Aotearoa’s musical past was filled with the sounds of taonga pūoro. Charlotte Muru-Lanning meets a band who want to ensure the traditional Māori instruments are part of our musical future too.
The tough, camouflaged cocoon of the tūngou ngou or endemic case moth can be found swaying from the branches of Aotearoa’s native trees. Its exterior is oftentimes decorated with an eclectic mix of leaf and bark fragments. Hine Raukatauri, the goddess of taonga pūoro, traditional Māori musical instruments, is often personified as this moth and its cocoon. In fact, the wind instrument pūtōrino, in which Hine Raukatauri is said to live, echoes the shape of the moth’s tapered cocoon.
Waikato band IA, made up of Moetu Smith, Reti Hedley and Turoa Pohatu, are on a mission to continue the revival of taonga pūoro and to change perceptions around the instruments, which these days are perhaps more commonly associated with museums than mainstream radio or Spotify playlists.
There are more than 40 taonga pūoro that exist today, each one an extension of the voices of the natural world and spiritual realm within te ao Māori. The heartbeats of Papatūānuku, the earth mother are the basis of musical rhythms. Rangi, the name of the sky father, doubles as the word for tunes. These flutes, trumpets, percussion and whirled instruments are literally gifts from the gods. And while they’re intrinsically connected to spirituality, they can also be used to welcome a new day, as a call to arms, to make someone laugh, or even to flirt with your latest crush.
IA are keen to challenge perceptions of what we associate with the sounds created by taonga pūoro. “When we talk about te ao Māori, often it’s with this sense of the mystical,” Reti says. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but it doesn’t always need to “be this real haunting moment just because it’s Māori sounds”. The group’s latest song especially is a balm to those sometimes daunting vibes. “It’s a little bit lighter,” he says. “It’s got a little bit of a cheekiness to it, not too much cheekiness, but a down to earth cheekiness.”
The band joined forces with poet Te Kahu Rolleston for their new indigenous “chill-hop” single Ngā Reo, which was released today. The track shines a spotlight on traditional taonga pūoro and te reo Māori. The song’s verses take listeners on a journey through the connections and history of the instruments – starting with the punchy line of Rolleston’s first verse “it was the mauri of Hine Raukatauri that provoked me”.
Like many other traditions and practices, colonisation meant taonga pūoro were cast aside in place of European instruments. Over hundreds of years, the tikanga around making and playing what were once everyday instruments was fractured and almost lost.
In 1991, composer Hirini Melbourne, jazz musician Richard Nunns and carver Brian Flintoff became key figures in reviving taonga pūoro traditions and practice – along with support from kaumātua around the country. Since then, artists including (but not limited to) Moana Maniapoto, Whirimako Black and Horomona Horo have kept the fires burning and in doing so continued to revive and normalise rhythms and melodies that are uniquely Māori.
Still, the sonic landscape of Aotearoa remains dominated by overseas rhythms, genres and musical styles. Even as songs championing te reo Māori become ever more common on our music charts and mainstream radio stations, western styles and instruments most often fill the spaces between and behind those lyrics.
“We often think Māori music is music that only has Māori lyrics,” says Hedley. And, while revitalising the language through popular music styles is useful and immensely necessary, “there’s far more to Māori music than being able to sing lyrics in western formats, melodies, and scales”.
For the group, continuing to bring taonga pūoro into mainstream music is a vital step in reviving the culture behind it. Taonga pūoro reflects “a wealth of knowledge, a world of history, a connection to the time of antiquity for Māori, where we were at one with all the atua,” says Hedley. Each of the instruments is also literally of this land – made of shells, stones, gourds and native rākau.
“We took the approach that we wanted to put it in the spotlight rather than just sprinkling it on top,” says Moetu Smith. “We wanted it to be the main instrument rather than the accompaniment.” Though he didn’t grow up in te ao Māori or learning taonga pūoro, his journey to learn how to play those instruments has had an impact beyond music. “I’ve learned a lot about who I am, about what my people have done and what they’ve created with their own hands,” he says. With each song they write, the group ensures that taonga pūoro is maintained as the foundation of their music.
“To have taonga pūoro as the centrepiece and these other instruments as the salt and the seasonings is a powerful testament to letting taonga pūoro have its moment,” says Te Kahu Rolleston. “This is a country built from our treaty and so to have both sides of that treaty acknowledged in the music you make not only helps that space, it also makes it accessible to people from both sides of that group.”
Usually their songwriting process begins with taking out their collection of taonga pūoro and listening. “We’ll listen to which taonga might fit together,” says Hedley, explaining that they don’t all sound good together. “The beauty of the taonga is that they all are so unique, in their notes and their tonalities that you can almost call them personalities,” he says. “But not all personalities match”. In fact, taonga pūoro are often grouped as whānau and given their own names – each is seen to have its own voice.
Guitars, basses, keyboards, and saxophones tend to be tuned to a standard of 440 hertz. Taonga pūoro aren’t tuned to that same standard, so by contrast they can sound, well, a bit flat, explains Smith. This posed a challenge for the band in their early days of trying to work the two together. To solve this, IA “detunes” western instruments to fit the tune of taonga puoro. In essence, acclimatising those western instruments to fit within the realm of taonga pūoro.
Rolleston likes the idea of tuning your ear to the unique sound of tainga pūoro, “so it doesn’t hit so harshly when you hear it in the future”. You could think of it as decolonising your ears: the more we hear these instruments, the less “flat” they sound.
Their new single was a whole new journey for the band. They used the nguru, a flute instrument that can be played on either of its ends, with the most popular being the smaller end played through your nose. They imported the sounds into a sampler to create synthesised sounds which were transferred to keyboards. That process created a “really lush chord like you would hear in most hip hop beats”, says Hedley. They did the same with their pumoana or shell trumpet – adding filtering effects, and boosting sub-frequencies – creating synthesised base sounds for the track.
The group reckon that there’s an assumption that taonga pūoro is off limits, perhaps too tapu or ancient to pick up and learn. Sometimes that can be true – they do come with rules – but “putting them into a song that you can just listen to helps take away some of those restrictions that are in people’s heads about these things,” says Hedley. He hopes his band’s music will encourage people to have a go, knowing “they won’t turn to dust or anything like that”.
So how can we make sure taonga pūoro endures? “We have to keep doing what we’re doing right now,” Hedley says. Continuing to make their music is a contribution to a flourishing culture of Māori music. While their forebears, like Hedley’s mum who taught him taonga pūoro, had to learn through textbooks, they want to make sure rangatahi can access those sounds and skills in their everyday life. Hedley would love to see taonga pūoro emerge as a genre in and of itself – a musical movement in the same vein as hip hop, reggae or bossa nova. “Our taonga were removed from us,” he says. “While trying to reclaim our reo in the music industry, here’s an opportunity to reclaim our instruments.”