Turn up the hype! Global musico-sporting matchups: Maori chants & Muay Thai melodies

Much has been made of the many similarities between music and sport. Both are embodied forms of human improvisation, balancing rule-bound restriction with expressive freedom and open-ended creative possibility. We revel in romanticising the stars of both spheres, hailing their technical innovations and celebrating heroic feats performed in front of massed stadium crowds.

We could muse for hours on the deeper nature of these interconnections. But, given the confines of these margins, this article takes a broader view instead – briefly sampling two fascinating instances of musico-sporting interchange from South Asia and beyond. Play on…

Sarama: Muay Thai kickboxing melodies

The solo-based, highly technical nature of martial arts brings a particular affinity with the world of musical performance. African-American boxing champions have long mixed with rappers, jazz musicians, and other icons of Black music – Muhammed Ali’s outlandish pre-fight poetry is sometimes cited as a precursor to the playful braggadocio of Golden-Age battle bars, and Sugar Ray Robinson, perhaps the only fighter greater than Ali, was described as boxing with a slickness “as though he were playing the violin”.

Robinson also described his craft in more percussive terms, that could just have well been uttered by a jazz drummer: “Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart…[you’re] in rhythm or you’re in trouble – don’t think. It’s all instinct. If you stop to think, you’re gone”. Miles Davis often credited his bond with Robinson as a key element in his recovery from near-fatal heroin addiction (maybe we have Sugar Ray’s friendly late-night sparring sessions to thank for Bitches Brew onwards…).

Inspiration moves the other way too. In the words of basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “In my bedroom I had a poster of Miles Davis. Jazz defined my whole sense of style, from fashion to how I moved on the court. There was a cool elegance and teamwork about the music that permeated every part of me”. And in the modern age, no boxer would neglect to carefully choose their pre-fight walkout song.

Naturally, these sonic-pugilistic affinities are not limited to the West. But while Queensbury-rules boxers may walk out with stadium speakers blasting, the music stops before the first bell rings – whereas in the vicious realm of Muay Thai kickboxing, the melodies continue on throughout the evening’s fights.

Small-but-loud groups (pi muay) improvise menacing instrumentals known as sarama during the pre-fight wai khru ram muay – a historic, highly localised greeting ritual common to many of Thailand’s traditional arts, which themselves draw from the region’s longtime blend of cultural influences from Java to India and beyond (some of the ritual’s characteristic arm movements derive from ancient fables of the Hindu Lord Hanuman).

As the fights commence, the music progresses to match the action, with driving rhythmic tunes known as phleng muay (‘boxing music’). Melodies are chiefly provided by the pi chawa, a oboe-like quadruple-reed horn with an evocative scratch, of probable Indian origin (kind of like a Hindustani shehnai) – rhythmically supported by the klong khaek (lace drum-pairs) and ching champ (pleasingly onomatopoeic hand cymbals).

These instruments combine in jumpy, syncopated fashion to rouse the crowd – and focus the fighters for the brutality of the task at hand (we ‘play’ football, cricket, rugby, and even music – but nobody is described as ‘playing’ boxing, MMA, Muay Thai…).

Rugby rituals: the Maori Haka ceremony

Some of the world’s most distinctive music-sporting moments occur in the rugby stadiums frequented by New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, and other Maori Pacific teams. The pre-match haka, famous around the world, sees the players gather before kick-off to perform a traditional Maori chant-and-dance ritual.

While often loosely described as a ‘war dance’, the haka in fact plays a range of different functions in Maori culture, turning up everywhere from birthdays, weddings, and funerals to rousing retirement ceremonies for high-school teachers. Beloved by the vast majority of global fans, the haka’s emotional power is hailed even by its detractors, who protest chiefly on the grounds that it brings an unfair advantage.

It has roots in an old legend of Tamanuiterā, the sun god – in Maori lore, the ‘quivering’ feel of the air on a hot day symbolises how his son Tanerore danced to honor his mother Hineraumati (herself considered the ‘embodiment of summer’). The haka’s skyward eye-rolls and trembling limb gesticulations are said to represent this fabled dance, calling on divine spirits to gather behind the human quest at hand.

Use in international rugby dates back to at least the 1880s. Records indicate that it may first have been employed by the Maori-dominated ‘New Zealand Natives’ team before a tour match against Surrey…in the English Home Counties. The Oct 13th 1888 edition of the Illustrated London News describes how players dressed in flamboyant, feathered outfits before and after games, and it seems they even performed to curious town-hall audiences too (possibly to raise some much-needed cash for the cost of the tour).

Though initially greeted with a mix of confusion, intrigue, and laughter, the haka soon found a firm place among the playful back-and-forths of international sport. In 1903, the New Zealand squad performed a specially-written haka before their first test match against Australia, further drumming up hype by releasing the lyrics to the Evening Post beforehand:

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!

Over time, opposing teams have fashioned their own responses to the chant’s challenge. In a 1905 NZ-Wales match, the crowd, “led by the Welsh team, responded by singing the Welsh national anthem” (something mirrored over a century later) – and on their unbeaten 1924-5 European tour the All Blacks performed a specially-written haka, the ‘Ko Niu Tireni’, which (alongside lines like ‘we shall attain the zenith, the utmost heights’) featured the phrase “show your famous teams, and let’s play each other in friendship”…although this part was pointedly dropped for the tour’s later games.

The particularities of the spectacle will vary according to the occasion and the cultural roots of the performers. Different islands have their own routines, as is on stark display whenever different Maori-infused nations face each other. Check out this fearsome face-off between New Zealand and Tonga before a rugby league World Cup match in 2017 (Tonga, massive underdogs, would go on to pull off a stunning 28-22 victory away from home…)

In the words of players from New Zealand’s all-conquering All Blacks and Black Ferns (men’s and women’s rugby union teams), “We throw ourselves into the haka with our complete beings”…”I feel like I’m not on this earth…there’s one goal…the haka is all that is running through my head at that moment”. See the Ferns celebrate their world cup victory in spine-tingling fashion:

(Then again, speaking as an Englishman: I gotta say that even the most ferocious band of Pacific warriors would probably come out a distant second best against the unbridled aggression of our own martial tradition – Morris dancing. Check it out…if you dare!)

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