Pūrākau Poto: Karanga

30 July 2021

In our third column unpicking the Māori genesis story, we look at the Māori ritual known as the karanga.

The high-pitched echoing voice of the elderly Māori woman that you hear when you’re at a Māori gathering, that’s a karanga.

Karanga literally means to call out. Essentially the karanga is the welcoming call or the wailing farewell, and this practice is strictly reserved for women.

The art of karanga itself, in my opinion, is nothing short of oratory and poetry in its highest forms, if not better. When guests arrive at the marae, they are called on by a female, either an expert or a student in the art of karanga. When the deceased depart the marae, they are accompanied by a band of women, mourning, wailing, and performing the karanga. The karanga is used in many other contexts, like childbirths, birthdays, weddings, and celebrations of all kinds.

The karanga is the first voice heard, not only on the marae, but in many other places, as mentioned above, the karanga gives birth to a new, that is the physical and visible representation of the mana of the wahine within our practices. In te ao Māori, the female is very much likened to the land, so precious, so strong, so sacred, and most of all, fertile. The male role is to ‘tiritiri te toi whenua’ or tend to his woman, take care of her every need, as he does the land. There is a famous proverb among Māori that states, he whenua, he wahine, ka mate te tangata – “for land, for women, man will perish”.

The importance of the karanga, is the mana of the female, that is the mana to give birth. Just as Papatuanuku called out in pain at the birth of the new world, when she was torn away from Ranginui, so shall her daughters and granddaughters. We have a proverb in te ao Māori that says “love is the core of karanga, and pain is the cost of love”. Which sums up beautifully the essence of karanga, which derives from the time when Rangi and Papa were separated, as seen in our Māori genesis story. Giving birth to the practices of Karanga, and hotuhotu, the wailing cries of the wahine.

Huinga Kupu (Vocabulary):

Kōrero – knowledge, talk, speak
Karanga – to call – the ceremonial call of the female
Hotuhotu – to cry, to wail
Mana – power
Tiritiri te toi whenua – tending to the soil
Te ao Māori – the Māori world view
Wahine - female
ko te aroha te matua o te karanga, ko te mamae te utu o te aroha – love is the core of karanga, and pain is the cost of love

Image: Pauline Nathan performing the karanga to welcome King Tūheitia at Ihumātao in Auckland, August 2019. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)