The Music of the Maori

The history of the Maori, like the history of Polynesian societies, is filled with war and oppression. Before the entrance of European diseases, the greatest problem was over-population. The consequent needs for territorial expansion brought extensive warfare. This warfare is reflected in some of the energetic posturing dances performed by the Maori. Much of the traditional music of the Maori is sung in a style of declamation that lies between speech and song. This style is known as heightened speech. A typical haka performance involves a leader who calls out the main words in a raised pitch, followed by a responding chorus. Vocal sounds and various body percussions such as stamping feet, clapping hands, and slapping thighs help to maintain the rhythm. The concept of whakaeke – strict rhythm and a proper vocal unison – is very important to the correct performance of Maori music. Such concern is not merely a matter of aesthetics, because for the Maori to break the continuity of a song is to invite death or disaster. This is equally true in the more melodic waiata songs and in such reciting chants as the patere. The patere are of particular importance for they often deal with the history of the tribe or some personal genealogy. Chants concerning such matters may appear throughout Oceania, for the individual’s place in the social and political structure of the entire society is largely determined bdy the family tree. In these preliterate societies, genealogical chants are the best way of keeping track of such complicated information. Thus, insistence on accuracy in the rendition of such chants and seriousness of musical training are important for the social position as well as for the safety of the performer from potential supernaural harm. Maori songs concentrate on a reciting tone called the oro. In the genealogical chants and similar forms of tribal historical chants, this tone is surrounded by tones of indeterminate pitch so that no specific scale system emerges. Even the more melodic styles that use specific, accurately sung notes may employ only three or four tones and use an iterative or progressive form. However, it should be noted that such limited melodies serve primarily as memory aids in presenting the words. Such songs are listened to for the information they contain more than for a musically aesthetic effect. Because of the heavy word-orientation of such music, many songs are without meter or are heterometric, shifting accent to keep in step with the text.


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