Songs not lost, Nepia Mahuika

Nga Moteatea: An Introduction/He Kupu Arataki
Jane McRae and Heni Jacob (trans)
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
ISBN 9781869404901


Jane McRae’s Nga Moteatea: An Introduction is a small book that seems longer because the comprehensive Maori translation by Heni Jacob effectively doubles its length. Its aim, McRae writes, is “to draw readers to the collection as a whole”, realising Sir Apirana Ngata’s objective of having a smaller “pocket edition”, or rather a “sample of songs” that she argues can be “read more easily”. It is intended as an introduction to the four-volume Nga Moteatea series, McRae suggesting that a smaller introductory text might be more accessible for those daunted by the “formidable” size of Nga Moteatea.

But is a separate introduction really necessary? Indeed, how does this book offer a better introduction or complement what is already in the existing collection?

Divided into two main chapters, Nga Moteatea considers first the “Making of Nga Moteatea”, followed by a closer inspection of the content and “Songs of Nga Moteatea”, including an analysis of 10 waiata from the collection. McRae begins by providing an absorbing narration of Nga Moteatea’s origins, aims, translation methods and publication history. This introduction sets it apart from those previously available in the four-volume set. The much-needed background places the existing volumes in a broader context that magnifies their purpose as more than simply a collection of archaic songs – it is a database of immeasurable worth for researchers. It is an excellent chapter; nevertheless, much more could, and should, have been said about how the Nga Moteatea volumes have been utilised over time, especially in recent doctoral theses that have made specific reference to songs from the collection.

Despite the merits of this first chapter, some of my concerns about the idea of the book as an introduction lingered. Another cause of unease is the fact that too often McRae chooses to quote directly from Nga Moteatea, which after a few pages left me wondering whether a reader would be better off abandoning this book and moving straight to the collection.

McRae also refers regularly to the work of Margaret Orbell and Mervyn McLean, two highly regarded scholars, yet fails to draw on research that has pressed beyond the work of these earlier authors. This is where broader reference to recent scholarship would better highlight the deep impression Nga Moteatea continues to have on tribal linguists, historians and other like-minded researchers. Some excellent doctoral theses now push well beyond the ideas related to traditional composition, and oral formulaic structuring, for instance.

There is also the more serious matter of interpretative authority, a problem particularly relevant to chapter two. Due to a lack of referencing, it is often unclear whether McRae is drawing on Ngata’s work or on some other authority she has consulted, or is simply offering her own independent analysis. She is a descendent of “Te Au-o-Mawake”, an East Coast ancestor who appears in an oriori (lullaby) she analyses with reference to oral formulaic structuring, and I was particularly interested to see whom she had consulted to arrive at her conclusions.

Acknowledging your sources is not a new idea in academic research, but in Maori and tribal scholarship it is of paramount importance. Too often McRae writes without citing anyone from the tribal groups to whom these songs belong. It left me wondering where the matauranga (knowledge) she writes about came from. Has it come from her personal experience growing up within these tribal communities, or from an informant or expert who supports her research?

There is an immense sense of irony in all of this because moteatea are oral transmissions passed from one generation to the next in a living exchange. Present-day tribal authorities can, and often do, trace their interpretations of songs back through other expert singers, such as aunties, uncles and grandparents, yet these links are too regularly absent in chapter two.

This is not to say McRae’s analysis is wrong. Indeed, Nga Moteatea: An Introduction is in many respects a very good book, particularly its opening chapter. However, for many Maori readers it may seem a little unnecessary, when those who know the histories and dialectual nuances are still singing them at home. So who is this introduction really for? If you know very little of Maori traditional songs, perhaps it is for you. If you want to know about the history of the Nga Moteatea collection,  it is also extremely useful. But if you want to learn how to sing the songs, what they mean, and how and when they are performed, you might prefer to head straight to the four volumes, or take a trip to the marae and get it live. After all, moteatea are not lost songs, and were never meant to be simply read; they are very much alive in the culture today.


Nepia Mahuika is working on his PhD thesis at the University of Waikato. 


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