“Compositions still have a crucial function, beyond that of entertainment and leisure… as essential tools of cultural transmission and expression,” says Hana O’Regan. (Photo supplied)

This essay is an exploration of my own understanding of mōteatea and the evolution of that understanding over my lifetime. As my knowledge of the Māori language has grown over the last 35 years since embarking on my language-learning journey, and my own confidence to explore its beauty has grown alongside it, I have found myself shifting in my own interpretations and understanding of waiata and mōteatea. Part of that journey has involved giving myself more licence to explore, to challenge, to test and to play with my reo and the compositions that it gives life to.

I share these reflections, not as an expert of te reo Māori, but as a learner and lover of te reo. Not as an expert composer, but as someone who has used composition to help me express my cultural and personal self over many years. And not as a poet, but someone who is drawn to the world of Māori poetic art forms because of their beauty, power, and ability to take me further into an understanding of that cultural and personal self.

This essay first appeared in Ngā Kupu Wero edited by Witi Ihimaera, published by Penguin Random House NZ and available now.


He taoka tuku iho — A treasure passed down

I was born into a time paved with the mōteatea of generations past. Mine was a time shaped by the legacy of those who fought for the survival of our reo. Those who raised the flags, and who lit and kept the home fires alight. Those who persisted in spite of the odds. Those who insisted and persevered despite the protests. They were the ones who created a safer haven for our language and its many adornments to find space and voice again, to be heard and seen, to be felt and loved.

In 1972, the Māori Language Petition was laid on the steps of Parliament, calling for the active recognition of te reo Māori. Fifty years on, and the fruits of those generations of language advocates and champions are evident all around us. There is more Māori language seen and spoken now than any time I can remember in my lifetime. As our reo has continued to gain ground and presence in more and more spaces in our society, so too have waiata and their composers found new platforms and domains to reclaim and explore.

The word mōteatea conjures up emotions, memories and thoughts that span times of old and new. It speaks of the old chants and laments that helped to carry the stories of people and place, hearts and minds, stories of love and heartbreak, whakapapa, and events.

Mōteatea were the storehouses of tribal and whānau memory and aspiration, drawn upon to nourish and feed the current and new generations, whilst ensuring they were equipped with the essential knowledge to help them navigate, understand, and explore their world.

They were the houses of creative expression, where composers could share their craft and linguistic genius, marrying thought and emotion with metaphor, rhythm, and phrase, to create visual images and journeys in the minds of their audiences. They were vessels that captured moments in time. Precious or significant moments deserved of poetic voice.

Their kaupapa were vast and could range from tribal politics to laments, to genealogical roadmaps that helped to connect people and place together and act as survey pegs of tribal relationships. For these messages to be conveyed, they needed to be crafted with intention and clarity so they could be heard and understood by their intended audience, and if deemed important and relevant enough, learnt and repeated by others into the future.

He tau niho roa — The years of famine

Colonisation negatively impacted upon the existence and health of mōteatea and composition. The consequent loss of language, culture and social cohesion meant the necessities of survival often triumphed over song.

At a basic level, language loss had an impact on the ability of people to compose. With fewer exponents of te reo, the task of composition became the domain of the few. Mōteatea of old continued to be learnt and sung, but by fewer and fewer people, and in some places not at all. Language loss also meant a distancing from the meaning and purpose of mōteatea for those no longer able to understand their words.

That distancing also meant, for many, traditional mōteatea sounded sombre, and depressing, especially when compared to the harmonies and melodies of more modern music. The beauty of note, tone and emotion in mōteatea of old was at risk of being lost to the gaiety of the guitar and the accompaniments of popular music.

But mōteatea did persist, albeit in a skeletal version of its former self during the years of colonial suffocation. Some communities and whānau were able to hold on to these traditional art forms and the practices of intergenerational transmission. And there were concerted efforts by some to record the waiata housed in the minds and hearts of the elders before they died, to ensure a record may be left for a time when their descendants may be able to retrieve and revive them — or at least know they were there.

Ara mai he tētēkura — Another frond emerges

In time, as the language and cultural revitalisation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s gained momentum, those strategies prevailed, and provided a foundation upon which a new era of mōteatea could spring. Although mōteatea may have once been the domain of ceremonies and events, meeting houses and gatherings, they were to now find another stronghold — the stage.

The evolution of Māori performing arts and kapa haka has been a lifeline for our culture, our language, and our people. It has been a beacon of hope and an outlet for expression of immense cultural pride for generations now. Kapa haka was also a refuge for those cultural expressions, in an otherwise largely hostile world. The stage elevated the people, the stories, and messages they wanted to share.

The stage helped to carve out a new space for both legacy and creativity, where traditional mōteatea and haka could be relearnt and retold, and new compositions in the cherished traditional forms could be composed and performed. Traditional mōteatea and haka were given pride of place amongst the more modern waiata forms, entrenching their existence, and necessitating their preservation.

Ko tō te kaitito ao — The composer’s domain

The rise and success of regional and national kapa haka competitions over the last 50 years has also helped to lift the value and status of composers and their compositions that feed those events. As the breadth and depth of language proficiency has continued to build across our communities as the result of the language revitalisation efforts, so too has the quality and quantity of compositions started to reach new heights in this modern era. What might have previously been the domain of a few learned and talented composers is now one shared by many more fluent, creative composers from all ages and from all parts of the motu.

This evolution of composition has seen an extension from the traditional waiata forms of old, to modern expressions of song that incorporate new techniques, including modern musical instruments and tunes.

With each new domain Māori waiata and mōteatea explore and occupy, our language and culture continues to gain strength as a living, breathing, surviving language. Compositions themselves become a reflection and a symbol of that survival and strength. Modern composers are left with the task of navigating the landscape of boundaries and protocols, traditions, and modern expression. They are left to make decisions about what elements of the old need to be retained and expressed in the new, and how far those boundaries can be stretched and fondled before they are no longer considered to be in the realm of mōteatea.

While navigating waiata form, composers must also importantly navigate the boundaries of poetic licence. That is the all-important frontier between a licence to caress the edges of the word to fit into tune and rhythm, and the point at which the grammar and language becomes “wrong”. On these questions, I am, perhaps, biased to my own preference for accuracy and comprehensibility of the language, over the tune and music that might accompany them.

This view is perhaps influenced by my belief in the role that waiata and mōteatea have played, and continue to play, in our language revitalisation movement. With such a long way still to go to restore the breadth and depth of our language, compositions still have a crucial function, beyond that of entertainment and leisure, as exemplars of our reo and its creative forms, and as essential tools of cultural transmission and expression.

A mōteatea composition journey

My first mōteatea composition was at the age of 16. I had been studying te reo for four years and had achieved an intermediate level of the language. My ability, however, to express in te reo the range of emotions I felt and wanted to share was extremely limited.

In my four years formally studying the language at Māori boarding school, I had the opportunity to learn waiata as part of the school’s kapa haka programme. After a few years, I found myself becoming more interested in the words than the tunes. No doubt this may have been influenced by my personal lack of musical prowess, nevertheless, I was drawn to the way the words were crafted, histories conveyed in such depth with so few words, and the expanse of emotion that was shared so willingly.

I chose the tradition of Poutini, the atua of pounamu, as the topic for my first composition. I wanted to use a kaupapa that spoke intentionally of one of our own tribal traditions, and I expressly wanted to be able to sing a mōteatea that I could use in formal contexts to support my father.

Until that point, I didn’t know any of our own tribal songs. I was also acutely aware at the time that my people of Kāi Tahu had suffered such a great extent of language loss, that there was a scarcity of expertise to draw upon to support our own compositions. With the songs of our tīpuna largely forgotten or left to sleep in the dusty pages of journals and archived records, our tribal narratives, histories, aspirations, and dreams went unsung, largely unknown and unspoken in our own land.

The story of Poutini spoke to the origins of our prized pounamu, but it also served the purpose of a geological map of Aotearoa and Te Wai Pounamu, naming and locating the key places where stone and volcanic resources for tools could be found. My mōteatea relayed the journey and key places relevant to the story, and in doing so, became a reference point for me to be able to recall the underlying knowledge associated with the tradition.

As I started to shape the lines of my waiata under the gentle and nurturing gaze of our teacher Tom Roa, I fell in love all over again with the way that te reo helped me say all I wanted to convey with such simplicity and grace, power and clarity. It would be the beginning of a lifelong love for the world of mōteatea as a vehicle for my language, my heart, my identity, my all.

The composition was, in itself, quite simple, and the language even more so. What I did have, though, was a waiata that was mine, that spoke of my history and identity, that used my dialect and that recalled a beautiful piece of my cultural heritage that was previously inaccessible to me. The freedom unleashed by being able to compose a waiata that allowed me to transmit my own cultural knowledge and uphold our tikaka was both empowering and liberating.

Poutini Poutini
Ko koe Poutini a Kāhue e You Poutini of Kāhue
Tūpato i a Whatipū a Hōaka Beware of Whatipū of Hōaka
Titiro hākai te koko Look across the bay
Āritarita ō whatu Your eyes burning with desire
ki a Waitaiki a Tamaahua e for Waitaiki of Tamaahua
Kei reira e kaukau ana tōna kiri whakahirahira Thereupon she bathes her beautiful body
Nāhau rā i kawe atu, nāhau rā tana takahore It was you who abducted her and took her
Nāhau rā te aroha, te ahi tukua ai tōna kiri whakahirahira In pity you warmed with fire her naked beauty
Whakaekekekia e te tekateka hākaia e Tama Followed by Tama’s dart in quick succession
Ki Whakamoa, Aorere, Onetāhua, Pāhua To Whangamoa, Aorere, Onetāhua, Pāhua
Kitea noatia e koe te kākau makariri All you could see was a cold heart
Kitea noatia e ia te ahi makariri All he found were cold fires
Pōhane pai a Tama e riro kē i a koe She longed for Tama so you took her further
Ki Whakamatā, Rakitoto i Te Wai Pounamu e To Whangamatā, onto Rakitoto in Te Wai Pounamu
Hei aha! Haere noa atu ki Mahitahi Never mind! You persisted onto Mahitahi
Takiwai i Piopiotahi, tēnā koia ki Arahura To Takiwai in Piopiotahi, behold Arahura
Hei aha koa te kaha o tō aroha ki a Waitaiki Oh how immense your love for Waitaiki
Ka tahi, ka rua, ka toru, ka whā One, two, three, four
Ka tae ki te wā ka takahuritia a Waitaiki Time has run out, you transform Waitaiki
Hei tīramarama, hei maramarama, hei tino taoka Into a gleaming, glistening treasure
Ko te pounamu e . . . To jade . . .
Taumaha kā roimata o Tamaahua tuku iho Tama’s teardrops fall heavy as they descend
Hei takiwai ki tana whaiāipo e As Tangiwai to his loved one
Auē! Ko koe rā Poutini a Kāhue . . . e. Oh, Poutini of Kāhue, this is all your doing!


In those early formative years, I knew little of the poetic norms and practices, style and poetic manifestations that bridged the many expressions of waiata form. I had learnt by 16 what a whakataukī or proverb was, and had mastered around six of these. However, it would be another five years before I started to learn about the world of kīwaha, kīrehu and kupu whakarite, and the prominence of metaphoric expression in te reo Māori, not only in its formal presentation, but also in its everyday context.

As the years passed, so did my understanding and admiration of the language patterns used in the compositions I was becoming familiar with, whether they were in song, karanga, whaikōrero, or written forms of creative language and writing.

My approach to composition evolved over the years. In 1995, I started working with my Kāi Tahu hapū and whānau to capture the messages and narratives they wanted to share, composing mōteatea based on their kōrero, and giving this back to them as their waiata. Although this strategy was successful in terms of increasing the number of mōteatea available, these waiata were still seen as being mine, as the lyricist and translator.

It would be another five years before I would find my favoured approach to composition, where I would work with my students or whānau to collectively compose mōteatea. The end result was collective ownership and pride. I saw the mode of delivery as a tool to help carry the words and knowledge forward, so would often encourage the groups to use multiple tunes for the same lyrics, thus increasing the domains and contexts in which the waiata could be performed.

An example of this is Ko Tihore te Pō Roa, a mōteatea composed by our small whānau class at our marae at Moeraki. The mōteatea recalls the events and journey of our tipuna, Matiaha Tira Mōrehu, who led his people to establish the settlement at Moeraki after the wars with Ngāti Toa in Canterbury. When the lyrics were finished, the team set about creating multiple tunes, that were eventually to include a waiata whakakahau, a poi, a haka and a traditional style mōteatea.

Ko tihore te pō roa The long night has cleared
Ko tihore te pō roa The long night has cleared
Ko heia te kōpaka whakarākau ki Puari The hoar frost has set at Puari
Wero-i-te-ninihi, wero i-te-kōkoto The winter stars are above
Hei irika roimata mō kā huāka A suspended mantel of tears for the relations
Raraua te kiko e te nihomakā The flesh is mauled by the barracuda tooth
Ka puta ko te rei, whakareia tō waka The leader steps forward, adorn your canoe
Aratakina tō kauika he tira mōrehu Lead forth your troop, a party of survivors
Au kaha kia kaha, Arai-te-uru Strengthen the lashings of the Araiteuru
He whenua houkura e, Behold the peaceful land
ki Matuatiki, ki Moeraki at Matuatiki and Moeraki
Uia kā pou o te whare wānaka seek guidance from the posts of the house of learning
Ōmanawharetapu of Ōmanawharetapu
Tira Mōrehu takina tō tūtū kārahu Tira Mōrehu, chant your battle cry
He mahi kai hoaka, As the sandstone devours greenstone
mahi kai takata so too will this fight consume us
Tō mana ki te raki Let your mana be to the heavens
tō reo ki te papa and your voice to the land
Tō haumāuiui he kuru pounamu the toils of your work are a prized greenstone
Tau ana i te poho o tō iwi Resting upon the breast of your people
E tū mai nei, mōhou! Standing here, for you!


The third example of modern mōteatea composition I have chosen is He apakura ki kā tīpuna — A lament to our ancestors, which was a dual composition between myself and Charisma Rangipunga.

An apakura is a form of lament or waiata tangi that is composed in traditional Māori style, and is commonly impromptu in nature, with the singer often composing the song to express their grief at the time of delivery. Apakura would be commonly heard when grieving for those lost in battle or other circumstances.

This composition was initially intended to be composed as another form of mōteatea, a pātere, which is a chant composed as a rebuttal or response to something that has been said or done that has caused concern or requires action to be put right. Much in the same way that a modern day ‘letter to the editor’ in the newspaper columns provides the opportunity to have your position heard, so too the pātere was a traditional tool in Māori society to lay your case before the masses.

Another key characteristic of the pātere is that it specifically uses key landmarks or features of landscape to navigate a journey. Typically, pātere were sung as chants without set actions and were chanted at a fast pace, quite different from the speed and tempo of the waiata tangi or laments. One way of understanding pātere is as a traditional GPS (Global Positioning System) or a visual map, in song format. Pātere helped Māori traditionally to mark their tribal boundaries and places of importance, identify food sources, places of shelter, routes to key areas and, importantly, to highlight sacred places that required ultimate respect or had restricted access.

Although the verses of this composition were composed with the intent of drawing together the connection between our language, our cultural landscape and our identity, the journey of composition took us on another path, where we found ourselves mapping and describing places of cultural significance to us, before being drawn into the environmental challenges that put those very places at risk.

The result was our lament, our apakura to our ancestors, as we considered the traditional role of the kaitiaki or guardian to care for the land and the resources, and our own tribal generational language loss, combined with the history of colonisation that saw our voices, our stories, our customs, our histories and songs becoming silenced. We sang our lament as an apology to those places for having failed to protect them and give them voice.

We refer to these geographical landmarks and features as ancestors, and so it is typical of us to talk directly to land as if human. In the verses of this apakura, we follow the theme of human impact on land and on waterways as the basis of that conversation. Not only were we interested in exploring the challenges that our natural landscapes have faced since colonisation, but also taking the opportunity to explore those they are predicted to face as a result of human activity in coming generations.

Our apakura positions ourselves 50 years into the future, where we talk directly to the land and these places of special significance, like our tribal mountain, Aoraki, and forewarn them of changes that they are about to experience or are already experiencing.

It is a lament of kinds, but also a challenge to humanity to signal that failure to change our ways would mean our landscape and our place in nature will be changed forevermore.

He apakura ki kā tīpuna A lament to our ancestors
Tīwai, e taku tauārai Oh my protector,
Tīwai Maea rawa nei i te tirohaka You emerge into my view
Hei kai mō te whatu mo te tini o Tahu A feast for the eyes of the many of Tahu
Me he orioiri tō rite ki te manawa Like a lullaby to my heart’s song
Tērā te wā he au ahi, he au ora Once the billow of smoke, was a sign of life
Taku ahi e kā roa My home fires burn so long
Ei . . . e auē ana te waha o Awarua The mouth of Awarua calls
Ko kā kawau ka tū kau noa The shags left to stand
Kei hea rā aku tau rakea? Where are my seasons of plenty?
Ka papī mai te ero The oozing liquid pours
Ka kikokore taku kāika My home now a wasteland
I te whenua areare nei From the earth’s broken sores
Kātahi ko kā tau tukuroa Now marks a famine spent
Mā te aha i ēnei kupu mōhou I have nothing but words for you
E apakura nei . . . My grieving lament . . .
E Pōua Aoraki Grandfather Aoraki
Ka matatū i te ao You who prevail in the light
Ka matatū i te pō You who withstand in the darkness
He piringa nei i tō rahi e To shelter your multitudes
Ko tō ama ariki ka noho Your noble head is adorned
Ki te whare puaheiri With a crown of snow
Ei . . . e Pōua Aoraki Alas . . . Grandfather Aoraki
Taihoa rā ka tīwani It will not be long before you are stripped bare
Ka hewa tō pane Your scalp will be exposed
Ka tarahī noa te huka Snow will melt before it settles
Ko tō pōtae mau roa ka karo Your time-worn hat disappears
Ki kā hihi tīkākā o Tamanui e Under the blazing rays of the sun
Nei ko te pūmahanataka o te ao As the earth gradually warms
E Pōua nāhaku te hē . . . e Grandfather, this is my doing . . .
Tikoraki e, taku urupā Tikoraki, my burial ground
Whārikihia e kā awa roimata Blanketed by streams of tears
Nāhau rā a mamae i mamahu The pain by your hold soothed
Nō ka mata o rau takata From the cheeks of the multitudes
He kiteka, he mahara When seen, the memories abound
E taku pirika haumaru My haven, my refuge
Ei . . . horo ana kā kōiwi o aku uri Oh . . . the bones of my ancestors fall
I te pirika o tō uma From your breast’s embrace
Ki kā tai patu pari o raro Into the cliff beating tides
Ko kā riteka o mua ko tukuna And with them fall their rights of place
I kā moeka mau roa ko karo Where their bodies so long lay
Ō waiata ka rakona i kā karu Their stories heard by crested waves
Ko wawā ki kā au o aua noa Scattered to strange shores
Taihoa a mahara ka rerehu Till those songs too from memories fade
Aku uri kore moe roa My bones, they rest no more
E taku puna ora Wairewa To my lifegiving reservoir Wairewa
I keria mai koe e You who were excavated by
Tūwhakarōria e The great digging stick Tūwhakarōria
Ko te karamata o tō wai The surface of your waters
I tāwiriwiri i te nui o kā ika Forever rippled with the shoals of fish
Hei kai mā te manomano Makō e Sustenance for the descendants of Makō
Ei . . . e taku moana Wairewa Alas . . . my tidal expanse Wairewa
Kua topea te nehenehe Your forest surrounds have been felled
Nakunaku nei tō honoka ki a Takaroa Your connection to Tangaroa the sea, cut
He tū tahaka roa tāhau You have long stood naked
Ka pararaha tō takere Your lakebed shallowing
I ngā para i ō parepareka tū more With deposits of sediment from banks long barren
Ka piro ko te wai, ka hāhā ko te tuna Your waters fouled, devoid of lifegiving sustenance
E taku roto, nāhaku te hē . . . e. My dearest lake, this is my doing.


No matter the approach to task of composition that is taken, or the end form or tune that that composition may take, what is important is that we continue to compose. I hope that we will continue to foster compositions that celebrate the beauty and elegance of traditional mōteatea, whilst also exploring and finding new expressions of waiata for the new world in which we live.

As has been the case through the generations, there will be many beautiful creations that may never have the opportunity of being sung, however the world will still be richer for them having been conceived, as they will undoubtedly themselves feed further thought and creations in time.

There will be times when the accuracy and appropriateness of the language used is challenged — and that is okay, as mistakes may be as much attributable to language loss and limited proficiency as to creative freedom and poetic licence. But instead of offence being taken, we can instead celebrate the fact that we know enough again about our language to be able to challenge it, and the waiata are worthy enough of the effort to do so.

It is a sign that the language and our culture is living, and a sign there are many more compositions to come.


Extracted from Ngā Kupu Wero, edited by Witi Ihimaera, companion volume to Te Awa o Kupu, series edited by Vaughan Rapatahana. Published by Penguin Random House NZ and available now. Editors and contributors from the volume will be appearing at the Whanganui Literary Festival, Nelson Arts Festival, and Dunedin Writers Festival.

Dr Hana O’Regan is of Kāi Tahu and Pākehā (Irish and Scottish) descent. She is a published author and composer who has worked in language revitalisation, identity and cultural development, te reo Māori and education for over 30 years. Hana is a graduate of Te Panekiretanga – Institute of Excellence in Te Reo Māori. She is a founder of the Kāi Tahu Māori language strategy, Kotahi Mano Kāika, Kotahi Mano Wawata launched by the tribe in 2000 and continues to teach te reo, karaka and composition within her Kāi Tahu community.

Hana was appointed to the Waitangi Tribunal in 2021 and has held the position of Tumu Whakarae of Tātai Aho Rau Core Education since late 2020.

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