“Ke Mate Ke Ora” – What is the Haka?

As the Rugby World Cup is underway in the UK, the infamous reigning champions New Zealand bring their heart-pounding game to our land. Along with it they bring the equally infamous war dance known generally as the “Haka”.

Most of us have seen the All Blacks perform this dance at the beginning of an international game. A show of strength and ferocity intended to intimidate the opposition and gain them the advantage on the field. But where did it come from? Obviously New Zealand. But what is it’s history?

Photo taken in Rotorua, New Zealand.

The form of the Haka that we know is actually called “Ke Mate”. The word “Haka” describes a dance. Traditionally a war dance but has expanded into other culturally significant dances by the native Maori people of New Zealand. “Ke Mate” is just one of these dances. Also it is not technically a war dance. It was written by a tribe chief named Te Rauparaha of the Ngati Toa. The words in their native tongue are:

Kikiki kakaka kauana!
Kei waniwania taku tara
Kei tarawahia, kei te rua i te kerokero!
He pounga rahui te uira ka rarapa;
Ketekete kau ana to peru kairiri
Mau au e koro e – Hi! Ha!
Ka wehi au ka matakana,
Ko wai te tangata kia rere ure?
Tirohanga ngā rua rerarera
Ngā rua kuri kakanui i raro! Aha ha!

Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!

Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru
Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā
Ā, upane! ka upane!
Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra!

The second part is the most recognisable. The first part describes the actions the participants should do and is announced by the chief (or captain). The second part tells the story and what is being celebrated:

’Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!
’Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!
This is the hairy man
Who brought the sun and caused it to shine
A step upward, another step upward!
A step upward, another… the Sun shines!

The story describes the emergence of the chief from hiding, when he was helped by a friendly chief of another tribe, who happened to be hairy, to climb out of a pit into the sun. He had been hiding from unfriendly tribes who were hunting him and had not seen the sun in days.

The significance of the Haka is to celebrate the triumph of life over death and light over darkness. It as much story of friendship as it is war. The instructions on posture and stance I can only guess are to symbolise the foundation upon which rests the force of those that fight for life and light and it is this that the All Blacks signify when performing the Ke Mate Haka on the pitch.

Here is my favourite video of the All Blacks, not on a pitch but to the Maori king. There is a beautiful significance of this as not all of the All Blacks are Maori, let alone part of the Ngati Toa tribe to whom the Haka belongs.