Ritual and sport: the haka


Since I am wont to make blithe analogies between the performances of ritual and sport, the pre-match haka of the All Black rugby team makes a fine illustration, also revealing the enduring depth of folk culture. In its constant adaptations, both in sporting and other ceremonial versions, it’s deeply impressive.

The wiki articles on the traditional and sporting versions make a useful introduction, and there are many fine YouTube clips.

As a Māori ritual war cry the haka was originally performed by warriors before a battle, proclaiming their strength and prowess in order to intimidate the opposition. But haka are also performed for diverse social functions: welcoming distinguished guests, funerals, weddings, or to acknowledge great achievements, and kapa haka performance groups are common in schools. Some haka are performed by women.

Its social use has become widespread. In 2012 soldiers from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment performing a haka for fallen comrades killed in action in Afghanistan; and in 2015 hundreds of students performed a haka at the funeral of their high-school teacher in Palmerston, New Zealand:

In 2016, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, New Zealand firefighters honoured the victims with a powerful haka.

And here’s a moving recent wedding haka:

In 2019 students performed a haka to commemorate the Christchurch shootings:

And the haka was performed for the Standing Rock protests of 2016 (link here if it doesn’t respond below):

* * *

The New Zealand native football team first performed a haka against Surrey (!) on a UK tour in 1888. The All Blacks have performed it since 1905. After witnessing the haka in Paris in 1925, James Joyce adapted it in Finnegan’s wake. For the 1954 version at Twickenham and evolution in the wake of TV, see here. The sequence below begins with 1922 and 1925 renditions, passing swiftly over the comically inept low point of 1973, to the increasingly choreographed versions of recent years:

So it’s no “living fossil”, being subject to regular adaptation. In 2005, to great acclaim, as an alternative to the usual Ka mate the All Blacks, led by Tana Umaga, introduced the new haka Kapa o pango, modified by Derek Lardelli from the 1924 Ko niu tireni:

Its adaptation to the sporting event compares favourably with Chinese concert versions of ritual. However it’s done, it never descends to the kitsch of such adaptations—it’s always performed with great intensity and integrity, giving an impressive glimpse of a serious ritual world. The pride that they take in performing it with such practised commitment contrasts strangely with the casual way in which they sing the national anthem that precedes it—even the Brazilian anthem doesn’t inspire its footballers to such intensity.

As a spurious link to a fine story, I note that the team performed a kangaroo version in July 1903:

Tena koe, Kangaroo                 How are you, Kangaroo
Tupoto koe, Kangaroo!           You look out, Kangaroo!
Niu Tireni tenei haere nei       New Zealand is invading you
Au Au Aue a!                             Woe woe woe to you!

* * *

From the sublime to the ridiculous… Several YouTube wags have suggested suitable responses from opposing teams: a burst of Riverdance by the Irish team, or (from the English) the hop-skip-hand-behind-the-back routine in Morecambe and Wise’s Bring me sunshine.

Morris dancing might unsettle the All Blacks too (music added later; in memoriam George Butterworth, killed in the Great War):

The Intangible Cultural Heritage rears its ugly head again—perhaps the English team could emulate the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup, a 150-year-old troupe of Lancastrian clog dancers.

Not quite à propos, and Don’t Try This at Home—or in the Matthew Passion:

As a further riposte to the haka, even I can’t quite imagine the Daoist “Steps of Yu” (Yubu 禹步), but how about the Sacrificial dance of The Rite of Spring, complete with Roerich’s costumes and Nijinsky’s choreography? That really might take the lead out of the All Black pencil.

But we should celebrate the deeply serious nature of folk culture, and the evolving transmission of performances like the haka.

See also this helpful guide to the rules of rugby.

12 thoughts on “Ritual and sport: the haka

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