Music and life coaxed from bone
by Naomi Arnold featured on stuff.co.nz August 27 2011
There's dust over everything in Brian Flintoff's home studio. It coats the jawbone from the sperm whale beached on Farewell Spit, the clean spars of a single dolphin vertebra mounted on his wall, and the Icelandic sheep horns and reindeer antlers that someone brought back especially for him.
"Other people's rubbish become my treasures," he says. There could be a nice little instrument in this sawn-off antler. "Horns were used a lot for instruments in the past. It's what they blew down the walls of Jericho with."
These and other treasures, the work of a career spanning 35 years, are documented in his new book, Kura Koiwi: Bone Treasures, which will be launched this weekend at Te Papa.
When the Nelson Mail visits Flintoff's Monaco workshop, he's making the last of more than 40 bone instruments that Te Papa's ceremonial musicians, Haumanu i Te Papa, will play at the book's launch. He says he's stretched the concept of bone a wee bit.
"I had a dream about 25 years ago of a group doing an item using just bone instruments ... using as many different materials as possible. I started off using bone and then I used a bit of antler, and thought, well that's a deer horn, so why not use a cow horn? Everything from pig tusk, elephant ivory, bird bone. I used another piece of the antler to make a rhythmical instrument – you just tap on it for rhythm. I've just sent up one made out of a marlin spike, with fish bones and all. It's good fun."
He uses fine dentist drills for some of his unbelievably intricate work, many of which feature bone layered in several dimensions, the negative space as much a feature as the shape of the carving itself.
Haumanu has been set up and mentored by Flintoff along with nga taonga puoro (Maori traditional musical instrument) musician Richard Nunns, the late Tuhoe and Ngati Kahungunu musician Hirini Melbourne, and Havelock carver Clem Mellish, to promote the traditions of these instruments. In 2009, Flintoff and Nunns received the Queen's Service Medal for services to taonga puoro.
He picks up a nguru (flute) carved from half an old lawn bowl. It's made of the now-endangered Central American tree lignum vitae, or "wood of life"; one of the hardest woods known to mankind.
The entire flute tells the story of Maui granting the songbird Kokako's wish to sing like Raukatauri, the goddess of flute music, who lived inside her flute as a case moth. So Kokako ate case moths, Flintoff explains: "squeezing them like a tube of toothpaste", gaining her voice and amplifying it, so we can hear it. This flute "sings beautifully", though Flintoff says Nunns tells him he can only make noises with it. "[Nunns] makes music, I make noises. Do you want a wee song?" He plays a breathy, haunting little tune.
As a book, Kura Koiwi works on multiple levels. It was conceived as a handbook to back up Haumanu music workshops, but when Melbourne was diagnosed with cancer, he told Flintoff it was time to create the book. It's now a glossy, coffee-table tribute to the late composer as well as a personal account of Flintoff's career as one of New Zealand's foremost carvers.
It is an exploration of Maori art, mythology and symbolism, and a sister volume to his earlier book Taonga Puoro: Singing Treasures.
It also works as a gift to the culture as a whole. "The bigger motivation for doing it was to give the stories back that I've been entrusted with," Flintoff says.
He considers himself immensely privileged to be a part of that community, and feels he's a long-term caretaker of some of the found items that iwi and the Department of Conservation offer to him for safekeeping. The borrowed treasures are satisfying for one who has been a beachcomber since childhood, who grew up in Colac Bay on Foveaux Strait and still enjoys coming across finds on the coasts of our region.
That sperm whale jawbone, for example, was so big it took 13 people to carry it up the beach on Farewell Spit. He has humpback whale vertebra, the baleen from a sperm whale, and something particularly rare and magical: the unicorn horn-like tusk of an Arctic narwhal. It was once topped with ebony and used as a walking stick by a Christchurch woman, who offered it to him so others could enjoy it.
He remembers lending it to the Tohora Whales exhibition at the Suter last year. "Of 1000 kids, all of them knew what it was," he says. "The parents sometimes didn't but the kids did. The chance to actually hold one is magic."
Flintoff is self-taught with no formal training in art, and Maori have embraced his work in reviving ancient musical knowledge.
"I just fell in love with it," Flintoff says. "The more I got into the Maori art and the philosophy of it, and working with the Maori people who wanted me to do something, so they'd get me on board and try and give me the knowledge – I just became so much a part of the Maori scene that I'm not recognised as not being [Maori]."
He recalls a trip to a Kaikoura marae with Sir Tipene O'Regan. "They said: `Who's that Pakeha you've got with you?' and he said `Oh that's not a Pakeha, that's our mokai'. And I didn't know the word, but it made everybody happy.
"I looked it up and the first word was `pet' and I thought `Oh that's quite nice, I quite like that'. But I read on and it also means `slave'. And of course, for my work to be authentic I do have to be both. I have to do [carvings] that go back into the iwi, but I get treated like a really cherished pet when I go somewhere, so that's really lovely."
He shows us a moa bone koauau (small flute), semi-petrified and fine-grained in a creamy yellow, like an old, cold, smooth piece of wood. The flute is lightly detailed and coloured with kokowai, a red ochre from Golden Bay.
"Look at the colour on it – you couldn't cover it [with carving]," he says. "I was going to, but when I cleaned it up and saw how nice it was I went `Naah'."
This flute too will be played at the Te Papa book launch. He's carved it simply with two faces at each of its open ends – one, the face of the instrument, the other the face of the music.
"In Maori, everything is made into a person," he says. "It has the mouth, the eyes, and two noses, because to make the music you need two breaths; the breath of the player and the flute. It's a lovely way of encapsulating that. It's a nice idea, it humbles the musician."
Traditions such as those were once at risk of being lost, and Flintoff is a part of keeping them alive. But he's just thankful to be doing something he loves.
"My wife says I can't claim to be working cos I'm just like a little boy down in his sandpit," he says. "When you have a hobby you love so much and decide to work at it, you're one of the lucky people."