous event has been run in a different part of the country and this year, it returns to the Te Arawa tribal lands in Rotorua for the third time – and coincidentally, the district where the first competition was held.

The four day festival is the focus of months of concentration, rehearsals, fundraising, preparation and discussion. It is one of the largest indigenous festivals in the world, and the place to be if you want to witness incredible Māori performing arts at their finest, most innovative and most passionately received.

For the last two years (since the last national competition), hundreds of Māori performing arts practitioners have been rehearsing up and down the country, in preparation for these competitions. Many of the performers, who compete at Te Matatini, are admired by enthusiasts of kapa haka as akin to competitive athletes, and as such their commitment is probably similar. Many engage in physical training, as well as lengthy and frequent rehearsal. I have one close cousin in particular, who along with her partner, flies weekly from Auckland to Wellington in order to attend rehearsals – all out of their own pocket and while holding down their day jobs. The competition is also now international, with groups travelling from Australia to participate.

The powerful presence of modern kapa haka today is testament to this kind of commitment, and to the massive fan base and engagement by the audiences that attend Te Matatini. Audiences that sit enthralled through the four days of competition and endlessly discuss the nuances of performances for months afterwards.

But the popularity of kapa haka today is by no means a recent occurrence. While Te Matatini has been running since 1972, competitions and expressions of Māori performing arts have deep traditional roots within Māori culture. The love of song, haka, dance and poi has been long held by Māori, performed for celebration or ritual – as some of the following historical images from 1850-1976 can show:


1991-0003-10; He haka; circa 1850; Thomas John Grant. Ink, watercolour.


1992-0035-841; A night haka; 1865; Horatio Gordon Robley. Watercolour, pencil graphite.


O.033764; Māori kapa haka (dance performance) before a large European audience, 1891. Unknown photographer.


E.005397/16; Māori Kapa Haka performers; 1960; Brian Brake. [Do these performers look familiar to anyone? Can you help identify where the image was taken?]


O.027023; Young kapa haka performers. From the series: Ratana Pa; 1976; John Miller.

Composers of fine songs, haka and the like, are greatly admired; and their songs sung repeatedly by different groups over the years. Indeed, many of the songs that are sung on the stage today are compositions which can be hundreds and hundreds of years old. It will also mean that some of the new compositions performed for the first time at this Festival, may go on to be sung and performed for the next few centuries – serving as valuable records of Māori, iwi, hapū stories, beliefs and creativity.

I love attending Te Matatini, not only to see fine kapa haka magnificently performed, and to appreciate the discipline of the performers on stage. But also to witness the rest of the festival with its food, visual arts on display, take in the sights and sounds, and enjoy the happy atmosphere and people. It is a scene of a culture in dynamic motion, continuing to celebrate and innovate – and a time where that arbitrary distinction between the contemporary and the traditional is difficult to discern.

So, if you happen to be in the Bay of Plenty next week from the 20th – 24th Feb, I very much encourage you to go venture to the festival for a look. Hopefully, I’ll see you there.

ps. I leave you with some more historical images of haka performance from Te Papa’s collection. Kia ora.


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