Invaluable taonga, Paul Wolffram

Nga Moteatea: The Songs, Part 4: Collected by Apirana Ngata, translated by Hirini Moko Mead
Jenifer Curnow and Jane McRae (eds) 
Auckland University Press, $22.50, 
ISBN 9781869403867 

This is the final instalment in the series of Nga Moteatea: The Songs, which have been redesigned and reset in hardback editions with accompanying CDs (See NZB June 2005 for a review of Nga Moteatea: The Songs, Part One.) The four volumes in this reissued collection have been released at the rate of one volume per year from 2004 and conclude with this fourth book in 2007 from Auckland University Press (AUP). The Nga Moteatea series reissue follows the publication of other related AUP titles including Maori Music (Mervyn McLean, 1996), Traditional Songs of the Maori (Mervyn McLean and Margaret Orbell, 2004), and Songs of a Kaumatua: As Sung by Kino Hughes (Mervyn McLean and Margaret Orbell, 2002). All of these books have been received as invaluable taonga and welcomed as major contributions to Maori literature.

Sir Apirana Ngata (1874-1950) of Ngati Porou was a leading Maori figure of his time whose contribution to Maori culture and New Zealand society has recently been recognised with the reissue and annotation of this significant series of books, along with a recent biography by Professor Ranginui Walker. Nga Moteatea, Part 4 was originally published in 1990 without an English translation. The translation and annotation of this reissue were performed by Hirini Moko Mead and make a number of waiata available in English for the first time.

Apirana Ngata’s explanatory note that precedes the 92 songs and translations in this volume goes a long way to describe the usefulness of this book, and all four books in the series:

The writer had two main purposes, when he undertook more than twenty years ago to compile and annotate the texts of Maori poetical compositions, songs, hakas, and incantations. The first was to ascertain the correct texts in Maori, the authorship and the history attached to them, and to explain the references to proper names, myths and traditions contained therein. Thus there would be a good foundation for the research student, the translator and literary worker. The second was to make accessible to the youth of the Maori race the songs of their people and inspire them to cultivate one of the most interesting elements of their native culture.


There is no doubt that Ngata’s aims were achieved with the original publication; the series is in its third edition. This reissue with translation and accompanying double CD will only serve to increase the accessibility of the songs. This type of book, which provides an extensive catalogue of song texts, like all those recently published and reissued by AUP, takes on a whole new life with the addition of CD recordings. In the past, musical transcriptions substituted but they were never a practical means of conveying the details of a sung performance. Intonation, vocal attack, accents and the way in which male and female song lines interact in performance are more immediately accessible via a recording. The CDs literally bring to life many of these songs and will be invaluable to those wanting to use the book as a tool to learn and teach. Listening to the waiata on the CDs drawn from the Archive of Maori and Pacific Music at the University of Auckland gave me pause to think about what else is missing from the information on the page, namely, the actions and dance movements that are intended to accompany almost all the songs in this volume. I mention this not as a criticism of this book, rather in deference to the importance of kapa haka movements in Maori performing arts. Perhaps one day books of this nature will be accompanied by moving image materials as well.

Following the introduction to the 2007 edition by the commissioning editor Margaret Mutu, the preface to the 1990 edition, and the explanatory note by the author, the songs are laid out with the Maori text on the left page and the English translation on the facing page. This arrangement allows for easy comparison between the Maori and English song texts and the accompanying notes. Hirini Moko Mead’s task of translating is a formidable one: often the songs and chants contain archaic and defunct terms. Many of the waiata are complex; they employ poetry and subtle use of simile and metaphor. In spite of these obvious challenges, reading through the translated song texts one finds several moving and engaging poetic moments in many of the waiata presented in this volume, from waiata aroha (love songs) to waiata tangi (songs of lament). The song texts make for fascinating reading and the accompanying details and footnotes help to provide the songs with context and at times vital explanations of genealogy or geography.

The arrangement of the songs in the volume is unapologetically not grouped into genre, theme, category or form. Ngata explains that the songs are presented in “the order in which the Maori texts and notes were obtained from various sources”. The criteria for inclusion are described by Ngata in the following terms: “If there were any method in the selection of items, it is in the rejection of such as fall short in poetic quality or make no contribution to the history or culture of the Maori people.” This arrangement and selection methodology seems to me perfectly adequate, given the knowledge and mana of the author. The indexes provide other means of locating and identifying material, by opening lines and through identification of song composers and their tribes.

The Nga Moteatea series is a formidable collection; its republication is evidence of its importance and value to all New Zealanders. This book and its three accompanying volumes are essential texts for those wishing to access Maori performing arts, lore and cultural heritage. For those unfamiliar with Maori culture, I can think of no better introduction than the beautiful, sacred and sometimes moving poetry found in these song texts. With the aid of the two CDs included, one can begin to hear and comprehend the role and importance of performing arts for what was once an oral culture, and in turn appreciate the importance of these books.


Paul Wolffram is an ethnomusicologist and film maker.


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