Contributing to the tribal record, Jane McRae

Kati au i konei
compiled by Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal
Huia Publishers, $24.95

This book contains texts, translations and explanatory notes for 15 waiata from Ngati Toarangatira and Ngati Raukawa. It is written in Maori and English, illustrated with photographs and maps, and informed by genealogical tables. Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal as compiler, tribal elders and others collaborated in this work, which is described as “a tribal project”.

Ngati Toarangatira and Ngati Raukawa’s reasons for producing the book were to make the waiata available to the public, to ensure their survival and to give voice to their own explanations about them. In this they follow a tradition of publishing waiata which Sir George Grey began in the 1850s with his collections Ko nga Moteatea, me nga Hakirara o nga Maori and Ko nga Waiata Maori. A significant improvement in such collecting came from the long and fruitful researches of Apirana Ngata and Pei Te Hurinui. Their work resulted in the four volumes of Nga Moteatea (1928, 1961, 1970, 1990) which contain waiata from all tribal areas, translated (except in volume IV) and extensively annotated. That work is acknowledged as the model for this one.

For anyone interested in Maori oral literature the appearance of a book like this is exciting. There is the anticipation that new texts will have been brought out from the many unpublished sources of Maori waiata, from those large collections of Maori manuscripts in libraries or from family papers, and there is the unusual pleasure of seeing the oral literature in print. There is also the thought that a tribal initiative in publication represents a determination to revitalise an oral tradition which has been undermined by the dominance of English language and European culture.

Some of that tradition has of course been kept alive on the marae (13 of the waiata in this collection are still being sung), but production of it in print suggests a wider recognition and appreciation of this little-known literature. Moreover, such a work is likely to bring new knowledge to our small, yet rich stock of publications about waiata. Equally it opens up the way for discussion, evaluation, and a better understanding of this predominant genre of the oral literature. These came to mind when I heard about this book.

Kati i konei meets the broad aims of its producers. It supports the notion of waiata being available outside the tribal domain and this is an encouragement to the opening up of the traditional knowledge which is sometimes restricted. No doubt, too, the reproduction of these waiata in print assists their survival through wider circulation of them (although print can be as ephemeral as speech if it is not valued and used). And the book conveys some of the knowledge of the tribal elders about these waiata.

It is likely that Kati au i konei will be warmly received by tribal members; it is an affirmation of their composers and it offers vignettes of their history. Joining an increasing number of publications in Maori, it helps to open up the different forum of the printed page in which to enjoy and debate the traditional knowledge passed on by the ancestors. (Last century a book like this would have brought many a letter to the Maori newspapers.) It is the first publication in Maori about Ngati Toarangatira and Ngati Raukawa which uses the traditional texts of waiata, whakapapa and korero to picture tribal life. Thus, the book may be seen by other tribes as an attractive proposition for themselves.

In view of the tireless efforts by Maori people to assert their culture against a largely indifferent and sometimes hostile majority, criticism of this book may seem ungracious, even unsympathetic to their hard‑won gains. No doubt, too a tribal venture into publishing like this, being relatively uncommon, has been at some cost and required some hard thinking. Nevertheless public statement, whether oral or printed, invites opinion. And there is a tradition of waiata collection, undertaken by both Maori and Pakeha, against which this collection can be assessed.

If I review the book against the existing literature of its kind, then Kati au i konei disappoints me. By literature of its kind I mean scholarly works like Nga Moteatea. Other work by Te Ahukaramu Royal and the contents of the bibliography suggest experience in research and a scholarly approach. First, the book offers little that is new to our common (public) stock of knowledge about waiata and has not made the best of that stock. Second, it lacks clear objectives and focus in selection and layout.

Nga Moteatea is properly acknowledged as a primary source for and about these waiata; it is considerably more than a model. Of the 15 waiata, nine draw heavily from that work for texts, translations and annotations, as does a short introductory piece about Ngati Toarangatira and Ngati Raukawa migrations. All borrowings are referenced; when endnotes are taken directly from Nga Moteatea other information (although there is little of this) is distinguished by brackets and italics. Adaptations to translations, also acknowledged, show preference for a modern idiom rather than notable improvements or alternative meanings (but then translating waiata is notoriously difficult). One change that goes unmarked is that made to line division and verse breaks in the waiata texts. No reason is given and the changes seem to me to work against the structure of ideas in the waiata, and possibly the prosody and music.

Given that a large part of the collection is a rearrangement and re‑working of material from Nga Moteatea and other secondary sources, it is surprising that some key works are not referred to, which could have provided both models of judicious readings and discussion of waiata, as well as information about these waiata, for example, the books and articles by Margaret Orbell and Mervyn McLean, S M Mead’s article “Imagery, Symbolism and Social Values in Maori Chants” (Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol 78, pp378‑404) and Agathe Thornton’s monograph Te Uamairangi’s Lament for His House (1986). McLean and Orbell’s Traditional Songs of the Maori (1975) could have informed decision‑making about line division and notes for the first waiata “Poia atu taku poi” (p30). Margaret Orbell’s Waiata. Maori Songs in History (1991) (and her unpublished PhD thesis “Themes and Images in Maori Love Poetry” (1977)) could have offered information relevant to the songs by Rakapa Kahoki and her Maori Poetry (1978) furnished an interesting note about the ancient symbolism of the popular “Ka mate, ka mate…” chant, which forms part of the pokeka “Kikiki kakaka…” (p83) and which is commonly said to derive from an account of Te Rauparaha’s escape from pursuers.

The manuscripts referred to on the back cover have been used to provide details about historical incidents connected to the songs, but two waiata are taken from the large collection of Maori material which belonged to Sir George Grey and is now held by the Auckland Public Library. One of these, a waiata composed by Te Rangihaeata on Te Rauparaha’s imprisonment, was published in Grey’s 1853 edition of his Ko nga Moteatea.., and again, this time with translation and discussion in Barry Mitcalfe’s Maori Poetry (1974). Given the concern to preserve the waiata, another useful reference might have been to sound recordings. in the archive of Maori and Pacific music at the University of Auckland, among the large number of Maori waiata which McLean has primarily been responsible for collecting and archiving, there are recordings of at least 11 of these waiata (or versions of them), some sung by tribal members.

There may be reasons why the sources I mention have not been used, but it seems to me that wider and deeper research would have enriched this work. I don’t know, of course, whether limits of time or finance precluded that. The introduction advises that the book does not cover all there is to know about waiata and that it is “a beginning” (p15). It also puts the valid point that the tribe should decide what is to be made public from its private store (p15). A reader, however, would hope that that which is in the public domain would be well considered, and included or argued against if inappropriate.

The breadth and depth of research for a book of waiata is critical to its success, or at least to its long‑term value. Traditional waiata are extraordinarily difficult to interpret, partly because of their age, partly because they tend to be metaphorical, allusive and elliptical, and partly because, having been composed for particular occasions, they demand a knowledge of the context of composition. All of those difficulties are compounded by the fact that the Maori historical record, largely preserved in the oral tradition, has been dislocated by colonisation. This is why attempts to provide accurate and coherent explanation of waiata usually require an exceptional amount of research covering a wide range of sources.

It is often said that a lot of the knowledge about tribal traditions has been lost, and this must be so. Te Wari Te Rei says of one waiata in this book: “Unfortunately, much information about this song by Te Ria Haukoraki has been lost. However, I have gathered together some threads of information that might be bound as a cloak for those learning about the Maori world.” (p59) The gathering of those threads is time‑consuming and demanding. It is possible because of the considerable amount of knowledge we still have ‑ in books, in manuscripts, in art, in minds. The most useful work on waiata is one in which information from those disparate sources is gathered and interpreted or left to guide interpretation in future. This is the beauty of Ngata and Hurinui’s work.

Sometimes, however, the idea of drawing from those different sources of knowledge is inhibited by our polarisation of cultures or tribes. We avoid, perhaps are shy of or unskilled at, cooperation. Pakeha writers and Maori elders hesitate to talk; they may regard each other suspiciously, or attribute authority to one or other or claim it over each other. One tribe reserves its opinions about another’s traditions, considering it improper to comment.

The introduction to Kati au i konei suggests some of the tensions of that polarisation (and they are tensions which can get in the way of an open‑mindedness in research.) In one sense this book is a tribal statement against what has been said before ‑ the claims about ownership of waiata among tribes, the histories of pakeha books. There is a cautious statement about not wishing to dispute the traditions of other tribes. (p14) There is concern about the acceptance of the authority of Pakeha authors of Maori histories. (p14) Belief in the authority of books is as much a problem as in the authority of kaumatua; it is uncritical acceptance which attributes authority erroneously. Those kinds of tensions can be relieved if concern with authority is replaced by a questioning of all received wisdom. Ngata and Hurinui may have thought this, for they used diverse sources and included conflicting views about origins or meanings in the annotations to their collections of waiata.

My second criticism of Kati au i konei is of a lack of clear objectives and focus in selection and layout. The book is subtitled “He Kohikohinga i nga Waiata…” (A Collection of Songs …). A stated rationale for the collection might be expected, and a focus on the songs and their interpretation.

The 15 waiata chosen represent an interesting range of sung and chanted texts. There are patere, waiata whakautu korero, waiata tangi, waiata aroha, waiata poroporoaki, pokeka, ngeri, waiata oriori, that is, chants and songs from and for many different circumstances ‑ answers to insults, expressions of love and grief, farewells, memories and warnings of war, instruction to the young. That range indicates the prevalence and importance of waiata, evident also in a summary account of the migrations south from Kawhia and Maungatautari of Ngati Toarangatira and Ngati Raukawa which precedes the collection of waiata. Each of the excerpts quoted from waiaia contributes to the record of this incident of tribal history, commemorating certain events, expressing personal emotions, calling for revenge and so on.

In explaining the implication of the title “Kati au i konei” (Let me remain here) as coming to the end of a journey and establishing a place of one’s own, the point is made that most of the waiata were either composed during or influenced by the Ngati Toarangatira and Ngati Raukawa migrations. (p13) Perhaps that historical event underpinned the selection of texts.

To some extent the preoccupation with history draws attention away from the texts themselves, that is, from their “literary” value. In the explanatory material, there is less emphasis on the artful use of language or archaic allusions than on anecdotal history. Each waiata is preceded by a brief introduction usually about the composer or origin of the song; this is where the kaumatua speak. The song text, highlighted, follows and then endnotes to it. Genealogical trees are interspersed. Occasionally a piece is added at the end, not unrelated to the waiata, but of tenuous connection (if the aim is explication of waiata meaning), for example, biographical notes about the father or son of the composer. By comparison, the compactness and relevance of explanation set around the text in the model of Nga Moteatea, gives pride of place to the composer’s art.

Attention to the waiata is also distracted by the layout of the Maori and English text. Bilingual publications in parallel text make marvellous reading for learners or translators of a language, because they facilitate comparison across words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs. This aim in publishing is admirable at a time when learning Maori is vital to its survival. Because the content of the Maori and English texts is generally quite close, it would have worked well. But, although each section starts out as parallel text, it soon loses parallel position. Setting the text on facing pages rather than in columns on one page may have worked better, it would have avoided too what seems to me an unnecessary difference in font size between the Maori and English.

My opinions about this book may have been formed by an unfair comparison with the formidable work of Ngata and Hurinui. It is rare to see a work of that substance today. We are perhaps too impatient, we publish all the time, probably too much. Our haste tells. Nevertheless, we need to respond to the sense of urgency to publish the oral literature to assure its survival. If my comments are critical, it is because I hope that through discussion of this kind we can work towards a fine literature about Maori oral traditions, a literature which does justice to it, enhances our understanding and estimation of it.

Kati au i konei is important for picking up the traces of Ngata and Hurinui’s work and heading towards such a literature. It is new in its concentration on tribal waiata and it is encouraging in bringing the voice of tribal elders to the printed page. They have contributed some song texts and translations, and introductory comments to many of the waiata. These are brief, sometimes informal, but occasionally, as in the case of Te Wari Rei’s contributions (pp59, 89), there is that blend of information about language and tradition which is reminiscent of the depth of footnote information in Nga Moteatea.

It would be splendid if Kati au i konei led Ngati Toarangatira and Ngati Raukawa into further publications, other tribes into publication of their oral literature, and readers to want to know more about waiata. It is certainly a reminder of the skilful use of language and the riches of information to be found in them.

Jane McRae is a lecturer in Maori studies at Auckland University.

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Posted in Maori, Music, Non-fiction and Review
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