Tatai Whetu revives seldom-heard pre-European musical culture

by Elizabeth Kerr / 24 June, 2017

Ariana Tikao. Photo/David St George

The sounds of taonga puoro are harmonising with Western instruments on concert platforms.

Composers have been working with musicians who play taonga puoro (traditional Maori instruments) for some time, but this collaborative practice is increasingly bringing uniquely New Zealand sounds to concert platforms.

In the late 1990s, musician Richard Nunns showed composer Gillian Whitehead the fronds of a spleenwort hanging from a Nelson tree. “This is the hair of Hineraukatauri,” he told her. “One day, I’d like you to write a piece about her.”

Hineraukatauri is the atua (goddess) of music, and the putorino, whose torpedo shape resembles the case moth that is her embodiment, is played both crosswise like a flute or blown trumpet-style and is her voice. Whitehead’s answer to Nunns’s request, Hineraukatauri, is a duo for piccolo, flute, alto flute and Maori flutes. First performed by Alexa Still and Nunns at a flute convention in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1999, it will be heard again this month in a remarkable Matariki programme by contemporary music ensemble Stroma.

Nunns began working several decades ago on the revival of taonga puoro. Led by revered songwriter Hirini Melbourne, Nunns travelled the country alongside master carver and instrument-maker Brian Flintoff in the 1980s and 90s, learning from Maori communities about the instruments. After Melbourne’s death in 2003, Nunns became the principal practitioner of the instruments, touring locally and internationally and playing with classical and jazz musicians.

Rob Thorne. Photo/Warwick Smith

Now that his health is keeping him from the concert platform – he has lived for many years with Parkinson’s disease, which he calls “my wobbles” – Maori and Pakeha musicians, many of whom he has mentored, are developing the playing skills. A new generation, including Horomona Horo, Ngai Tahu songwriter Ariana Tikao and musician and instrument-maker Alistair Fraser, are keeping these traditional instruments in musical conversation with the modern world.

Whitehead and Nunns showed how performers on Western instruments could play from a notated score alongside an improvising taonga puoro player. Most of the composers in Stroma’s upcoming programme Tatai Whetu have worked this way. Centrepiece of the concert is Ko te tatai whetu, for voice, taonga puoro and Western instruments, by composers Phil Brownlee and Tikao.

Tikao encountered the traditional sounds in recordings of reggae band Aotearoa, led by Ngahiwi Apanui in the 1980s, which included koauau (Maori flute) and traditional Maori chants. “It was a revelation. Now they’re a major part of my musical identity, and as I’ve developed, they’ve been with me along that journey.”

Stroma’s concert includes two other works created by Tikao, one a setting of words by Melbourne.

Putorino by renowned master carver and instrument-maker Brian Flintoff.

The beauty of the ancient instruments’ sounds captivated Brownlee at a Nunns workshop, and more doors opened when he worked with improvising jazz musicians. “As a classical composer, I was interested in incorporating that spontaneity into my music. Working with Richard and taonga puoro enabled me to find ways of doing that and had a lasting effect on me as a composer.”

Ko te tatai whetu began as a collaborative orchestral work for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, based on a moteatea (pre-European chant) from Tikao’s ancestors. She sings the waiata she has created and plays alongside Fraser.

Brownlee is excited by the possibilities of more than one taonga puoro player in their piece. “Richard’s pioneering work was solo, but several playing together offers rich sound worlds.”

Musician Rob Thorne (Ngati Tumutumu) will take up the annual composer residency at Lilburn House in Wellington next month. Thorne, an anthropologist who has played in alt-rock bands as a “noise” musician and guitarist, found his way to taonga puoro by teaching himself to play a koauau he’d been given. Flintoff later helped him to carve his own. “I also took a found-sound perspective,” says Thorne. “I could use the cross-flute technique with shells and hollow pieces of wood found on the beach. I use a fairly minimal collection; I look to tradition and relate to the instruments on an ancestral level. I was a career musician; taonga puoro gave me a quiet place that was musical and personal.”

Putorino by renowned master carver and instrument-maker Brian Flintoff.

Thorne talks about “resonating” with the instruments. All musicians working with taonga puoro insist that each instrument has an individual voice. “They have their own wairua attached,” says Tikao. “It’s a spiritual experience being in that concentrated realm, trying to be in sync with the instrument, thinking about the kaupapa of the instrument.”

Thorne plays 40-minute sets with a loop pedal and finds that audiences respond in unexpected ways. “People enjoy it on a deeper level than entertainment.” Tikao and Brownlee have observed something similar. Ngai Tahu audience members rose and replied with a karanga after the Christchurch performance of Ko te tatai whetu. “For someone with conventional classical training,” says Brownlee, “it’s really interesting to be opened up to those ways of thinking about making music and communicating with an audience. We were using a Ngai Tahu story and it was important that Ariana’s people were there. It felt like the audience was saying, ‘That touched us.’ It’s very humbling.”

Tatai Whetu, Stroma, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington, June 28.

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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