I got my first taste of traditional Māori song and dance at the Tamaki Māori Village back in November. The soothing tones of the poi songs and the blatant aggression of the haka was enthralling.
I knew I wanted to see more.
As luck would have it, I chose to come to New Zealand the year of a festival featuring traditional Māori songs and dances. The festival, Te Matatini, only happens every other year.
It seemed like a sign: I had to attend!
What is Te Matatini?
Te Matatini is the name of the festival celebrating the Māori kapa haka. Kapa haka is the name for the tradition of dancing and singing in groups in the expression Māori cultural identity.
Te Matatini is run by the incorporated Te Matatini society. They are the “National Organization for Kapa Haka in Aotearoa New Zealand.” The company began in 1972 performing in a Polynesian festival. Since then, they’ve grown into an organization that seeks to foster the “development, progression, the flight of ‘Te Matatini’ towards excellence and leadership in all aspects of Kapa Haka and Māori Performing Arts.”
The Te Matatini festival is a platform for the society to help endorse and encourage kapa haka in Māori communities.
Every two years, teams come together from iwis (tribes) across New Zealand to compete at Te Matatini. (In 2019, there were even 2 teams from Australia!)
For 2 days they compete in intricate kapa haka lasting about 30 minutes. The top 9 teams advance to the finals on Sunday, where they compete again to win the festival.
The winners get to represent Aotearoa (New Zealand) at international events.
The festival centres around a theme. 2019 was “Te Matatini Ki Te Ao” or “Te Matatini to the World.” It is represents to festival’s status as the “world’s largest celebration of indigenous performing arts” and the global stage of the performances.
How Can You Go to Te Matatini?
When is Te Matatini?
The event only runs every other year on odd years (i.e. 2017, 2019, 2021).
Te Matatini lasts for four days: Thursday to Sunday. This means that there are no fixed dates from year to year. Plan to be in the area for the last two weeks of February – when the festival has previously been put on.
Specific dates are announced closer to the actual event.
Where is Te Matatini?
The location changes of the festival changes for each session.
Switching locations allows different places to be enriched by the Māori culture and to add an important event to their history books. Since Te Matatini drew 60,000+ people in 2019, you can imagine the benefit of hosting the event.
It was nearly impossible to book a place to stay in Wellington a month out from the event due to the number of people in town!
In 2019, the event was held in Wellington. They have already announced that 2021 event will be held at Eden Park – so plan ahead if you want to see it!
Who Can Go to Te Matatini?
Te Matatini is available to everyone.
I expected it to be a total tourist event, especially since most of the kiwis I know have never been. I was hoping there were be at least a few Māori audience members to lend it some credibility.
Oh, how wrong I was!
Te Matatini is a celebration of Māori culture for Māori people. So the audience was predominantly Māori.
There were plenty of tourists in the mix, but we were clearly the minority — especially early in the day when the friends and fans of the performers scoped out seats closest to the stage.
Stumbling upon a cultural experience that is more for the benefit of the culture itself than for tourists is pretty rare nowadays. Those events are often sacred and restricted to those of the community. Getting to be amongst Māori celebrating their traditions gave me a glimpse of the indigenous community of New Zealand in its true form.
Te Matatini shows the Māori’s desire to share their culture with others while enjoying it themselves. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
How Do You Get Tickets?
Tickets are available on the Te Matatini website a few months before the festival. I bought my ticket in December for the February show.
The ticket types have two options: 1 day pass or 4 day pass.
I chose a 1 day pass, since I knew I wouldn’t be in Wellington for all four days. The pass gave me access to the 12 hours of performances on the Saturday, which was a perfect way to see kapa haka during my quick weekend in the city.
A 4 day pass is a great option if you’re going to be in the city for the duration of the event and want to be able to check out different elements of the event. That way you can see the opening ceremonies, watch a few performances and see the finals on the last day.
The tickets are sold as “passes” because there aren’t actual seats to be given out. Your ticket gets you admission to the grounds (the covered grass in front of the stage) or the stadium seats.
You can sit anywhere you can find space. (Come early for spots close to the stage.)
There are a number of ticket options to choose from.
- For the money conscious (like me), there are Early Bird tickets for $25 NZD (1 day) or $80 NZD (4 days). These were available from October to December before the festival.
- You can also get Standard tickets closer to the date of the event. These are more expensive at $40 NZD (1 day) and $100 NZD (4 days).
- If you want a really good seat, opt for the FanZone tickets. These include a lounge with food, a fast track through the ticket queue and seats with an ideal view of the stage. The amenities make this the most expensive option at $175 NZD. (This is the only ticket without a 1 day option.)
I wished I had bought a FanZone ticket after the sun came blazing out in the open air stadium, and when it eventually started to drizzle. (Or that I had brought sunblock and an umbrella!)
What to Bring to Te Matatini
Te Matatini is held in sports stadiums, but it’s nothing like a sports game. This isn’t just because they aren’t throwing balls around (although they are swinging poi, so maybe that counts?). It’s because you can bring basically anything you want into the event!
Bring giant umbrellas, folding chairs, coolers full of food and drinks. It’s all allowed!
When were you last able to wheel in 12 hours worth of food to a baseball game? Never!
It shows that the event isn’t just about making money. It also makes the event more inclusive for people who can’t afford to shell out on a full day’s worth of stadium food.
Admittedly, the food stalls during the event were pretty reasonable in their prices. A whitebait (fried seafood) sandwich or a hangi (traditional Māori roast meal) only cost $10 NZD.
(However, tea was $4.50 NZD, as it is throughout this country, which feels like a personal attack against tea-loving people like me.)
The most important things to bring are:
- I recommend bringing a comfy, plush towel or a pillow to sit on. After a couple of hours, my butt started to feel kind of numb from sitting on my balled0up sweater.
- Definitely bring lots of water! There’s nowhere to refill your bottle, and buying the small bottles at the venue is a waste, so make sure to have plenty with you.
- Take a raincoat and sunblock. It’s New Zealand after all: the weather changes seemingly every minute!
- Snacks or meals are great if you want to save some money and don’t want to leave the venue. It’s also more fun to watch a show with something to munch on.
- Bring your phone and headphones. If you don’t speak Māori, you can use the translation app to understand the meaning of the kapa haka on stage.
The Haka Translate App
When I first arrived at the event, even the MCI were speaking Māori. I couldn’t understand anything! It made me feel sort of out-of-place.
That was, until (about two hours in) one of the presenters finally mentioned the Te Matatini app. At first, I thought it was just another promotional app that they try to get you to download at events.
But this one was actually really useful.
Amongst the schedules of performers and break times was the Haka Translate app.
It’s not necessarily an “app.” It’s more like a live stream of a radio show, where the hosts are English speakers who translate the events on stage.
Each performance was beautiful in its own right, but knowing the meaning of the kapa haka made it that much more powerful. Suddenly the motions and props made sense!
I didn’t listen to the translation app the entire time. There is about a ten second lag between the stage and the radio, which can be disorienting. But having the option to switch it on when I was confused or someone was talking for a long time made me feel like I was more a part of the event.
Te Matatini’s No Photo Policy
You’ll notice that I don’t include a camera in the “must brings” to Te Matatini. That’s because photos aren’t allowed during the performances without a license.
As one of the MCs said “if you don’t know if you have the license, you probably don’t have the license.”
I had no idea ahead of time (nor would I have had the time to figure out the process of attaining this license), so my photos were limited to selfies with the stage and the odd illicit snap of the screen when I felt like being risky (which explains the poor quality of my photos – sorry!).
If you’re desperate to take photos, figure out how to get a license so you can click to your heart’s content. Otherwise, leave your camera at home and sit back to enjoy the show.
Key Elements of the Kapa Haka at Te Matatini
Although every group presented different kapa haka, there were similar elements to each performance.
- The male and female chiefs entered the stage first and presented their group.
- Every group wore traditional Māori clothing. This consists of a harakeke (New Zealand flax) skirt and a woven top for women. Men wear shorter skirts or loin cloths of animal skin, feathers or flax. They were adorned with jewellery of jade, whalebone and feathers to highlight their heads (the most important part of the body in Māori culture). Everyone is tattooed (or painted with traditional tattoos) on their faces, chests or legs.
- Each group presented a poi dance (primarily done by the women with white balls attached to strings) and a haka (primarily done by the men as a war dance).
- One dance from each group’s set was meant to be their submission to the contest, which would then be judged by the panel.
- The groups use props to help represent their narratives. They can be spears, oars, whalebone blades or photographs of the deceased.
- All of the music is done live. Most of the songs are more like chants. Those that need a melody are accompanied by acoustic guitar or drums on stage.
Other Things to Know About Te Matatini
- You can leave and reenter whenever you want. I left for lunch and a nap midway through the Saturday performances. When I came back, they checked my bracelet and let me back in. Since the performances run for 12 hours, taking a break to leave the stadium is understandable.
- You cannot reenter the performance area during a group’s set. This is meant to avoid distractions for the performers. If you get caught outside the inner stadium during a performance, you’ll have to wait until they are done to go inside. There are TVs so you can still see the performances. Or head to the far wings to be able to watch the large screens on the sides of the stage.
- If you bring folding chairs, they must be low to the ground. Be warned: tall chairs will be asked to move to the back of the field or to be put away since they block other people’s views. The website lists specific height limits for the chairs and they will enforce them.
- Because the celebration is predominantly attended by Māori, the stands are directed towards Māori issues. You’ll only find a few stalls with Māori jewellery and clothing that would appeal more to tourists. Wander around the stadium to check out some of the information on CPR, Māori political issues and sign up for the raffle being held outside.
- You may get interviewed for a random radio station you can’t find the name of, like I did! Being one of the non-Māori at the event may draw media attention (especially if you’re using the Haka Translate App). I did a quick interview answering questions about the app and talking about my Te Matatini experience. When the woman walked off, I realized I never got the name of the radio station and still haven’t been able to figure out which it was! If you get interviewed, be more prepared than I was (and ask the name of the media channel)!
Te Matatini is such a worthwhile event to attend. Even from the vendors area, you can feel the ground shake with the force of the foot stomping haka and the sound of the chest slapping can be heard above the baristas calling coffee orders.
The power of the performances really overtakes the arena. We were all bonded, watching the women fly poi like birds and the men take down a mighty whale in a haka. It didn’t matter that the words to the songs were foreign: I kept getting goosebumps listening to them reverberate through the stadium.
I know, this post seems a bit late seeing as Te Matatini 2019 just happened and won’t the next one won’t be on for another two years. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get aped up in the mean time!
Looking for a kapa haka fix? Check out regional competitions leading up to the Te Matatini festival. Or watch videos of past Te Matatinis to see how incredible kapa haka really is.
Click here for the highlights of all of the 2019 Te Matatini performances. Make sure to check out this incredible kapa haka cover of Bohemian Rhapsody from Day 1 of the 2019 Te Matatini. Take a look at the haka figures on Wellington’s crosswalks in honour of the event.
I saved the best part about Te Matatini for last: you can livestream the event from anywhere in the world! So, if you can’t get to New Zealand in two years, you can bring a piece of Māori culture to your living room for free.
What’s your favourite cultural expression you’ve seen during your travels?