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Sir Apirana Ngata and Waiata-a-ringa - a very brief history

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A waiata-a-ringa is an action song.
In the last 100 years waiata-a-ringa have become essential parts of kapa haka performances in Aotearoa/New Zealand. All cultures change and the advent of waiata-a-ringa into Maori performing arts is an example of this.
Prior to the arrival of European migrants, lyrics were traditionally chanted, but the Europeans introduced a sung style of song. The Maori adopted this style and some waiata-a-ringa have a distinctly European sound, while remaining Maori in essence and spirit.

It is believed that Sir Apirana Ngata was instrumental in the first ever waiata-a-ringa, and he has become known as 'The Father of the Action Song'.Sir Apirana Ngata was born on July 3, 1874 in Kawaka. He was a gifted scholar and was the first Maori student to graduate from a New Zealand university, gaining the degrees of a Bachelor of Arts in politics in 1893 and an LLB (Law degree) in 1896. He became a lawyer and a politician and he first entered parliament in 1905. In 1931 as Minister of Maori Affairs, he developed the Maori Land Development Scheme where undeveloped Maori land was brought into production. He worked very hard to raise the living standards of Maori people and fought for equal opportunities in education. Sir Apirana Ngata was dedicated to the protection and advancement of the Maori culture. He translated the popular European songs of the time into te reo Maori, and then later borrowed the tunes and added Maori words of a different theme. These became extremely popular in Maori performing arts.

Examples of his waiata are:

  • E Pari Ra to the tune of 'Blue Eyes Waltz'
  • Hine e hine to the tune of 'Home Sweet Home'.
  • Nga moteatea, a collection of Maori songs, is one of his best-known publications.

The idea of borrowing tunes continued for many years, although it is less common today.
The addition of actions added emphasis to the lyrics.
Other Pacific nations have close similarities to the Maori language, culture and performing arts. While Sir Apirana Ngata was on a trip to Samoa and Rarotonga, he apparently witnessed groups standing in rows and performing actions while singing. Te Rita Papesch (1990) argues that Sir Apirana Ngata brought this aspect of Polynesian performing arts back to New Zealand. During World War One, Maori troops were recruited for military service. They formed concert parties, which, while based in New Zealand, performed all over the country to raise money for the Maori Soldiers' Fund, organised by Sir Apirana Ngata. This provided a perfect opportunity for composers to write new songs about farewell, welcome, loss and love, and for the performers to improve their skills. It also allowed the general public to see and hear waiata-a-ringa.

Following World War Two many Maori people left the countryside and their rural lifestyle and moved to the cities, mainly to find work. Many Maori clubs and culture groups began at this time, and they became very skilled performers of waiata-a-ringa. The themes of waiata-a-ringa at this time were mostly about war, but often they portrayed expressions of sorrow, loss and love that people felt when family members had been killed in action.

Groups such as Ngati Poneke in Wellington (1936) and Te Roopu Manutaki in Auckland (1969) made the language in waiata-a-ringa very modern and simple.

Today the themes of waiata-a-ringa are very broad and, as for the haka, they are specific to certain tribes/iwi.

The most important thing in relation to waiata-a-ringa, and in the performing arts as a whole is the words - they must be accurate, fluent and precise. The actions are only there to help emphasise the words and portray the message of the song. Performers, once they have learnt the words and their meaning, can then become adept at knowing when to pukana (dilate the eyes), when to smile or not smile, and all of the other gestures associated with waiata-a-ringa. (Ki Te Whaiao, Edited by Ka�ai, Moorfield, Reilly and Mosley)

Sir Apirana Ngata was awarded a knighthood in 1927, the third Maori to receive this high honour.
He died on July 14, 1950 in Waiomatatini. His image appears on the NZ$50 bank note.

A brief timeline of the history of waiata-a-ringa

  • Pre 1769: Lyrics chanted
  • 1769-1814: Sailor influence
  • 1814-1870: Missionary influence with the introduction of hymns and learning to play Western instruments
  • 1870-1930: The development of the Maori Concert party and waiata-a-ringa. In 1911 - a large troupe from Te Arawa toured England. More lively tunes became popular and WW1 inspired many farewell songs.
  • 1930-1965: WW2 produced new songs about war and loss. New styles such as jazz, blues and rock and roll influenced Maori music
  • 1965-2005: The Aotearoa Traditional Maori Performing Arts Festival was created, but the first festival wasn�t held until 1972.

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