The Oceanic heritage, Wendy Pond

Songs and Stories of Tokelau. An introduction to the cultural heritage
Allan Thomas, Ineleo Tuia and Judith Huntsman (eds),
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1990, $14.95 (Cassette available from the School of Music. Box 600, Wellington, $8.00)

Waiata Maori Songs in history
Margaret Orbell,
Reed Books, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Traditional Songs of the Maori
Mervyn McLean and Margaret Orbell,
A H & A W Reed, 1975, Auckland University Press revised edition 1990, $39.95 (Recording available from Archive of Maori and Pacific Music, University of Auckland)

The Maori Action Song
Jennifer Shennan,
New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Wellington, 1984, $13.50

In Kaikohe, Whangarei, Manukau, Tokoroa, Gisborne, Porirua and Christchurch there live composers and poets who are masters of the Oceanic poetic heritage. The scholars who travelled to the library of Alexandria 2,000 years ago informed themselves of each other’s teachings; the scholars who travelled through Europe 400 years ago exchanged their knowledge and instigated the renaissance; New Zealand’s Pakeha scholars have largely chosen to perpetuate only their anglo-roman inheritance. Thus we continue in ignorance of a great intellectual and poetic tradition indigenous to the countryside and flourishing in our cities as its practitioners converge from the Pacific islands.

Late in the day scholars of Oceanic literature are searching for ways to present this multi-layered poetry to a Pakeha readership largely unable to read Maori and Polynesian languages. One of the great difficulties is that the songs are composed to be fully understood only by those already knowledgeable about the events and places evoked. The lines allude tersely, not recounting but commenting.

Two new books on Tokelau and Maori songs meet the challenge: in both works texts have equal place with translations. The songs are presented in political and historical contexts giving access to the composers’ standpoints. The translators capture the composers’ sardonic, jaundiced, taunting, and compassionate voices. In the practice of historical and ethnographic scholarship, in the art of translation, their work excels. These authors could have presented three volumes of song-texts. Instead each chose a slim anthology, attending to contexts, translations and illustrations that illuminate meaning as a way of re-presenting the songs, creating books of aesthetic pleasure, and wooing a readership.

Thomas, Tuia and Huntsman bring to their task the skills of musicologist, community leader and anthropologist. The Tokelau songs are presented with introductions which may supply adroitly the social context in which the song is sung, or the historical event it evokes, or may admit the loss of reference for old songs which have remained in favour. Illustrations provide further information about unfamiliar technology (weaving and tattooing patterns, toddy-making, fishing gear), maps locate place names, while photographs identify story-tellers and performers. There is all-in-all, a sense of the lived real life in which these songs are sung as people whistle up the wind before setting out on fishing expeditions, call their children home at night, fight the colonising powers for the return of their fourth island Olohega, bury their elders, and court each other.

The spare translations give access to meaning, while retaining the terse power of the Tokelau texts:

Lord the sky is too high
Don’t bury him in the ground
But in the turtle’s safe keeping
Don’t line the grave with stones
But use pearl shells in rows of 50
Don’t cry with your eyes
But cry with the voice of the grave [Song 6]


True to its subtitle, the anthology is an introduction to the cultural heritage, and to the humorous, compassionate and dauntless character of the Tokelau poets. The songs can be heard on cassette.

Orbell is a master of metaphor and of 19th-century language. Here are composers steeped in traditional and political history. Orbell matches their poetic art with her clear, lean translations, their erudition with her own breadth of historical scholarship. In her anthology we experience the traumatic sweep of events. The early 19th century is the era of Pakeha colonisation yet, in the waiata, relations of Maori to each other and of Maori to landscape loom larger than relations between Maori and Pakeha, excepting the villainous McLean. In 1865 Waerenga-a-hika was besieged and the Hauhau prisoners exiled to Wharekauri (the Chatham Islands):

On the third of March I was flung on board ship/ And sailed the broad ocean – the headlands of Waikawa/ Then I turned, McLean, to the Ahuriri Plain!/ I’m flung onto the St Kilda, and sitting here/ I turn and gaze back, water pouring from my eyes./ Whanganui, Whangaroa, the waves mounting up at Wharekauri! [Waiata 14]

With the place-names of waiata, Maori embed their history in the New Zealand landscape. Orbell has made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand scholarship in forging a path to the texts. ‘In waiata our forebears spoke their hearts,’ writes Merimeri Penfold. Yet what lecturers in New Zealand political history examine the texts of waiata? Where shall they find better insight into Maori perspectives, a source of such profound knowledge, a more succinct revision of history, a more sardonic commentary on current affairs?

The composers, however, had anticipated performances before critical audiences, where their metaphors would be abetted by singing and dancing. Two other books, when read in tandem, move the texts into the arena of performance. McLean and Orbell is a re-issue of the 1975 edition. Photo-reduced, it is still perversely elongated, obtruding from bookcases or shelved obscurely with ‘big books’. Never mind, the price is fair. Here is a compendium of McLean’s musical transcriptions and Orbell’s translations and commentaries. McLean has an essay on song types and Orbell an essay on recurrent images in the songs.

McLean and Orbell write, ‘That the texts of traditional chants are often very beautiful and worthy of study has been recognised for many years. But this attitude has seldom been applied to the music. Elsdon Best, that seemingly least ethnocentric of men, said: “The English ear detects nothing to admire in this mode of singing, and we condemn it as monotonous and tuneless”. (Best 1925:106). Early travellers, missionaries and settlers thought likewise and so do many New Zealanders today’.

Jennifer Shennan takes us out onto the reception ground to view the sinews which convey the word. Without her scholarship, Maori waiata are not fully described, and yet her book was scarcely noted at the time of its publication. Her text and illustrations alert us to the inimitable qualities of Maori dance: the wiri, the tongue displays, the eye movements, the muscular releases, the dexterity of weapon manipulation, the speed, the lightness, the balance, the grace, the solidarity, the terror, the humour, the taunting, the physical wit accompanying the texts.

Frothy-mouthed, stubborn-headed Hitler/ Who keeps fighting on and on,/ 
He fell, and fell again in Russia!/ They cleaned him up, hei aue aue aue!
[Hitara Waha Huka, comp Tuini Ngawai, trans M Orbell]


Ken George’s photographs capture the spirited vigour of people who have risen to the demands of the occasion in their work clothes.

Here I will take issue with McLean and Orbell’s foreword. ‘In many communities the Ka mate chant and Tooia mai te waka are now the only haka commonly performed’, they wrote in 1975, foreclosing on the tradition. This statement cannot stand unrevised. As the Waitangi Tribunal reviewed the history of land transactions, so the Lange government began passing the waterways, coalfields, telecommunications and broadcasting stations into SOEs and on into private ownership; closed post offices, hospitals and schools. By 1990 haka were resounding in the six o’clock news. In 1978 when the New Zealand police force ringed Ngati Whatua on Bastion Point, the tangata whenua confirmed their claim with a haka (TV1, 25 May 1978). In 1988 when Koro Wetere informed Tai Tokerau that his Government would devolve the Department of Maori Affairs, Tai Tokerau opposed him with a forthright haka (TV1, 1 Dec 1988). When Tainui marched up Molesworth Street to reclaim their coalfields in 1989, Ngati Poneke gave support with a haka from the front verandah of the New Zealand Court of Appeal (TV1, 28 Aug 1989). When Peter Sharples led the city youth of Manurewa, Otara, Onehunga, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Avondale at the opening of the Commonwealth Games, that haka went round the globe (TV1, 24 Jan 1990).

These four works awaken us to a tradition of stunning verbal, musical and kinesthetic dexterity. Insouciant, most New Zealanders have put a pillow over the alarm clock.


Wendy Pond is a research scholar in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University.


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Posted in History, Māori, Music, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
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