Waiata is the Māori word for ‘song’. Different types of waiata play an essential role in daily life, like the marking of special occasions, the expression of loss and grief or even as a musical form of settling long-held disputes. Traditional waiata are still sung on marae and during special gatherings, while contemporary songs are composed to mark the concerns of present times. Some of the key waiata styles include the following:
Waiata aroha (love songs)
Despite its name, waiata aroha tend to be melancholic by nature: they are often about the grief experienced by the absence or the loss of a lover, for instance. Waiata aroha may also be composed in light of a new marriage or other broad topics relating to new loves and new family connections.
Waiata tangi (laments)
Waiata tangi are mournful songs about tragic issues like illness, death, a wrecked canoe or the loss of land (both of which are directly tied to one’s perceived ‘mana’ or social status).
Waiata oriori (lullabies)
Traditional oriori were composed exclusively for children of rank. These songs usually tell stories about ancestral and family ties and were often incorporated in a child’s early education.
Poi are the lightweight balls tied around a string that you’ll typically see in Māori cultural performances. These are traditionally swung and hit to the tune of a traditional chant as a means of guiding listeners towards the messages and stories of the waiata in question.
Chanted musical styles
Beyond the melodic, Māori music is also known for its distinctive chanted styles. These in particular are the best renowned.
Mōteatea are ancient chants that carry a distinctive micro-tonality as its performers utter a single line of melody before their voices fade away. It was considered to be bad luck to interrupt these kinds of songs, so Māori would often perform them in subgroups to ensure there were no interruptions in the overall flow of the music. Sir Āpirana Ngata, a distinguished politician and historical figure in New Zealand, is to thank for one of the country’s largest collections of traditional lyrics of this style: Ngā Mōteatea.
Karakia are prayers or incantations traditionally invoking the spiritual guidance and protection of all those present in important gatherings and events. They might be chanted when one is undertaking a tā moko tattooing ritual, during the carving of a wharenui (Māori meeting house), at a hui (meeting) or at a tangihanga (a mourning ceremony for the deceased).
Patere is a monotone rhythmic chant that’s sung at a faster pace than that of a karakia. The words tend to be spiteful, often abusive, and are accompanied by defiant gestures that reflect the genre’s sombre undertones. Patere music often alludes to quarrels and wrongdoings, both at an interpersonal level and in inter-tribal rivalries and relationships.
New Zealand’s iconic war dance is considered a musical style in its own right. Haka are often chanted; whereas kapa haka, a performing arts style that showcases Māori culture and heritage, are more melodic and involve singing and dancing from both men and women alike.
Karanga is a spiritual call or summon that highlights the power of Māori women in tribal affairs. It is often the first words one will hear as they are greeted into a marae, and as such, its sayings are carefully crafted to suit the occasion. Karanga are symbolic of the connections between the living and the spiritual worlds, are almost exclusively carried out by women and also follow specific protocols: greetings are exchanged, tributes to the dead are made, and the reason for the gathering is clearly pronounced before a pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony) goes ahead.