Chapter 4, Part 1 - Taonga Puoro

Taonga Puoro - Musical Treasures

Please enjoy listening to 'Ka rau aku mahara' by horomona horo accompanied by rodger cunningham while reading chapter 4, part 2

 
 
 This pōrutu is carved as a kaitiaki of the families of taonga puoro, and it portrays a number of significant traditional beings associated with them, holding tightly to their treasures. It is carved from the leg bone of an ostrich, which was used as a substitute for similar bones once available from moa.

This pōrutu is carved as a kaitiaki of the families of taonga puoro, and it portrays a number of significant traditional beings associated with them, holding tightly to their treasures. It is carved from the leg bone of an ostrich, which was used as a substitute for similar bones once available from moa.

In the late 1970s I began making koauau, or flutes, as an extension of carving practical items from bone. My first instrument was made just by copying a picture, and while it did look quite good, when I met up with Richard Nunns, who was teaching himself to play them, I found that it was non-functional. I remembered that my early mentor Mac McCabe had a ‘horror box’ to which he assigned dreadful mistakes, so I sent it off to join those. Fortunately, Richard had more useful pointers, and with some experimentation and trips to museums, where we received generous assistance from curators who were excited that their treasured collections might be put to a practical use, we made progress. Neither of us had the skill of the other’s expertise, but we complemented each other as we worked to recreate these fascinating instruments. We were then fortunate enough to meet the late Dr Hirini Melbourne, musician, composer, linguist and storyteller, who recognised our growing love of these taongā pūoro, or musical treasures, and invited us to join with him to help revive their sounds, which were virtually unheard at that time. Thus began a revival which, under the group name of Haumanu, drew together like-minded devotees like Clem Mellish of Ngā Puhi, whose stone-working skills added a further dimension. It is extremely gratifying that the sounds of taongā pūoro have gradually become a part of the modern soundscape of Aotearoa. Through Hirini’s knowledge of tradition and mythology we realised that the instruments belonged in families, and that these were authenticated in the mythology that told of their creation and earliest usage. The pūtōrino opposite retells the story of Raukatauri, the goddess of flute music, who loved her flute so much that she decided to live in it forever, becoming the case moth. The shape of a pūtōrino copies that of her case, and she is carved here in the centre, singing to attract her mate who has become a moth. He is carved above her having been attracted by her song. This pūtōrino is carved from matai, but is included here because at an earlier time a similar instrument in a museum case made Hirini ponder on what songs it once sang and who might have played it. This had sparked Hirini’s passion for the revival of the instruments. Many Māori instruments were made from bone. However, the precious toroa, or albatross, and the sweet-sounding human bone that were traditionally used are obviously not available nowadays. The opportunity to carve one in moa bone is a privilege that does not happen very often, and the one on the following page was inspired by a koauau I saw in the British Museum in London.

 Pūtōrino decorated with male and female case moths   

Pūtōrino decorated with male and female case moths

 

 A koauau carved from moa bone

A koauau carved from moa bone

I had experienced some problems using bone-cutting tools on wood, until I recalled some advice from a fellow carver at a hui held at Takapūahia Marae. He told me that he would grind three facets on a broken cutter shaft and get more use from it. I tried that and found to my delight that with my recycled bone carving tools, the same techniques could be adapted to work wood in order to replicate these treasures. The koauau below was carved from very hard maire in this way. It depicts Raukatauri and her partner coming together in a flowering kōwhai tree, one of their favourite foods. This symbolises the hope and belief that the traditions will continue for many more generations.

 A koauau carved in maire, an extremely hard wood

A koauau carved in maire, an extremely hard wood

Koauau are the most common of the family of Raukatauri’s flute children. Nowadays, substitute bones are commonly used to make these, with goat or sheep being similar to albatross wing bones, and deer, emu or ostrich replacing human or moa bone.

The koauau below is made from ostrich leg bone, with the finger holes carved as faces depicting the three brothers of the demi-god Māui; Māui Mua, Māui Roto and Māui Taha, whose names are sometimes given to these openings. Below them is a moth who has been attracted thinking that the music he hears is from his beloved Raukatauri. Along the sides run rows of manaia faces depicting the passing down of both words and tunes. The blown end of the emu-bone koauau below is carved to represent the face of the instrument, because each instrument is perceived as an individual, and when the time is right they receive their own personal names. When the player blows into the open mouth of the koauau its nose is brought up to the player’s as in a hongi, the traditional Māori greeting where breaths are shared. Koauau are usually played individually, and bone instruments all have a slightly different bore so that the sound of each has different nuances. This concept of having different sounding instruments is an excitingly different approach to instrumental music making. However, the blowing technique allows the player to alter the pitch and blend with other instruments. Individual instruments can thus be played together, adding their differences to the combined sound.

 A koauau carved from ostrich bone   

A koauau carved from ostrich bone

 

 An emu-bone koauau with a carved face   

An emu-bone koauau with a carved face

 

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Longer versions of koauau called pōrutu can be overblown to a second octave. One legend tells of a captive master musician playing his pōrutu for several hours while his beloved slipped away to safety. He then lulled the audience to sleep so that he too could escape. On the pōrutu above, the rows of small manaia faces running from one end to the other represent the passing down of tunes and words through the generations. The pair of ngarara, or lizards, carved on the top are there to ensure that these traditions are kept safe. The story carved on the underside depicts the giant eagle as he flies upward and eventually disappears from sight forever. The carving style of this eagle changes from forms seen in ancient rock drawings to a contemporary one, and then one which, though looking like a modern stylisation, is actually a classic traditional style. This is a pictorial way of expressing the importance of keeping the myths and legends alive. The rhythm of music has proved to be invaluable at doing that accurately, so old songs are treasured.

Nguru are semi-closed flutes with a softer tone than koauau. Whale teeth are prized for making these as their density means that, unlike softer materials, they do not gather condensation and stop playing during a song. The whale tooth nguru, shown below from two aspects, has its own treasure box, for which it becomes both lid and contents. The figure carved on the underside is a male moth with enlarged hands as his wings, and the surface design represents the music, which makes pleasing sounds in the silence. The tooth is a relatively small one from the upper jaw of a sperm whale. Only the tips of these teeth protrude into the whale’s mouth, but they can be just the right size for a small nguru. The waka nguru is carved from a recycled window frame made of native matai, as its straight grain makes it a preferred timber when twisting in the wood is unacceptable. The same properties also mean that it is suitable for making flutes, where its straight grain gives a valued resonance. It is also ideal for longer flutes, as it can be split, and then rejoined after shaping its bore and carving it.

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The small (96-millimetre long) whale tooth nguru illustrated below from the Te Papa Tongarewa collection is a typical example of less ornamented traditional nguru. Its well-worn suspension hole indicates that it was a much used and treasured instrument. This fits with an observation on Māori made in 1807, and recorded in Johannes Andersen’s book Māori Music, that ‘every man was his own musician’, and with such portable instruments ‘they were never at a loss for entertainment’. Though these traditional instruments went out of fashion for many years they are now re-establishing a niche as the unique sounds of Aotearoa.

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Clea Pettit