Captivating. That’s the word Dana and I couldn’t stop using as we walked out of the theater. Earlier that morning, I was wide awake in my hostel bed still adapting to the time change and found a site listing the events taking place during the 2018 Matariki Festival. That list showed a haka performance happening that day at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, only a 30 minute walk from our hostel. While in New Zealand, one of the few events I was committed to going out of my way to see was a haka. And if I wasn’t already lucky enough, the event was open to the public.
Dana and I would often ask each other the one thing we were most excited to see or do during our trip to New Zealand. Her answer would usually bounce between seeing the beautiful landscapes and interacting with the Kiwi people. My answer never changed; I wanted to see a real, live Maori Haka. Years ago, I come across one of these tribal dances in a YouTube video of the New Zealand All Black’s (New Zealand’s national rugby team) pregame performance. It turns out the All Blacks do this before every match as a form of intimidation and to prepare themselves for “battle”.
For those who don’t know what a haka is, let me regurgitate some of the quick research I did. Hakas are ancient war dances performed before battle by the Maori people, New Zealand’s indigenous population. They are well choreographed war cry’s that have become a custom at other ceremonies as well such as weddings, funerals, and public celebrations. The original intentions were to intimidate enemies as well as call upon the god of war to assist them on the battlefield. In hakas such as the one we had seen, there were as many women on stage as there were men, but their parts involved more of a dancing flavor. This overview is a very brief background of the Maori haka. If you want to see a haka in action, click the video below to check out the All Blacks performing a pregame haka. Notice how the crowd goes silent once they begin.
We made sure to get to the theater early because tickets were distributed on a first come first serve basis and as I had predicted it ended up being a packed house. The MC appeared on stage and used sentences that seemed to be in half English and half Maori as she welcomed us to the show. Although more difficult to understand for non-Maori speakers like ourselves, she explained the purpose of the event. That two hour performance was labeled as “A celebration of wahine toa in the realm of kapa haka.” Wahine toa translates closely to “strong female” which meant this show would be a recognition of a few particular Maori women and their roles over the years in kapa haka as well as a recognition of all Maori women.
The first appearance on the stage was Maisey Rika, a barefoot singer who had one of the most beautiful voices either of us had ever heard. Based on her introduction, she seemed to be a well known artist among the Maori community. She sang powerful songs honoring Maori warriors and soft ballads that spoke of the unity of her people. Her voice had many in the audience wiping tears from their eyes.
After the applause settled, the host came back out to thank Maisey and introduce the next two group appearances. The two haka groups performing that day were two of the most prolific groups in the competitive haka scene. The women were lined up in front wearing dresses painted red, black, and white with strings of beads that hung from their waists to their shins. They would sway to the rhythm of their chants and the beads of their dresses would collide making a clicking sound that matched the beat. Although fastened to their dresses during much of the performance, poi (two softball sized fuzz balls, one red and one white, attached by a short chord) were held in each hand and were spun around in the air adding a certain visual and audible flare to some of the more playful hakas.
The men came out wearing smaller skirts that were similar to the women’s but only went part way down their thighs. Those thighs and the top half of their upper bodies were covered with tribal markings and on their heads they wore a headband that had two feathers sticking out the back. Some donned a dagger or spear at various times throughout their demonstration, but the majority of the time their hands were their props.
The hakas that followed were some of the most powerful performances I had ever seen. The women typically led off each haka. They would maintain the natural intensity of a haka, but would sing rather than chant which produced a slightly softer atmosphere. The men would start in formation behind the women. When it was their turn to come forward the women either parted to each side or the men would slowly weave their way through. These displays were what I had been most interested in seeing. When they began, the auditorium erupted. With deep, bellowing voices, the men would cry out their ancestral war chants, slapping their thighs and chest and elbows leaving red marks on their bodies beneath their tribal markings. Their violent stomping of feet showed their strength and kept them in unison. Throughout the demonstration, they would bulge their eyes and protrude their tongues for further intimidation. My mouth was wide open in amazement at the power of it all and at the performers’ devotion to their craft. At the end of one haka, one man with his tongue flopped entirely out of his mouth actually drooled on the floor while holding his final gaze.
It was one of the most, and quite possibly the most, moving shows I have ever seen. I went in with lofty expectations and had those expectations shattered. If you have a chance to see one, please do. And to those of you planning to come visit, I’ll be sure you get that chance.