'God defend New Zealand' was sung by Hayley Westenra before the England versus All Blacks test at Twickenham in November 2006. 'God save the Queen', our other national anthem, was also sung, and the famous haka 'Ka mate' was performed by the All Blacks.
New Zealand Music Month would not be complete without looking at a song that doesn’t get massive promotion on the radio. It is not one that music video directors are dying to get their hands on. It does not feature on any lists of the greatest New Zealand songs ever, even though we have sung it for over 130 years. While its tune is instantly recognisable to every New Zealander, many can’t sing the words properly. It is our national anthem, ‘God defend New Zealand’.
New Zealanders have become accustomed to hearing this anthem before major sporting events such as All Black tests. But many may not know that ‘God defend New Zealand’ is one of two official anthems. The second, ‘God save the Queen’, reflects our colonial past. ‘God defend New Zealand’ was elevated to anthem status in 1977 and has become the preferred anthem for New Zealanders both at home and abroad. ‘God save the Queen’ is usually reserved for formal ceremonies involving the Queen, the Governor-General or the royal family.
The custom in recent years has been for ‘God defend New Zealand’ (titled 'Aotearoa' in Maori) to be sung in both Maori and English, to acknowledge our bicultural heritage. But this is a relatively new development.
Thomas Bracken’s poem, ‘God defend New Zealand’, was put to music in 1876 by J.J. Woods from Lawrence, Central Otago. The first Maori translation was made in 1878 by Native Land Court judge Thomas H. Smith, at the request of Governor Sir George Grey. Despite this, until the closing decades of the 20th century most New Zealanders were familiar only with the English-language version.
This situation changed dramatically at the 1999 Rugby World Cup in England. Hinewehi Mohi sang ‘God defend New Zealand’ only in te reo Maori ('Aotearaoa') before the All Blacks versus England match. Many viewers complained that this was inappropriate because most New Zealanders did not speak (or understand) Maori. Mohi’s response was that it seemed a perfectly natural thing to do. Others pointed out that many New Zealanders couldn’t sing the English version correctly anyway. The incident sparked public debate about how people reacted to the singing of the anthem in general. The All Blacks, because of their high profile, were singled out for particular attention and were criticised for being unable (or unwilling) to sing the anthem.
Support soon grew for the singing of ‘God defend New Zealand’ in both Maori and English. A campaign supported by government, the Maori Language Commission and sporting bodies promoted the correct singing of the anthem with word sheets and publicity. There is now widespread support for the Maori and English versions being sung side by side.
One factor in the success of the bicultural approach is that it has helped breathe new life into ‘God defend New Zealand’ by giving it a uniquely New Zealand sound.
For all the criticism that it is too formal and like a hymn, ‘God defend New Zealand’ has stood the test of time. Its critics have been unable to come up with a credible alternative. Jim Anderton’s calls to replace it with ‘Pokarekare ana’ got no real traction. Despite the promotion of alternative anthems such as Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Loyal’, no suitable replacement has ever emerged. We could be mumbling the words to ‘God defend New Zealand’ for many years yet.