Tairawhiti Society perform action songs at Whakarewarewa Model Village, Rotorua Maori Concert January 1975.

Kapa haka is the term for Māori action songs and the groups who perform them. The phrase translates to 'group' (kapa) 'dance' (haka). Kapa haka is an important avenue for Māori people to express and showcase their heritage and cultural Polynesian identity through song and dance.

Modern kapa haka traces back to pre-European times where it developed from traditional forms of Māori performing art; haka, mau rākau (weaponry), poi (ball attached to rope or string) and mōteatea (traditional Māori songs). There is a regular national kapa haka competition currently called Te Matatini that has been running since 1972.[1]

A kapa haka performance involves choral singing, dance and movements associated with the hand-to-hand combat practised by Māori in mainly precolonial times, presented in a synchronisation of action, timing, posture, footwork and sound. The genre evolved out of a combination of European and Māori musical principles. The current form relates to kapa haka concert groups that first appeared in the 1860s especially in Rotorua to cater to tourists.[1]


The work of a kapa haka consists of the group performance of a suite of songs and dances spanning several types of Māori music and dance, strung together into a coherent whole. Music and dance types that normally appear are waiata tira (warm-up song), whakaeke (entrance song), waiata-ā-ringa (action song), haka (challenge), pou or mōteatea (old-style singing), poi (coordinated swinging of balls attached to cords), and whakawātea (closing song). They may also include tītī tōrea (synchronised manipulation of thin sticks). In a full performance, which can last up to 40 minutes, each music or dance type may appear more than once.[2]

Music for kapa haka is primarily vocal. All song types, with the notable exceptions of mōteatea and haka, are structured around European-style harmony, frequently with guitar accompaniment and acoustics. Spurts of haka-style declamation are woven into the songs, as are dance movements, facial expressions and other bodily and aural signals unique to Māori. Song poetry is completely in Māori and new material is continually being composed.[3]

The sole musical instruments used in kapa haka performances are the guitar, the pūtatara conch shell, the sounds of poi and rākau (see below) and body percussion, especially the stamping of feet.[4]

Every two years, kapa haka performers from all parts of New Zealand compete in Te Matatini, New Zealand's annual, national Māori performing arts competition for adult groups.[5] There is also a national secondary schools kapa haka competition Ngā Kapa Haka Kura Tuarua o Aotearoa that used to be part of Polyfest, where the level of performance is also very high.[6][7]

Music and dance styles used by kapa haka

Young Māori girl performing with poi
Young Māori man with taiaha performing kapa haka
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Kapa haka are mixed groups of anywhere between several and dozens of people, that may or may not wear a costume. These groups comprise individuals linked in some way, be it by extended family group, iwi (tribe), school, or some other association. Performers are largely synchronised, but with men sometimes doing some actions while women do others. A few performers have particular roles, such as the kaitataki (male and female leaders), often moving among the performers to urge them on. Composers, arrangers, choreographers and costume designers also play major roles.

Not all Māori performance types are used by kapa haka. Below are brief descriptions of the ones that usually appear. See Māori music for a wider discussion of Māori music.


  1. ^ a b Smith, Valance. "Kapa haka – Māori performing arts". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 2021-01-09.
  2. ^ "Kapa haka – the Māori performing arts story". TNZ Media. Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  3. ^ "Kapa haka – performing arts". www.aucklandlibraries.govt.nz. Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  4. ^ "Kapa Haka". my.christchurchcitylibraries.com. Retrieved 2021-01-09.
  5. ^ "History | Te Manahua". www.polynesia.com. Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  6. ^ "Ngā Kapa Haka Kura Tuarua o Aotearoa 2022". Māori Television. 2022-09-23. Retrieved 2023-07-09.
  7. ^ "Polyfest booming 40 years after 'one-off' event". NZ Herald. 2023-07-10. Retrieved 2023-07-09.
  8. ^ a b c d e Te Matatini Archived 2008-01-21 at the Wayback Machine