"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." Alan Armstrong, 1964.
The haka is known worldwide through its use by the All Blacks on the rugby field. In fact, this is only one form of the haka, which was described by early explorers as a “war dance”. Many occasions call for a haka; a time of great joy, a spontaneous outburst of applause, a time of great grief: all these can be occasion for a haka to suddenly start.
There are many forms of haka. Some haka have set actions, and can only have certain types of actions. A haka that contains jumps must be performed extremely carefully – mistiming the jumps was seen as a bad omen before warfare. Women and men have different sets of facial expressions that can be used in set action hakas.
There is as great a tradition in haka for women as there is for men. The most fearsome haka of all is said to be the “kai oraora”, a spontaneous haka in which women express extreme anger and hatred towards the enemy. Literally, the intention is to “eat (the enemy) alive”.
The famous haka “Ka Mate”, is said to have been first performed by Te Rauparaha, a nineteenth-century chief who, through the early ownership of muskets (guns) devastated tribes in many parts of the country. In a very tight situation, he was about to be killed, but hid beneath his wife’s skirts in a kumara pit. “Ka mate, Ka mate, (I die, I die), he muttered as the enemy approached. “Ka Ora, Ka Ora (I live, I live)”, as they went past, unable to believe that a chief could be sheltering under a woman’s skirt. Then he pays tribute to a local chief that has sheltered him “Tenei te tangata pu’ruhuru (there stands that hairy [manly] man), na’a nei tiki whakawhiti te ra (that fetched and causes the sun to rise, in other words, that brings peace to the world).Then he takes a step up the ladder from the pit “upane”(together), and another “Ka upane (all together)”, “a upane, ka upane, whiti te ra”! As he emerges from the pit, he (the sun) rises.
Scholars believe that this is part of an ancient haka that celebrates the legendary hero Maui’s snaring of the sun, and that Te Rauparaha adapted it to his purposes to celebrate his escape from certain death.