Keeping the songs alive, Allan Thomas

Nga Moteatea: The Songs, Part One 
ed A T Ngata and Pei Te Hurinui Jones
Auckland University Press (third edition with CDs), $70.00,
ISBN 1869403215

Traditional Songs of the Maori
ed Mervyn McLean and Margaret Orbell
Auckland University Press (third edition with CDs), $70.00,
ISBN 1869403142

The reissue of these two seminal works is welcome, especially as they incorporate authoritative CDs of the songs. The two works take us back to the origin of, and encouragement for, the traditional song literature. Apirana Ngata saw that the threat to this great body of knowledge came from literacy itself; an oral culture, and all its expressive and documentary forms, was largely incompatible with literacy – the mind could not develop the huge capacity for remembering songs once education and the wider society were based on literacy. Ngata came to this conclusion from his own early experience and he relates it as an introduction to the collection of songs which he undertook over many years. Ngata’s father took him away from Pakeha schooling in 1887:

these two years remedied many shortcomings in my education as a Maori in the things that belonged to him, including its basis for acquiring knowledge through the sense of hearing and retaining it by the faculty of memory stimulated by the lack of resort to written records.


The monumental collection of songs over several decades, collected from authorities in many tribes, accomplishes both the archiving of songs and their transfer from an oral to a written form. The addition of recordings in the recent editions of both Ngata’s work and that of McLean and Orbell provides an essential ingredient which was previously lacking. The ease with which a CD can now slip inside the cover of a book, and the ready indexing available in finding the separate tracks, makes this a natural extension of the earlier works, and part of the wider conservation and educational processes at which these books aim.

The recordings are drawn from Ngata’s own (originally wax cylinder) recordings and those by McLean (originally tape recordings). Many of them are sung on request (ie not in real marae situations) by a single person. Although this is not an ideal performance, it is well suited to archival work and to establishing a true and authoritative version of both the words and music.

One quibble I would make concerns the inadequacy of the indexing of the recordings. The CDs seem to have been added as an afterthought in both books. If you are reading a song text, say “Kaore te aroha ki toku kokare” (Nga Moteatea: Song 31), you must go to the list of CD tracks in the last pages of the book to find out whether there is a recording or not, and locate it by its song number (as CD 1, track 20). It would have been easy enough to place this information with the song itself.

While the numbering of songs is a perfectly adequate way of referencing them for a book, it raises the question as to how songs are named in practice. For McLean and Orbell Song 6 is a “Waiata Aroha”, which begins with the words “Ka eke ki Wairaka”. For Ngata and Te Hurinui the same song, Song 46, is “Waiata Aroha … A Love Song for Te Toko (Mahutu), by Rihi Puhiwahine”. Indexes in both books provide first-line access to both Maori and English versions. But, I suspect, people generally refer to this song as “Puhiwahine’s Song” (even though she wrote several, this is the most widely known), or by its first line, “Ka eke ki Wairaka”.

Both books recognise that the written song without its melody and performance is incomplete, but another challenge awaits: to incorporate the visual elements – the dance or impromptu gestures, the ensemble of the group and the setting in which the song is presented.

The republication of Traditional Songs of the Maori contains both the older method of transmitting the melody – the musical transcription – and the newer – the recording. Although the authors originally hoped that singers would use the book to learn the songs, this is not feasible from the transcription (where the music notation leaves out so many of the song’s important aspects – the voice quality, the ensemble of voices, the subtle accentuations). The addition now of a recording encourages that relearning to occur. The transcription is not rendered useless by this. Its primary purpose has always been directed to research, giving the researcher the ability to make generalisations about the genre or the musical system from which individual items come. In numerous publications McLean has made use of the knowledge he has gained from research transcriptions to describe the different types of Maori song.

A confusing feature of the republished Nga Moteatea is the number of introductions which have been accumulated through the various editions and reprintings of this work. There are 11 such introductions (called preface, foreword, introduction, poroaki), some of them in Maori, with their translation. These have many valuable points to make about the song tradition and the collection, but they have reached such an extent that most need to be assigned to an appendix.

One of the most attractive of these introductions is the description of songs written by Ngata in 1928 and translated by Te Hurinui for the 1959 edition of Nga Moteatea. Ngata gives the overall types of Maori songs, grouped according to their reason for composition – lullabies, laments, love songs and abusive songs (patere). He signals that the patere approach haka in their intensity and vehemence:

These compositions contain abusive terms, curses are flung by one to the other, former defeats are recalled, and also captivity and enslavement in former times … . Whenever an abusive song is given on the marae the scene often resembles a riot, the blood of the Maori is then aroused, even though these European times have tended to cool it down.


Another treasure is Margaret Orbell’s masterful description of the poetic system in Traditional Songs of the Maori. She brings a wide perspective from her knowledge of oral cultures worldwide, explaining the imagery of the songs, their verbal complexity, the formulaic language, structure and diction. Her introduction manages to convey both the structural matters and their aesthetic impact.

One convention that I would be interested to know more about is the way in which the composer/poet (usually, though not exclusively, a woman) pictures herself dramatically at the centre of some dilemma or mournful scene: “As I look back from the summit”; “I am sitting at my home at Waihaha”; “In the evenings I lament, lying on my bed” (Traditional Songs of the Maori, Songs 6, 28 and 39). While it is possible that a song was composed as these events happened, it is more likely (in my view) that here is a conventional way of recreating the moment; the composers remember or picture themselves in this situation to bring the full impact of it alive to the listeners.

The English-language translations of Nga Moteatea must have caused those working on the republication some pause. These translations (worked some time between the 1920s and 1950s) have a number of quaint usages. I decided after some comparisons that “the wanton urgings of Mokonuiarangi” (Nga Moteatea, Song 31) did not imply wanton sexual licence, but intemperate behaviour in urging an attack on visiting Nga Puhi, which resulted in a devastating retaliation.

The well-known song “E pa to hau” offers this comparison in translation between the two collections:

Here we are now cast upon
The rocky shore of Taupo
Stranded upon the sands at Waihi
Where dwelt my noble sire,
Now placed in the charnel-house on Tongariro
Like unto the abode wherein we sleep.
(Nga Moteatea, p 317)


Here we are on the cliffs of Taupo
Stranded on the shore at Waihi with my great ancestor
Who is in his tomb at Tongariro, and whom I see in dreams.
(Traditional Songs of the Maori, p 114)


While the Orbell translations are clear and well-chosen contemporary translations, only a few outmoded words and phrases mar the older text, and we can imagine that the reshaping of the English of Nga Moteatea would have been another major undertaking which those republishing rightly rejected.

Both of these works have been the standard texts in accessing the great literature of Maori song for a generation. Their republication is a testament to the exemplary work of these scholars and all their singers, and those who explained the texts and their meaning. One welcome addition to McLean and Orbell (which does not appear in my first edition of the work) is a frontispiece photo of two singers who contributed many songs, Turau and Marata Te Tomo. Their presence adds a reminder that great singers held these songs in their memories and affections, and that they were performed by many generations of singers before they came to these books.


Allan Thomas teaches world music and ethnomusicology in the School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington. Currently he is compiling a collection of the traditional songs of the Tokelau Islands.


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