Whare Tapere are iwi-community 'houses' of storytelling, dance, music, puppets, games and other entertainments. They are a pre-European form whose origins reach back to ancient Polynesia. From about the 12th to the 19th century, whare tapere were a feature of community life throughout New Zealand. Almost every pā had one as, in their simplest form, a whare tapere is a collection of entertaining activities that took place next to a fire or under a large tree or upon the upon area of a marae. At some pā, a building was created for the whare tapere but on many occasions, whare tapere took place at existing sites and buildings.
Whare tapere were community houses, they were for everybody. There were no particular rituals and sacredness attached to whare tapere. Rather they were places where the community could meet together and enjoy themselves. The kaupapa or purpose of the whare tapere is expressed in this way:
Kia kawea tātou e te rēhia
Let us be taken by joy and entertainment
The arts and pursuits of the whare tapere included:
- Ngā Waiata (songs)
- Ngā Haka (dance)
- Ngā Kōrero (stories)
- Ngā Taonga Pūoro (musical instruments)
- Ngā Taonga-o-Wharawhara (body adornments)
- Ngā Karetao (puppets)
- Ngā Tākaro (games and amusements)
Typically, whare tapere performances were conducted by performing troupes of men and women who stood before their audiences. This is a precursor to the modern day kapa haka, where ‘kapa’ means to stand in a row and ‘haka’ means to dance. These kapa would perform songs and tell stories, they would play instruments, dance and perform with puppets.
In the stories of Tinirau and Kae, Ponga and Puhihuia, and Te Kahureremoa, among others, we see a troupe of performers entertaining their audiences and at certain points an individual comes through the ranks to perform as a soloist. Here is an extract from the story of Ponga and Puhihuia:
Te tino putanga o Ponga ki mua o te kapa, a, ka pehia ki tetahi taha tana upoko, ka pehia ki tetahi taha, ana ta te tama pai hoki, ka titiro te iwi ra ki te pai o te haka a Ponga, mate noa ake i te mihi ki te rangatira o tana tu haka…
Ponga moves forward of the group to perform, his head moved to one side, then to the other. The people saw how wonderful his dance was, the praised him greatly for his dance…(http://teaohou.natlib.govt.nz/journals/teaohou/issue/Mao44TeA/c10.html)
The whare tapere was a wonderful place of entertainment for the community. Unfortunately, they fell into disuse in the 19th century following the movement of iwi communities from their old pā villages into the new European inspired townships.
The 'Māori Concert Party'
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a new form arose called the ‘Māori Concert Party’. Sir Apirana Ngata of Ngāti Porou and Te Puea Herangi of Waikato were instrumental in developing the new form. These groups travelled throughout the countryside to entertain at various villages. They used introduced instruments such as the violin, the piano accordion and the banjo and they would perform before communities to renew and maintain ties and to speak on issues of the day.
The ‘second wave’ of Māori concert parties came during the 1930s and 1940s where composers such as Paraire Tomoana and Tuini Ngāwai (among many others) composed new music responding to experiences and issues of the day. The events of the Second World War were a particularly important topic of Māori songs of the time. Following urbanization of the 1950s, the Māori concert party slowly became the modern kapa haka and the first national Māori cultural group competition of 1972 is a key marker point in the development of the modern kapa haka.
The Modern Kapa Haka
Today, the national Te Matatini kapa haka competitions are an extraordinary cultural feature of Aotearoa-New Zealand. At local, regional and national levels, these kapa haka competitions attract huge participation by many people throughout New Zealand and Australia. The modern kapa haka form has been a vitally important vehicle for fostering Māori and iwi identity and for advancing certain Māori causes. Kapa haka is also one of the most distinctive cultural expressions of modern day New Zealand.
In addition to kapa haka, Māori communities and individuals have explored other ways of performing. These include the use of a ‘western’ usually British derived theatre model to tell Māori stories. The Takirua Theatre company is perhaps the most well known exponent of this approach to ‘Māori theatre’. Other examples include the dance companies Atamira and Ōkareka which utilize the approaches of modern dance to uplift and explore Māori themes.
There has also been a renewed interest in traditional or mātauranga Māori approaches to performing arts. The most well known example of this is the renaissance in the making and playing of taonga pūoro-musical instruments. This renaissance commenced in approximately 1980 when Hirini Melbourne, Richard Nunns, Brian Flintoff, among others, began a search for taonga pūoro which to that point had become fragmented and dormant. Very few players remained and much knowledge about taonga pūoro had been lost to history.
Between 1994 and 1998, I pursued doctoral studies which began life as an exploration of the composition and performance aspects of mōteatea. My masterate study concerned the history and literature of mōteatea and so when I began doctoral studies, I wanted to focus upon the compositional and performance aspects. As a musician first, and a researcher second, my interest was to look at mōteatea for its potential to inspire new compositions.
So I began my doctoral study into mōteatea. However, during my initial research concerning performance, I discovered the whare tapere. Like most, I had not heard of the whare tapere and had no idea that at one time our communities convened their own ‘house’ of storytelling, dance, games and music. I was really excited to learn about the whare tapere and, more importantly, the possibility of creating a new version. So I spent the years between 1998 and 1998 finding out as much as I could about the historical whare tapere and dreaming about how we might create a modern form.
In 2004, I established Ōrotokare: Art, Story, Motion Trust to advance the ideas in my doctorate. We created our first whare tapere in 2010 upon my hapū land in Hauraki and did it again in 2011, 2012 and 2014. It was amazing to have a whare tapere up and running and we continue to convene them during summer.
You can buy a copy of my doctoral dissertation 'Te Whare Tapere: Towards a New Model for Māori Performance Art' here.