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Kia Ora From New Zealand
Ka Mate - The Origin
By Audrey Goh

What is the Ka Mate? What is the Maori Haka? A master of the Haka once said that the art of performing Haka was “Kia korero te katoa o te tinana," (the whole body should speak). Another explanation is:

The Haka is a composition played by many instruments. Hands, feet, legs, body, voice, tongue, and eyes all play their part in blending together to convey in their fullness the challenge, welcome, exultation, defiance or contempt of the words." "It is disciplined, yet emotional. More than any other aspect of Maori culture, this complex dance is an expression of the passion, vigor and identity of the race. It is at its best, truly a message of the soul expressed by words and posture."

Alan Armstrong in his book Maori Games and Haka (Reed, 1964)

These are two styles to the Haka:

  • Peruperu is the style for true war dance. Weapons are involved and one of the characteristics would include a high jump with the legs folded under at the end of the dance.
  • Ka Mate, on the other hand, is not a war dance. It was originally of the ngeri style, a short, free form of Haka whereby performers interpret as they feel fit. Weapons are not involved.

The best known of all Haka is the Ka Mate, which was composed by a chief named Te Rauparaha in the 1820s. Te Rauparaha is the High Chief of the Ngati Toa and was in charge of lands from Porirua right up to the Kapiti Coast to Levin as well as Kapiti Island.

Once when pursued by his enemies, Te Rauparaha came to Te Wharerangi and asked for his protection. The latter hid him in a kumara pit with his wife sitting over the entrance. According to custom, this was considered strange. Firstly, no male would ever place himself in a position beneath the genitals of a woman. Secondly, the female organs were believed to have a shielding effect. Of course, in times of danger Te Rauparaha was willing to forego custom in order to survive.

“Ka Mate! Ka Mate!” (I die! I die!), he muttered when his pursuers arrived. Te Wharerangi indicated that Te Rauparaha had gone to Rangipo and he whispered “Ka Ora! Ka Ora!” (I live! I live!). When the pursuers doubted the words of Te Wharerangi, he gloomily muttered “Ka Mate! Ka Mate!” once again. When Te Wharerangi continued to convince the pursuers, he exclaimed “Ka ora! Ka ora! Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru nana nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra!" (I live! I live! For this is the hairy man who has fetched the sun and caused it to shine again!). The hairy man in the Haka refers to the chief Te Wharerangi who gave Te Rauparaha protection. And Te Wharerangi was a man of very noticeable hairy habit.

The words of the Ka Mater are as follows:

Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!
Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!
Tenei te tangata puhuru huru
Nana nei i tiki mai
Whakawhiti te ra
A upa … ne! ka upa … ne!
A upane kaupane whiti te ra!

I die! I die! I live! I live!
I die! I die! I live! I live!
This is the hairy man
Who fetched the Sun
And caused it to shine again
One upward step! Another upward step!
An upward step, another … the Sun shines!
The direct translation of “Upane” is “terrace”. This probably refers to the step, which was to cut in to the side of the pit for access. Each “upane” describes the tentative steps Te Rauparaha made as he emerged from the pit. “White te ra! Hi!” sums up his feelings of joy for having eluded death and also of him coming out of the dark kumara pit into the light of the day.

It was after this incident when Te Rauparaha performed his famous Haka in front of Te Rangikoaea and the people in the courtyard of Te Wharerangi. This famous Haka has been traditionally brought forward throughout these years and is now used by the All Blacks, but that is another story altogether.

Karetu, Timoti. Haka! The Dance of a Noble People. Reed, 1993
Armstrong, Alan. Maori Games and Haka. Reed, 1964

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