Te Matatini: Understanding the value of Indigenous music before colonisation

Associate Professor Te Oti Rakena discusses decolonising music education, and shares tips for singing within a kaupapa Māori framework.

Associate Professor Te Oti Rakena
Associate Professor Te Oti Rakena

A “for Māori, by Māori” approach is integral to the teachings of Associate Professor Te Oti Rakena (Ngāpuhi, Ngati Ruanui, Kāi Tahu) who has mastered the art of weaving kaupapa Māori and classical singing.

Rakena specialises in voice performance, vocal pedagogy, non-Western research methodologies and community music practice.

With Te Matatini just around the corner, he says singing within a kaupapa Māori framework is very important.

“Māori waiata isn’t just singing, there’s the story-telling aspect of waiata,” he says.

“You’re not only learning the reo, you’re learning whakapapa, history, politics (in the socio-political context), and from a singing point of view there’s a different aesthetic [to mainstream music].”

Rakena plays a critical role in decolonising music, alongside Decolonising and Indigenising Music Education (DIME). Their aim is to teach music through an Indigenous lens, moving away from the inherited Pākehā conventions and perspectives.

“As a kid I learnt Mozart, but nothing about Indigenous music and the stories of Indigenous people. For that you have to be an ethnomusicologist and for me that isn’t right.

“Among Māori who are working to decolonise musical learning and waiata, we are moving away from the historical interpretations shaped by Pākehā ethnomusicologists and reclaiming it," he says.

Decolonising music education is “giving it more breadth”, understanding what music looks like in its different languages, accents and contexts, Rakena says.

Rakena has worked with a range of Te Matatini roopu over the years, including Hātea, Ngā Tumanako and Manu Huia. His focus was to educate kaihaka to sustain a strong voice throughout the campaign of Te Matatini, which can be quite difficult.

“I teach roopu to moderate rehearsal and not give it 100 percent each practise because you need to maintain it for the final performance. The best thing you can do for your voice is rest, but that can be quite hard,” he says.

“One thing that kaihaka are looking to develop is a strong voice, as you’ll see at Te Matatini, but it can be dangerous if it’s done incorrectly.

“The way to strengthen your voice is through resonance. For example, shouting doesn’t project your voice, it just hurts your voice – and kaihaka know this too.

“What projects your voice is resonance. That’s when the chords come together and the singer enhances the sound in their vocal tract or more simply, the throat, mouth, and nasal passages.

“If each individual of a roopu sings with strong resonance, you’re going to create good collective projection, and that’s what Te Matatini judges love.”

It’s important that people know that music existed in Aotearoa before colonisation, and Te Matatini is probably one of the best places to understand that.

Associate Professor Te Oti Rakena Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries

Rakena advises not to “colonise” waiata based on a Western aesthetic.

“Sometimes in kapa haka you got to make sounds that aren’t healthy because the intent is different.There’s pain in the text, sobbing, crying, anger.

“If you look at kapa haka now, there’s a lot more careful nuanced singing that is more expressively reflecting our stories.

“The role of waiata in Māori culture is to explore identity, to learn iwi history, to express political views, and to connect to the spaces and places in our whānau lineage.”

Correct vowel pronunciation and good speaking habits is what Rakena says contribute to the way you sing.

“Some of the best singers in the world are from Italy and Spain because of their language habits and the ability to pronounce their vowels.

“If you speak te reo Māori well, with good articulation and sing, chances are you’re a good singer.”

Waiata within a kaupapa Māori framework is also beneficial for a person’s well-being, ticking every pou of Te Whare Tapa Whā, a Māori health and well-being model developed by Tā Mason Durie.

“For many Māori, music and kapa haka is a safe space and where we can be comfortably Māori.”

However, decolonising music education is much more than understanding kaupapa Māori, it’s an opportunity to learn how colonisation has influenced Indigneous peoples singing around the world.

“Every Indigenous peoples have their own unique singing, and most Indigenous groups have been colonised. So it’s about revitalising that history and understanding who we are and where we come from.

“Globally, Indigenous musics have often been defined by musical tourists who gazed at our music through a Western aesthetic – and this version has been uploaded to the canon of musical history.

“It’s important that people know that music existed in Aotearoa before colonisation, and Te Matatini is probably one of the best places to understand that.”

Waipapa Taumata Rau, the University of Auckland, is a sponsor of Te Matatini Herenga Waka Herenga Tangata National Kapa Haka Festival 2023, in support with the Univeristy’s Iwi-manaaki and hosting rohe, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. Te Matatini brings together the country’s most elite Kapa Haka groups in celebration of Māori culture. The festival is held biennially in different cities and is welcomed back to Tāmaki Makaurau after 21 years. The University of Auckland’s sponsorship aligns with Taumata Teitei, the University’s strategy to enhance kaupapa Māori.

Media contact

Te Rina Triponel | Kaitohutohu Pāpāho Māori
E: te.rina.triponel@auckland.ac.nz