A brief introduction to: Māori music

Image of Maori artist Stan Walker
Stan Walker (Photo: RAF Wetere Photography)

Discover the rich history of pūoro Māori and where to start.

Polynesian folklore tells us that the Māori people first came from Hawaiki, the mythical island of creation. From Hawaiki, they set sail in canoes and navigated the choppy ocean waters to reach Aotearoa New Zealand over a thousand years ago.

Māori music (pūoro Māori) has played an important spiritual role throughout history. Traditional Māori instruments (Taonga pūoro) are sacred, each one is handcrafted and created with a unique voice like a person.

For the Māori, music is linked to the Gods. Rangi is the Sky God and the word translates to ‘tunes’ or ‘melodies’, while Papatūānuku (also known as Papa) is the Earth Mother and her the beating heart is the rhythm. There are then further sub divisions linked to more instruments. For instance, the Pūtātara is a shell with a wooden mouthpiece; the shell is linked to Tangaroa, God of the sea, and the mouthpiece is linked to Tāne, the god of the forest and birds. As a result, Taonga pūoro could have magical properties, for example the kōauau (flute) could summon spirits to ensure a safe childbirth or charm a lover.

Jerome Kavanagh AKA Pūoro Jerome
(Photo: Kate Smeda photography)

Before the arrival of English settlers, Te Reo (the Māori language) was the main language of Aotearoa. However, colonialist attempts to silence Māori language and culture in favour of English, paired with the spread of Christianity resulted in a huge decline in people learning Taonga pūoro or Te Reo. The situation worsened to the extent that by the 20th mid-century there were fears that the language would become extinct.

Fortunately, the revival movement, emerging in the 1970s, has led to renewed uptake in Māori music and language. The Waiata Māori Music Awards have celebrated Māori excellence since 2007 and more recently an official music chart for Te Reo Māori songs has just been launched. International companies are also catching on: in 2008 Google launched a Te Reo version of their website and Disney recently released a Māori version of its Polynesian film Moana. Disney is also set to release Te Reo versions of the Lion King and Frozen as well.

Today, one in seven New Zealanders identify as Māori. Cross-cultural encounters with Europeans have paved the way for new genre fusions, with styles like metal, hip-hop and RnB. They rub alongside preservation movements of musical traditions dating back centuries.

Here are three Māori artists you should be listening to:

Stan Walker

Sold out headline tours, platinum certified singles and a number 1 album to his name, the multi-award winning Stan Walker is a superstar and household name in Aotearoa New Zealand. He uses his platform as a singer-songwriter, actor, speaker and author to advocate for Indigenous rights. Start with the rousing Aotearoa. It was written to celebrate Māori Language Week and features a stellar lineup of Māori artists; namely Ria Hall, Troy Kingi and Maisey Rika.

Pūoro Jerome

Jerome Kavanagh (Poutama) is a performer, composer and educator hailing from the Mokai Patea, Maniapoto, Kahungunu tribes (Māori) and the Caomhanach clan (Irish). His collaborations spans a range of artists and styles, from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to RnB singer Daniel Beddingfeild. He was also a soloist on the film music composer Christopher Tin’s ​Grammy award-winning album Calling All Dawns. Jerome has travelled extensively for concerts and workshops, bringing the unique and healing sounds of Taonga pūoro to new audiences worldwide.

Prince Tui Teka

Prince Tui Teka (Tumanako Teka) is known for his larger than life personality, flamboyant stage costumes and big sing along hits such as Hoki Mai. However, the showman first started his career as a circus hand, cleaning the elephants’ quarters. He later joined the Maori Troubadours, soon after launching a successful solo career and his sound can be described as Polynesian soul. In 1985, he sadly suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away in his dressing room before a show.

Ready to dive in? Listen to the full playlist below.

Sources and further reading

Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

100% Pure New Zealand

SOUNZ Centre for New Zealand Music

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