Chapter 4, Part 2 - Taonga Puoro

Taonga Puoro - Musical Treasures

Please enjoy listening to 'koau' by hirini melbourne and richard nunns while reading chapter 4, part 2


Sometimes the layer of hard enamel on the outer side of a tooth partially separates from the softer, honey-coloured dentine inside. The nguru below was one of those teeth, so I removed all the enamel, which greatly reduced the size of the instrument but left this beautifully coloured piece. It has two mokomoko carved on it, as it was made as a kaitiaki for a group of taonga puoro.


When Richard Nunns brought me a whale’s ear bone I turned it into the nguru below, which has a beautiful voice, as one would expect from such heavy and dense bone. The idea of making an instrument that creates sound from a bone essential for receiving sound was such an intriguing juxtaposition of recycling that I couldn’t resist the challenge of working with it.


Traditionally, many nguru were made from whale teeth, and this is also my favourite use of suitable teeth, so several of them have become whale-shaped nguru. Two examples are shown below. Those who study whales identify individuals by the markings on tails or dorsal fins, so I decided to carve the dorsal fin for the first carving below as a heru, or hair ornament, which signifies status. The clean simplicity of this nguru, inspired by the ancient Waitaha carvings, is quite a contrast to the second carving (bottom), though both have rows linking tail and face. On this nguru the links are manaia faces representing ancestors of the owner, and the fins are kaokao designs to represent the whale’s immense strength.


Hirini once gave me a tape of humpback whale songs. One of the tracks was speeded up, and sounded so similar to a bird song that I wanted to celebrate these singers of the oceans. Ever since then I have enjoyed the challenge of creating ‘singing whales’. To do this it is necessary to adapt traditional shapes, and the pūtōrino below retains the traditional internal shape but is carved from a whale rib bone, in the form of a whale. However because of the porosity of the interior of a whale rib it required considerable work to resurface the bore before it would sing.


Carving Paikea, the ancestor who rode his whale to Aotearoa, from a section of sperm whale jaw proved to be quite an undertaking. Fitting eyes made from the breathing holes of pāua shell was slow but worthwhile, but the final problem was only solved when I had to make a visit to my dentist Dr Dan McGettigan. The placement of the figure of Paikea did not allow access to drill the third finger hole, but I knew that the dentist had a right-angle handpiece which could get at it. So before I let him start on me I prevailed on him to finish my carving (below), which he did with great amusement.


The pākuru below is also carved in the shape of a whale. The pākuru is a rhythmical instrument held against the mouth while played to take advantage of the nuances that the mouth can add as a variable resonator. The toroa wing-bone striker can be drawn across its notched back to vary the rhythm. As rhythm and melody are the basis of music, it is supremely logical and fitting that the primal parents Rangi and Papa are the parents of these families of taongā pūoro. The tunes are named Rangi, and the rhythmical instruments are linked to the heartbeat of Papa, the Earth Mother. The pilot whale jawbone shown below makes a very good rhythmical instrument of a type named tumutumu. Its resonance varies in pitch and intensity when struck in different places, making it quite versatile for performances.


The tōkere, a type of castanet, shown below were carved to represent the toroa, or albatross, whose homecoming greetings at nesting time are marked with extended rituals that include elaborate and rhythmical beak clapping.


The children of the god of the winds, Tawhirimatea, are special because they have no physical body, even though we often see and hear what they do. Similarly, the instruments that replicate wind sounds create very special spirit voices. Pūrerehua and porotiti are the better known members of this family. The sound made by a pūrerehua, or bullroarer, is a stirring sound that creates a powerful atmosphere. Though it can seem an angry sound, tradition tells that the player’s spirit travels along the cord to be scattered by the pūrerehua out to the four winds. The song composed by Hirini Melbourne, which tells of his pūrerehua sowing the seeds of peace, is one of my favourites. This vital message is incorporated into the design of the pūrerehua named Rongopai shown below. The instrument has two rows of manaia faces representing people singing their message of peace, and its surface pattern has four sections, two on each side, to represent ngā hau e whā, the four winds which carry its message.


As a boy we used to take large buttons from mum’s button tin and thread a loop of cotton through two of the holes. As the cord was alternately tightened then relaxed it would spin faster and faster until it hummed. I was fascinated when I later discovered that the porotiti works in the same way. Though simple in construction, the porotiti has a traditional use in healing, and its rhythmic whirring can help one to capture thoughts and make a new song


In one area the porotiti are known as kōrorohū as they spin, though when the player blows on their vanes this changes to kōrerohua. This lovely play on words reinforces the concept of its traditional use as a song catcher. Porotiti also have the attraction of becoming wearable musical instruments carved with their own special story, as in the example opposite. Another family of instruments are the descendants of the goddess Hine Pū Te Hue. When there was anger in the world created by the separation of the primal parents Rangi and Papa, she took that anger inside herself and prevented chaos. The instrument below is a contemporary and wearable version based on a larger poi ā whiowhio that is made from a hue, or gourd. It has a face to represent Hine Pū Te Hue, and like all the gourd instruments its song is peaceful and calming. It sees everything that the wearer sees during the day, but when it is taken off and swung on its cord, it sings sweetly of just the good things. My earlier book Taongā Pūoro: The Musical Instruments of the Māori gives a more comprehensive account of these and other instruments, and details our enjoyable project of bringing their sounds back to life. Following the success of Te Kū te Whe, produced by Rattle Records, which documented the sounds of the various families of instruments, other CDs are now also available. Happily, there are a growing number of Māori and Pakeha musicians playing taongā pūoro, as well as skilled carvers to create them, and they have once again become an accepted part of the music from Aotearoa.

Clea Pettit