Stalking the Wild Kiwi Chapter Five: Culture and Authenticity
by David T. Schaller
Early in our trip, we had visited Auckland's War Memorial Museum, a old-fashioned building of mammoth proportions, suitably dominated by Roman columns and marbled halls. In these more pacifist times, people refer to it simply as the Auckland Museum, but even so the halls quiet loud voices and chill visitors into awe. Stuffed birds and Maori adzes are pinned behind glass cases; in the grand hall, a Maori war canoe yawns eighty feet across the room.
Alongside the canoe, which itself hushed us into silence, we watched a man dramatize for a group of tourists a Maori challenge--the traditional reception performed for visiting strangers. He wore a warrior's minimal apparel, composed solely of a braided flax skirt and a contorted expression. His muscles maintained a ready tension, his steps an economical precision. Neither his eyes nor the spear he held alongside them twitched from their target--the ringleader of our group, a teenage girl assigned the role by the museum guide.
Then the warrior waggled his tongue at us. We had already seen this gesture on postcards and picture books, where the outthrust tongue, grimacing face, and bulging eyes, removed from context, came off as a silly native trick. But this man, bearing the full weight of Maori custom instead of a smirk, waggled his tongue with such fierce honesty that he reclaimed the ritual and restored its potency.
Ten feet in front of the teenager he stopped his advance. He glared at her and threw down a green fern leaf.
This was the challenge itself. To declare peaceful intentions, she was to pick up the leaf. To begin the battle, let it lie. Our guide had explained this to the group earlier, but now, at the moment of decision, the teenager stood transfixed, intimidated, utterly still. The demonstration had assumed a gravity beyond mere education. The guide nudged her as if to say, "Now would be a good time to pick up the leaf." At last the teenager bent over to retrieve it, and the warrior relaxed.
That display stayed vivid in my memory in the month since I saw it. A few weeks later Susan and I arrived in Rotorua, a geological hot spot which has also long been a center for Maori culture, and decided to go to a hangi--a traditional Maori banquet--and cultural program. Historically such a feast was served only to honored guests, but Rotorua's hotels have opened the feast to anyone who can pay. The hotels have loosened the culinary restrictions as well, slipping European dishes like pork and lamb into the smorgasbord of traditional Maori cuisine. Along with two hundred other tourists, we ladled samples of each item on our plates and hurried back to our table to examine them.
We had tasted things like kumara before and found most of the other Maori dishes--fruit and vegetable salads--just as pleasant. It was the unusual meats that we saved for last--raw fish, smoked eel, and a species of bird known as sooty shearwater in ornithology, titi in Maori and muttonbird in colloquial Kiwi, which we had been hoping to see in the wild, not on the dinner plate.
Curiosity drove Susan to try a piece of the bird. She chewed slowly and a thoughtful expression crossed her face. "Go ahead," she told me with a straight face. "It's not bad." It sounded like a setup, but I took a bite anyway. The flesh was dark and flaky like a chicken thigh, though it tasted more like fish, flavored perhaps by the bird's own diet. More accurately, it tasted like fish soaked in grease, as if the bird had found a week of easy meals in an oil slick. Susan watched me finish my portion, then we both sat back in our seats, ready for the cultural concert.
As waitresses cleared our plates after the feast, a Maori man entered the dining hall wearing a flax skirt, much like the one worn by the warrior in Auckland. His partner, a more modestly dressed Pakeha, joined him. Systematically they made the rounds together. At each table the warrior crouched behind a tourist and waggled his tongue, shook his fist and roared. His partner photographed him and the embarrassed tourist. Then the warrior stepped back and laughed. The photographs turned up after the concert in cardboard frames, available for $10.
The family across the table from Susan and I included a little boy about three years old. The first attempt to photograph him with the warrior was frustrated by a camera malfunction, so the warrior and photographer came round again. Watching them return, the boy burst into tears. The experience had frightened him so badly the first time (hardly an irrational response, I thought) that the threat of another encounter was too much to bear. His parents consoled him but insisted on a retake.
"Look, son, he won't growl at all," the boy's father said.
"I won't make a sound," the warrior assured him. "I'll just do this." He waggled his tongue silently.
"See? It's not scary at all," the father concluded.
They convinced the boy to go through with it. His chin wrinkled, his lips trembled. His eyes filled with dollops of fear. The flashgun dazzled the scene, inscribing a stirring moment of childhood terror. I watched the proceedings with growing dismay--not so much because the boy was forced to repeat a petrifying ordeal simply to get a good picture of it (though I had no trouble condemning such a parental decision), but because this formidable ritual had been blithely transformed into an amusing souvenir.
The warrior disappeared when the hostess, a middle-aged Maori woman whose shoulders were draped with a woolly black cloak, stepped in front of the stage. Before dinner she had described each dish for us; now she returned to introduce the concert troupe and their haka, or dances.
A dozen women wearing braided flax skirts and crocheted bodices paraded onto the stage, followed by eight men wearing only skirts. They found their marks and began to sing. I listened with my mouth falling farther and farther open. The music confounded me. It was "Sing-A-Long with Mitch" music--lullabies, serenades, and waltzes sung in blazing unison. The songs were ingratiating, toe-tapping melodies, of a genre far more familiar than I ever expected to hear from a geographically-isolated polynesian people, and they evoked nothing so much as Don Ho's pop songs from the Hawaiian craze of the 1950's.
The music puzzled me. Having at various times heard ethnic music from all over the world, from the minimalist chanting of Native American music, to the atonal wailing of Islamic muezzin, to the syncopation of African rhythms, to the tala and raga of India, I had trouble believing this to be authentic Maori music. I felt the way I had in Waipoua forest when surrounded by American pine trees: this is not what I came 8,000 miles to see. Expecting culture, I got only a show, and I wanted to know why.
But, except for Susan, I appeared to be the only pedant in the audience--no one else acted as though it was a bizarre performance. Surrounded by delighted smiles and generous applause, we earnestly waited for the hostess to explain where these tunes came from, but she never did.
Seeking an answer, I spoke the next day with Kuru Waretini, a barn door of a man with a stiff black crew-cut and a gentle, patient manner. He ran the marketing operations for the Whakarewarewa Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, near Rotorua; Susan wanted to watch the wood carvers at work, so I sought out Kuru and put to him my questions about the concert's music.
"That particular aspect of our culture would only be about a hundred years old," Kuru told me. He had a mild Kiwi accent, distinguished only by a slightly different pronunciation of the word "Maori" than I was used to hearing--instead of Mowree (rhymes with dowry), he said Mah-ori, quietly flapping the 'r' against the roof of his mouth as if it were a 'd.'
This music, Kuru explained, "was developed specifically for European consumption, as part of the tourist trade." Pakeha audiences, it seemed, were not beguiled by traditional Maori music. "We didn't have what you know as songs," Kuru said. "We had chants and monotones, different rhythms and different beats which were our songs and told our histories. If we put on a concert purely of ancient entertainment for people, they'd go to sleep."
Other Maori told me the same thing. In the 1890's, Maori musicians abandoned efforts to regale Pakeha with traditional culture in favor of European melodies. But these new songs had nothing to do with the original English lyrics--the singer simply liked the tune. They became Maori songs with Maori meanings. Over time, the new musical style permeated off-stage Maori life as well. "It has become integrated," Kuru said.
But wasn't this another one-way integration street, requiring adaptation by Maori rather than Pakeha? Kuru sidestepped any direct answer to this question, though he admitted, "What you see in the hotels and on stage is what a majority of people perceive to be Maori culture. That's their expectation, so we're fulfilling their expectations in that regard."
The subject was like a fence between me and Kuru. We both saw it, but from opposite directions. I felt stupid trying to tell him how perverse the concert appeared to me, while he tried in vain to help me understand that the concert was simply the product of a cultural interchange, and the fact that the culture has survived is more important than the shape it assumed to do so. His argument should have convinced me--after all, I like other melting-pot musical styles such as rhythm and blues, so the rich tapestry spun by a blending of these cultures ought to have appealed to me as well.
But it didn't. The genre itself seemed as hackneyed and derivative as the worst of dinner-theater revues. My disapproval was excessively harsh, however, stoked by my own perplexity over the concert. After speaking to Kuru, I listened to records of Maori music and, knowing better what to expect, found a melodic charm that eluded me at the concert. Nevertheless, as a medium to show visitors the culture of an indigenous Pacific civilization, it still seemed fundamentally ill-suited, a diversion away from the traditions integral to Maoritanga.
But, Kuru asked me, what is true to tradition? The challenge itself, so effectively performed in the Auckland Museum, was bound by tradition to high-ranking encounters only. "It wasn't done just for any old Joe who happened along," he said, "which is what a lot of these groups are doing now. You could say that's a misuse of the ancient culture. Or you could say it's an ancient culture which is slowly changing. Or you could say they're doing more what we're doing here at the Institute with Maori carving--trying to promote the presence of Maori culture and make more people aware of it."
Or you could say, though Kuru avoided doing so outright, that this music had actually saved traditional Maori culture. The old chants and songs carry the weight of Maori myth and mores; they are the textbooks of the culture. To turn them into mere entertainment for strangers dilutes their potency and sullies their meaning. By adapting European music and playing it back to Europeans, Maori musicians can amuse their guests while preserving their private culture. Someone more cynical than a New Zealander might see the transaction as a spectacular con, a bill of goods, but neither Pakeha nor Maori thought of it as anything more than a practical solution to an entertainer's quandary.
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