Friday, July 28, 2006

A little more sport...

If one takes the time to trawl through NZ newspapers at the moment, there are two (connected) items that may catch your eye.

The first is international rugby. Britain and Europe have their "Six Nation Championships". The Southern Hemisphere has "Tri-Nations". Within that Tri-Nations competition there are a couple of annual stoushes, including NZ vs Australia for the Bledisloe Cup. Lord Bledisloe was the Queen's representative (Govenor General, or just GG) in the 1920's or '30s and he left all manner of sporting trophies lying about.

The second, connected, item is the haka that the All Blacks perform as a matter of tradition before every match.

Now "haka" needs some explaining. The traditional pakeha translation of the term is "war dance", which is true if you forget that haka are not only "for war" and that calling it a dance would be like describing an all male university review as classical ballet.

My understanding (based upon what I have been told) is that it is "an action and posture sequence". Pretty plummy that so I'll stick with haka.

The All Blacks (NZ's national rugby team) have traditionally performed a haka known as "Kamate". Reputedly composed by a very high chief in the 1860's by the name of Te Rauparaha. The story behind it has Te Rauparaha pursued by armed men (whether war-like or angry relatives of a woman he had just been in bed with is unclear). The only hiding place was a kumara storage pit, in which Te Rauparaha did hide. After his enemies left, he emerged from his hiding place and performed this haka to celebrate his escape.

Ka mate Ka mate
Ka ora Ka ora
Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru
Whakawhiti te ra
Hupane kupane
Whiti te ra!

Death Death
Life Life
This is the hairy people
Bringing the light
Step up, another step
Here is the light!

To many NZers (the white ones) this is "the haka"; with the intended implication that it is "the only haka".

That is quite wrong. In fact, at the age of eight or nine I knew at least three other haka each with their own history and traditions before we (at the school) were taught "Kamate". I have heard haka composed for a senior man's birthday; for the arrival of a canoe, for the depature of people on a journey, even one composed to publicose the dangers of smoking. One of the most fear-inspiring I have seen in person was at Ruatahuna, a small village about 40 minutes further into the hills from where we were living at the time. Think of 30 or 40 men, from late teens to 70's, from tall and rangey to mill and bush workers weighing in at over 200lbs, ranged up in three lines hitting the ground with their feet so that the pumice dust rises not just under their feet but a small distance away as well.

The All Blacks have been granted a haka - Kapa O Pango "Team in Black". It is a powerful, and (to my eye) traditionally formed haka. It concludes with a gesture which to most Europeans means "cut your throat". It means much the same in this haka. And that one gesture has caused quite a raruraru.

Tomorrow night, the All Blacks play Australia in Brisbane. It is the second round of the Bledisloe Cup and if the All Blacks win they will bring that humungous great mug back to NZ. They thumped the Aussies four weeks back in Christchurch and most are expecting a win (close) tomorrow.

It is the pre-match mind-games though which are almost as much fun as the game itself. The Australian coach is complaining (once again) about the All Black's haka in general, and in particular the closing gesture (ignoring the fact that there are far "worse" in the middle). We went through this a couple years back when the Aussies tried to ban the AB's from performing their haka, and got the crowd in Sydney to sing "Waltzing Matilda" as a response to the challenge. Good stuff all round.

Oh, BTW most will have heard of Bowdler - he who "cleaned up" all of the good bits in Shakespeare. I was introduced to him when the year 12 and 13 students performed Hamlet (I played the priest who buried Ophelia). Among the little tid-bits our enlightened English master gave us was the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were (pre-Bowdler) called Rosy-pants and Golden-arse. That puts a totally different picture to the two characters and could well explain Hamlet's dad getting all upset about the copany Hamlet was keeping at uni. But I digress.

I suspect that many of the old haka have been "Bowdlerised" by well-intentioned missionaries. It is quite fun to try and imagine just what words and actions Te Rauparaha might have performed in his premiere performance of Kamate. Good fun, but boy might it upset the Aussies... and half or more of the local rugby community.


The AB's performed Ka Mate.

Aussie lost 9-13.

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