One of the highlights of my busy schedule last month was traveling to Rotorua for the world’s largest celebration of Māori performing arts, the biennial Te Matatini Kapa Haka Festival. Because I was out of the country, my Consul General Jim Donegan attended the early part of the Festival on my behalf, but I arrived in time to catch the full final day of the competition.

Click through for image source. 2011 champions Te Matarae I Orehu

Meaning “dance in a row,” kapa haka is a suite of dances and songs of various types woven together into a single performance that tells a story or conveys a lesson. The short, popularized haka often performed at sporting events should not mislead you. Kapa haka is a sophisticated performance art with complex movements, a wide range of emotions, and rich historical and intellectual content.

Click through for image source. During the Te Arawa powhiri opening the event.

Te Arawa open the Festival with a pōwhiri.

The kapa haka tradition has existed since pre-European times. Today, kapa haka provides a platform for Māori cultural development and Te Reo retention. Te Reo, the Māori language, has always been an oral language, passed down to each generation through grand oratory and song. Kapa haka provides an avenue for all ages to speak the language and learn about traditions, historic figures, myths, and legends.

Click through for image source. Last year's champions.

2011 grand champions,Te Mātārae i Ōrehu.

Te Matatini Society is the national organization for kapa haka and other Māori performing arts in New Zealand. The Society provides funding and support for kapa haka training and development, and works to promote Māori performing arts in schools, at festivals, and at regional, national, and international events.

Click through for image source. On stage.

Ōpōtiki Mai Tawhiti take the stage.

The pinnacle of Te Matatini Society’s efforts is the biennial national Kapa Haka Festival which draws dozens of highly accomplished teams from across New Zealand and Australia to compete for the title of grand champion. The Festival is a major event on the Aotearoa cultural calendar and draws many thousands of spectators.

Click through for image source. Big crowd.

A family day out at Te Matatini at the Rotorua International Stadium.

This year there were 41 teams from New Zealand and Australia in the competition, performing over the course of three days. A panel of judges evaluated the teams on their mastery of the 7 main kapa haka component disciplines – waiata tira (chorals and hymns), whakaeke (stage entrance), mōteatea (chants), poi (graceful unison swinging by females of balls attached to cords), waiata-a-ringa (action song using expressive hand movements), haka (war dance and chant), and whakawatea (stage exit).

The Champions Te Waka Huia women during their Poi.

The women of Te Waka Huia performing Poi.

The teams performed on a huge stage embraced by a stunning mahau (“front porch”) more than 42 feet (13 m) tall and spanning almost 100 feet (30 m). Carved from 26 tons of native wood by 30 craftsmen at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, the mahau is topped by Tangaroa, god of the sea and grand connector of all peoples of the Pacific. Beneath Tangaroa is Ruatepupuke, who spirited the art of carving away from the gods. He constitutes a challenge to performers to bring their best, to judges to be just, and to the crowd for support. Unveiled this year, the mahau will be a permanent fixture of Te Matatini.

Click through for image source. Enjoying Te Matatini Kapa Haka finals w/ the Governor-General, King Tuheitia, & Te Atawhai.

Part of Te Mahau and the grand stage.

Upon arrival, Dr McWaine and I were welcomed by Selwyn Tanetoa Parata, Chairman of Te Matatini Society. We had the pleasure of sitting with His Highness Kiingi Tuheitia and Her Highness Te Atawhai throughout the day. Between performances we chatted with other guests including the Governor General His Excellency The Rt. Hon. Sir Jerry Mateparae, Members of Parliament the Hons. Hekia Parata and Pita Sharples, and my good friend Pa Ariki of the Cook Islands (in whose house we stayed when Secretary Clinton visited Rarotonga).

Dr McWaine, Kingi Tuheitia and I.

With Dr. McWaine and Kiingi Tuheitia.

I was happy that a simultaneous translation was available so that Dr. McWaine, other non-Māori speakers, and I could understand the sung stories and the meaning behind the dances and gestures. At one point I was surprised to get a shout out from the stage from my new friend emcee Temuera Morrison, perhaps best known for his lead role in the film Once Were Warriors (and for playing Jango Fett in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones).

Click through for image source. One of the finalist groups.

Te Iti Kahurangi in fine form.

I took advantage of a couple of the breaks between performances to stroll the Festival grounds, chat with other spectators, and visit the many arts, crafts, jewelry, clothing, and food stalls. I enjoyed talking with some of the artisans, and I bought myself a large seashell for my office as well as a knitted tiger hat to wear at my next Princeton reunion. I saw quite a few other things that I liked, but I’m on a diplomat’s salary these days so I resisted.

Maori crafts in the shopping village.

Weaving a kete (bag) from dyed flax.

Particularly interesting were the information tents staffed by various enterprises including the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, NZ Army, NZ Police, Department of Corrections, Department of Conservation, NZ Fire Service, Te Wānanga o Aotearoa university, and Waikato University. I had a long conversation about recidivism reduction strategies with my friends from Corrections, and I posed with my Kiwibank friends in their little green promo car that just returned from New York City. I took (and was taken in) lots of photos.

Jumbotrons bringing performers up close for the thousands of Te Matatini attendees

Jumbotrons brought performers up close to spectators.

Of course, the main event was the performance competition. I saw all nine finalist teams perform over the course of the day:

  • Te Waka Huia, Auckland
  • Te Whānau a Apanui, Bay of Plenty
  • Tū Te Manawa Maurea, Gisborne
  • Whāngārā Mai Tawhiti, Gisborne
  • Ōpōtiki Mai Tawhiti, Bay of Plenty
  • Te Mātārae i Ōrehu, Rotorua
  • Te Pou o Mangataawhiri, one of Kiingi Tuheitia’s groups from Turangawaewae
  • Waihirere, Gisborne
  • Te Iti Kahurangi, one of Kiingi Tuheitia’s groups from Turangawaewae
Click through for image source. On stage.

A particularly moving waiata by Ōpōtiki Mai Tawhiti.

I did not at all envy the judges their task. All of the performances were powerful and impressive, and I would have found it difficult to select a favorite. I enjoyed both the strictly traditional elements as well as cross-over innovations using popular songs and contemporary movements and gestures.

Click through for image source (copyright Te Matatini Society). Maori Warriors performing the haka pulling a ‘Pukana’ – which is to dilate your eyes and protrude tongue.

An impressive haka by Te Waka Huia.

Among the vignettes that particularly struck me were Te Iti Kahurangi’s “moving forward” theme and “choo choo” formation, as well as Te Mātārae i Ōrehu’s superb reenactment of the tale of Hatupatu and the bird woman Kurungaituku of Te Arawa. And Te Whānau a Apanui’s dramaticization of ancestral history.

Click through for image source - copyright Maori TV. Jeff Ruha right before the crowd favourite moment.

Jeff Ruha of Te Whānau a Apanui uses the taiaha (wooden stick) to demonstrate his ancestor Tama te Kapua’s wandering eye and ways.

After the last finalist performed, the judges deliberated at length. Kiingi Tuheitia, Chairman Parata, the judges, and other dignitaries then convened on stage to present prizes in various categories and disciplines. Despite the teams’ laborious preparation, impressive achievements, and excellent performances, however, not everyone could win. Unfortunately.

Big smiles as Te Waka Huia accepts first prize.

Big smiles as Te Waka Huia accepts first prize.

Overall first place went to Te Waka Huia, marking their fifth national title. Following closely in overall 2nd place was Te Whānau a Apanui. Tied for third place were Te Iti Kahurangi, Tū Te Manawa Maurea, and Whāngārā Mai Tawhiti. You should be able to find a full list of the many individual and team prizes on Te Matatini Society’s website.

Click through for image source - Maori TV. On stage.

From start to finish it was an exciting, exhilarating, meaningful, and highly entertaining day. I am deeply grateful to Chairman Parata and Te Matatini Society for the invitation and for their gracious manaakitanga. I thoroughly enjoyed joining the other 15,000 spectators for the finals, and I very much look forward to returning to Te Matatini in the future.

I encourage you as well to attend the Kapa Haka Festival next time around. Based on my experience, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did. For those of you who like planning ahead, the next national Festival is scheduled for 2015 in Christchurch. In the meantime, you can enjoy a variety of local and regional events sponsored by Te Matatini Society.