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Keeper of the treasures

Taonga puoro have been a gift that has allowed Richard Nunns to find his true musical voice - a voice increasingly acclaimed and in demand, even as the progression of Parkinson's disease threatens to overtake it.

Imagine bobbing about in an ­inflatable inside a sea cave off the coast of the Faroe Islands, with a freezing five-metre Arctic swell. The aim is to record the sounds of the cave and those of your instruments. Balancing is tricky, even at the best of times, thanks to the effects of Parkinson's disease. Not only that, an audience of Nordic dignitaries awaiting your performance.

Back home in Nelson, Richard Nunns gleefully recalls his recent musical odyssey. He puts on the album recorded inside the huge cave, and the North Atlantic is suddenly there in his living room: the heavy, rhythmic smack of the sea against the rock walls, the echo of his putatara (conch shell) trumpet calling into the depths. Seta, meaning gathering in Faroese, was recorded with Faroe Island band Yggdrasil and features a Swedish bark trumpet, traditional Maori instruments played by Nunns and the inside of the cave located somewhere between Iceland and Norway. The sound - Nunns calls it a sonic postcard from the Faroes - is both soothing and mesmerising; somehow ancient and profound.

Apart from everything else, how did he know what to play?

"You engage with the environment. On a superficial level, you know it is a huge echo chamber, that it will be amplified. You can almost converse with yourself and the key musician - the sea - is already there. You are responding to the musical voices that are there: the birds, the extraordinary sea sounds and the other musicians."

At the end, the Finnish Minister of Culture responded with a spontaneous yoick - a kind of traditional yodel - of approval.

Just another day in the remarkable life of Dr Richard Nunns, musician, adventurer and expert in taonga puoro, or traditional Maori instruments. Nunns, together with his long-time musical collaborator Hirini Melbourne (who died in 2003) and instrument-maker Brian Flintoff, has spent more than 30 years meticulously researching these unique indigenous instruments and bringing them back to life. The three of them have recreated and learnt to play pounamo flutes, shell trumpets and exquisitely carved percussive and wind instruments of bone, wood and stone that capture the sounds of pre-European Maori. And they have taken them to the world.

"The aim from day one was always to reconstruct the instruments, re-find the voice, gather knowledge and return that knowledge back among the people so it is never lost again," Nunns says.

Taonga puoro - "singing treasures" - not only are in full voice, but have become mainstream. Many New Zealanders probably don't even realise they now hear these instruments all the time, he says - on the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings, in contemporary music from Moana and the Tribe and in classical compositions by Gillian Whitehead. Nunns has contributed to more than 40 local and international albums, from acclaimed traditional Maori music with Hirini Melbourne to the New Zealand String Quartet, Salmonella Dub, Yggdrasil and more.

When he first became aware of taonga puoro back in the late 1950s, it was as artefacts in museums. Curators believed the objects were musical, but the knowledge of how to play them was thought to be lost. Nunns was a jazz musician and schoolteacher, and still can't explain exactly why he was drawn to the instruments. But this Ngati Viking, as he calls himself, discovered a deep affinity for playing them and a desire to bring them back from 100 years of silence. He began a voyage into a culture he originally knew little about.

"The whole journey is one of privileges, of extraordinary riches being given to you and shown to you. About 60% of the performances that Hirini Melbourne and Brian Flintoff and I have [been invited to give] have not been to people at all but to sacred sites, to burial caves, to mountains, to trees, for groups of people who are keen for us to put the music back into the whenua, into the land, where it may not have been heard for hundreds of years. It's very rich and rewarding to be taken deeply into a country that you may not know exists."

Even by Nunns' standards, 2009 was a milestone. He and Flintoff were both presented with Queen's Service Medals for services to taonga puoro; he and Melbourne were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame; and a handsome bronze Arts Laureate award sits atop a shelf in his living room.

We first meet in late 2009 at Te Papa, where Nunns has the audience transfixed by the stories behind a collection of gorgeous greenstone instruments and the sounds they make, from the direct melodic voice of a pounamo whistle, originally used to lure wekas, to the deep primeval hum of the purerehua, or bull-roarer, its finely honed edge slicing the air.

Nunns is a big man with a charming, low-key style and a Parkinson's tremor in one hand. He allays the audience's curiosity straight off with a self-deprecating joke about how his playing techniques are often taken as gospel by eager young musicians. He's had flautists carefully imitate his shaky style, assuming this is the received wisdom - but he cautions that this is due to the disease rather than any virtuoso playing methods.

There's no denying he has a rare gift, though. These are fiendishly difficult instruments to play, taking years of ­dedication to master. Their sounds tend to be subtle and intimate, requiring the listener to slow down and pay attention. Nunns grew up in a family of serious brass players and began playing the trumpet at seven. Later, he discovered a preference for improvisational jazz and learnt the flute. "Playing both brass and woodwind means two or three different ways of using your lips; it was good training. I have always been able to make sounds out of anything that could be blown." Helpful when it comes to coaxing a sound out of a tiny nose-flute made from a gourd.

"They look simplistic," says taonga puoro musician Horomona Horo, whom Nunns has mentored for the past 10 years. "So you might think they'll be easy to play, but nine times out of 10 you won't get a sound at all." The sound of a koauau (flute) or poiawhiowhio (whistling poi) is like "going into the forest and listening; that is how the instrument will play, like wind through the leaves and the birds singing".

Says Nunns: "They don't seem to do much and yet they do everything; they are powerful but in a different way. You have to pull the music from the soles of your feet [right through] your body: you're not going to get it out of your mouth or lungs alone. You draw from every­where to create and shape and manage this melodic voice. It's about everything else rather than playing; it's about humility, respect, a whole body of things are necessary."

At the end of his Te Papa performance the audience crowds around a table, eager to get up close to the instruments. Nunns sits quietly to one side, looking exhausted. He's just back from performing in China and, before that, touring the United States with the New Zealand String Quartet. The pace continues this year, with performances in Patagonia and South Africa among others.

He's playing as beautifully as ever, although he's no longer able to walk forward to bow onstage and negotiating dark backstage stairs can be nerve-wracking. "It's a bit like the musical career is going like this {he makes an upward motion with his hand] and the other vector of Parkinson's is [also heading upwards]. At some point unknown as yet, there will come a time when the two will meet ..."

Parkinson's, a progressive neurological condition affecting movement, "is a physical challenge, logistically and strategically," he says. "The things that you used to do are being slowly taken away from you." Yet, somehow, his brain is hard-wired for playing music. He plans to write to neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks, whose book Musicophilia explores the surprising and still largely unexplained power of music over the brain. Sacks documented the effect of music on people struggling with various neurological conditions, including Parkinson's, and noted the "extraordinary tenacity of musical memory".

"It's like his music is keeping him well," Horo says of Nunns. "When he plays he is out of his body, and when he plays no one can deny those sounds are his."

Nunns' house, tucked into a hillside in Nelson, is packed full of treasures: obscure CDs, most likely acquired in a back alley in Istanbul or Beijing; New Zealand art, much of it made by friends; rare teas from his travels in China; and traditional instruments of all kinds from around the world. Testaments to a rich and adventurous life.

The steep staircase is proving increasingly difficult, so he and his wife, writer Rachel Bush, are faced with moving. He is sifting through an "archaeological dig" of instruments, many of which he is in the process of donating to the local museum.

Taonga puoro have been a gift that has allowed him to find his true musical voice, he says. About 15 years ago, he decided to stop reading and counting music, feeling confident enough to improvise with classical and contemporary musicians alike. "These are heresies to working musicians; purposely rendering yourself back to some kind of innocent situation, or de-skilling, but it allows me to be the musician that I am."

His form of improvisation, whether with the techno sounds of Paddy Free or Persian dulcimer players, is "literally a musical conversation between equals. You are required to listen harder than you've ever listened in your life, because essentially you are going on stage with nothing."

Nunns recalls being backstage before a gig with free-jazz saxophonist Evan Parker. "I said, 'Well, what do you think we'll do?' Parker thought for a minute, then said, 'It's the going there and the finding out that matters.' That encapsulates, far better than I ever could, the mystery of making music in the way that we do." Parker's comments could apply equally well to Nunns' extraordinary journey of discovery.

Among his collection of taonga puoro are about 10 that existed only in the memories of kuia and kaumatua. The ­pumotomoto, a long notched flute used to play or chant stories and songs over the fontanel of a baby, was almost lost forever. It was only the recollections of a Tuhoe elder in his 90s that allowed Flintoff to fashion a prototype. Nunns knows of nothing like it anywhere else in the world. "This is the conduit for ­information for the first two years of a child's life, stories that pertain to that child: moteatea, whakapapa, wishes and hopes ... it's a miraculous instrument to have back."

Many of the instruments have spiritual significance and Nunns' research has meant he has been entrusted with sacred knowledge. It was never going to be a matter of turning up and asking for information, he says, but of learning to be humble and to wait. "There is no way you duck in and out of those situations: it is serious stuff, you can't dabble."

Each instrument has its own story. For instance, there is a certain greenstone purerehua - a ­disc-shaped whirring instrument - made from a special piece of pounamo, worked out of a rock with sandstone and water over about three years. Once it was made, it was placed in the ice below a glacier in the Mount Cook area. "The family's way of blessing senior materials was to put it in the ice and come back the next winter, when the lake is frozen again, and lift it out."

That's how Nunns found himself wading through thigh-deep powder snow and then walking tentatively across a creaking glacial lake to retrieve the ­instrument, wondering whether the ice would hold his weight. "They have been doing this for generations so you had to trust they knew what they were doing."

Among Nunn's treasures is a shaman's bag from Indonesia. It's decorated with little brass bells and horse-hair tassels. He drops his voice to a mock whisper: "There's still magic in it." He gives it a shake so the bells tinkle. It seems the healer's bag contains music. He looks thoughtful. "I might have a go at playing that sometime."