Overcast but without any rain until almost the last act of the day, national kapa haka festival Te Matatini started yesterday with more than seven hours of emotionally-charged and emphatic performances in front of record regional sports park crowds in Hastings.

Numbers in the infield at Kahungunu Park, so-named for the month of February to honour the hosting of the World's biggest Maori performing arts festival, hovered constantly around 5000.

Hundreds more were constantly filing through the expo area outside the perimeter, and about 2000 cars and vans and 15-20 buses filled car parks across the netball courts and outer sports field at any time, the enormity of the occasion immediately grabbing the attention of park trust chairman Rex Graham, who urged all of Hawke's Bay to take the opportunity to see the world-class kapa haka.

"More of us pakeha need to come," he said. "It's a fantastic experience that is happening in own back yard, and there are still three days to go. Te Matatini is a stunning entertainment experience, the likes of which we may not see for another 30 years."

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To performers and supporters, it was, however, much more than a package of entertainment, with tributes iconic departed and strong-willed social messages woven through the routines of the six core segments of the performances of the first 15 of the festival's record 47 groups.

It was highlighted from almost the moment of entry of opening performers and Auckland group Te Manu Huia, dedicated to Maori performing arts legend Dr Ngapo Wehi, who died last July.

Te Manu Huia, following senior group and five-times winners Te Waka Huia into the festival for a ninth time, are tutored by family of Dr Ngapo Wehi QSM, whose festival history dated back to when he and wife Pimia took Gisborne club Waihirere to the first title in 1972 in Rotorua.

Moving to Auckland they also took Te Waka Huia to their first title, at Christchurch in 1986.

Later in the day members of Porangahau-based Tamatea Arikinui loomed strong in their support for Tauranga-based Mataatua representatives Tutara Kauika ki Rangataua in one of many of the displays of "tautoko" from the audience, again paying respects to a past champion of kapa.

Long-time Tamatea Arikinui member Doc Ferris, who made up to a dozen trips home from Nelson to Porangahau in the last months of his group's preparation for its performance on Saturday, said the spontaneous response was a tribute to former Tauranga group leader Te Awanuiarangi Black, who died less than three months ago.

"A lot of our whanau have a lot of links, and his kids were on the stage," Mr Ferris said.

In kind, performers paid their respects to the host area, parts of Kahungunu haka Tika Tonu spliced into more than one performance.

The festival has attracted a record 47 groups. Of them, 16 more will on stage today, including defending champions and two-times winners Te Kapa Haka o Te Whanau-a-Apanui, and the first Hawke's Bay group, Wairoa-based Te Rerenga Kotuku.

Another 16 will perform in the last preliminary rounds tomorrow, five-times winners Te Waka Huia and Waihirere, and Hawke's Bay groups Ngati Kahungunu ki Heretaunga and Tamatea Arikinui.