Ruby Solly sits with wāhine players of taonga pūoro, across generations, and recalls a history of healing and revival.
It’s a stereotype, but it’s often true. Many wāhine are good listeners. There are few things in this world more restorative than a wahine who truly cares about you sitting and listening as you let out your tangi. In fact, one of the only things more therapeutic for me is when those wāhine take that mamae, take that pain, and turn it into song. The way that we as Māori women karanga, the way we sing pao and waiata tautoko to break the silence. The way we sing oriori to our babies. We are changemakers, we make brightness out of darkness, and if we can’t say the right things, we can always sing and play the right things.
Hine Pū Te Hue
Long long ago
There was a fight between our gods.
All the men screamed,
Threw all they had,
At each other.
Used their creations,
As weapons for which they were never intentioned.
This could have gone on forever.
Except one woman,
Saved the world.
Hine Pū Te Hue
Took in all their pain,
All their anger,
and she grew a world
a sphere from deep
in the pito,
and she let out,
a song to calm the world.
Taonga pūoro are a whānau of traditional Māori musical instruments, which also encompasses the instruments that Māori have redeveloped as part of our ongoing recovery from colonisation. But to us, ‘musical instrument’ only covers a fraction of what these taonga are. As a kupu, ‘pūoro’ looks at vibrations and origins of sound. ‘Taonga’ is often known as a treasure, and together with the long and complicated history of these tools we start to see how they encompass more than music ever could.
At one point in time, taonga pūoro were an everyday part of society for many Māori. Different instruments held different purposes in ceremony, play, healing and arts. A child with breathing issues could have been given a porotiti to play with and to push fresh air upon the face. To seduce their lover, rangatahi would often play the kōauau to them. The kōauau was also used during birthing rituals. Everything had its place and purpose in an interconnected system involving both mana tāne and mana wāhine.
Our tūpuna kept the knowledge safe under their tongues
However, in 1907 the Tohunga Suppression Act banned many of our customs and taonga, forcing us underground. Among the treasures banned was taonga pūoro. Over 40 different instruments were made illegal in Aotearoa. The Tohunga Suppression Act lasted until 1962, making it very hard for entire generations to learn what was crucial knowledge for our people’s survival. Lucky for us, our tūpuna kuia and koroua understood the importance of keeping the little pieces of knowledge they were gifted safe under their tongues.
Then came the revival. Hirini Melbourne (Ngāi Tūhoe), Richard Nunns and Brian Flintoff travelled around the motu speaking with kaumātua to collect those pieces of knowledge and weave them together. The next generation of players was mentored by these revivalists, many of whom came to wānanga facilitated and funded by Ngawara Gordon in Rotorua. When speaking with the players who were mentored by these revivalists, you hear the stories of women listening to their nannies playing kōauau while they would sit silently. Or how they wept to the sounds of the pūtorino.
A few years ago, I was able to spend some time with a kuia who had worked with Richard, Brian and Hirini on their travels. From her bed, the kuia told me that every taonga they brought out “wasn’t without a woven case for long”; as the women would set to work making homes for these taonga, a practice they continue to do to this day, not only with weaving, but with breath and song.
Our women, too, were in this generation of revivalists. Aroha Yates-Smith’s thesis ‘Hine! E Hine! Rediscovering the Feminine in Māori Spirituality’ has inspired generations of Māori women to reclaim their identity as part of a long line of mana wāhine stemming back to the atua. Like Hine Mokemoke, atua of the pūtātara, or Hine Raukatauri, our atua of music, who loved her flute so much that she lived within it, Aroha was also a taonga pūoro player active with Hirini, Brian and Richard. She was a singer and performer who was always extending the boundaries of what our pūoro could do in composition with composers such as Gillian Whitehead.
Inside your walls
You are singing your wings open
Drying in the moonlight
Have you ever loved music so much
That you would sacrifice speech for song?
That would never cry again,
Only set your troubles sail
As boats on the night wind?
Adorn your home
That spills like streams of moon
Out into the night
Taonga pūoro is a realm that stretches beyond music into story, ceremony and healing. One of our pou in healing our people with taonga pūoro is tohunga Hinewirangi Kohu Morgan, who has worked with everyone from babies, to people in prisons, survivors of sexual assault, musicians and performers. Her learning began when she was a child.
“[Growing up] we never had television, power, radios. But we learnt to sing for ourselves. We learnt that our first oro was this body. It always starts with the oro, the voice. We all have that. All of us.”
The fact that elements of taonga pūoro were all around the environment Hinewirangi grew up in during her youth, spent in Nūhaka, helped draw her into the kaupapa, and strengthen her bonds with te taiao; a connection inseparable from whakapapa and atua.
“I grew up in the natural world, things like the acorn caps, the mudflat snail, hollowing out gum nuts for karanga manu. Pulling the grass to make bird calls. Taonga pūoro wasn’t even named that then, we never had a name for it. That was just the way it was. We played anything.”
Looking at taonga pūoro as a way of being, rather than just an art form, sets us apart from Western understandings of music. It shows us how, before colonisation, music was used across cultures for community connection, enhancement and self-expression.
Hinewirangi is a well-known kaumatua throughout Aotearoa, especially for her therapeutic work, which stems from her own journey using taonga pūoro to heal herself as a survivor of sexual assault. A strength she now uses, with pūoro, to help others to find the power they need within themselves.
“It became really clear to me after working with myself with taonga pūoro for a long time that it has the magic to heal. Its own total healing power. But more than that, it has the power to help find the healer within you. These instruments are my whānau, they live here with me in my home … It is utterly safe, which is why I live here like I do. In safety.”
Surrounding me are these bodies of wood
Of bone and pounamu
Of paua shell eyes flickering
In the half light
I live here in beauty
Invisible songs stretching back through time
Rising up from between the floorboards
Wisps of healing
The sounds of fresh air
When I cannot breathe
You teach me to breathe for you
Together we make song
Together we exhale
With each new taonga, there is a new whānau of pūoro, and new wāhine to nourish and sound them, and so the whakapapa grows. We are now in the second and third generation of players since the revival, with wāhine around Aotearoa using pūoro to bring forth the voices of our tūpuna into te ao hou.
In Whanganui, taonga pūoro practitioners Elise Goodge and Jessica Kahukura work as members of Awa Pūoro Ki Te Ao. Elise has also worked in museums, and is a researcher of hue practices in Aotearoa and around the Pacific. As a rōpū, they work within events, kura, and marae around Whanganui. An artist and mother, Jess describes taonga pūoro as an entity that has brought clarity and calm to her life and enriched her work.
“Taonga pūoro has brought me breath, a self-regulated rhythm not only in breathing and waiata, but in creating as an artist. Taonga pūoro has brought me a connection with our atua and tūpuna that I never knew was missing.”
Pūoro is a river of sound connecting up the oro – the vibrations of our ancestors, and our descendants.
It's impossible to tell where the music ends and healing begins. For many Indigenous people, music and arts are woven through our daily lives. This is how we teach, this is how we raise our children, this is how we usher our loved ones to and from this world; with song. Chelita Kahutianui-o-te-Rangi Zainey is both a taonga pūoro player and a mirimiri practitioner, and part of the ensemble Kiki Pounamu, who released their debut album in 2020. She sees the different worlds she inhabits in her life as connected by the threads of her taonga.
“In the realms of mirimiri, rongoā Māori and healing we operate through connection with mauri, te wā, ātea, ihi, wehi and wana. The connections held by taonga pūoro are no different. They create a connection to IO, to source, a connection to tūpuna. Their vibration can carry through all the dimensions and shift and move us through time and space. They can penetrate the densest of traumas in a non-threatening, non-invasive way to bring a person to a place of tau – a place that may have been unobtainable for them. The impact of this sends ripples of change through the whakapapa. Within ancient sound lies a key to healing all that has gone before, and all that will come after.”
Practitioner Rob Thorne describes taonga pūoro as ‘pre-reo’; a way of communicating before words came into existence. Communication through sound and vibration; the ancestors of song. To me, this can be felt as a pure form of intention – a way of speaking with more than just words.
Daughter of Hinemoana
You hide your lonely songs
On the ocean floor
Your shell a palace for one
Singing songs that no one can write down
That are heard not by the ears
But by the soul
They pull you from the water
And try to describe your words
That are more than words
But all they find
Into the water
They took you from.
Some may describe this as intuition, found in both the players and listeners of pūoro. One of my mentors, Ariana Tikao, has talked to me about how to get pūoro into whānau and the new generations. It's through the wāhine.
“As a wahine player, I am so excited to see more wāhine players coming forth. Journalists often ask me about being a female player as if that is something special or different. I don't want to be asked that in the future. Once there are enough of us they will stop asking. It will just be seen as natural, like fish swimming in the sea. I have had one challenge as a wahine player, where I've indirectly been told I shouldn't play a pūkaea at an event. But when no one else could play, that person changed their mind. As wāhine, we are so in tune with the kaupapa, and so many of the atua associated with pūoro are female, so it just makes sense for wāhine to be playing. Alongside our male counterparts, we have an important role to play in teaching future generations and to ensure that the revival will keep growing. To normalise taonga pūoro within whānau again.”
Though many of our female players walk the path of pūoro, like our female atua and leaders, they are often left out of the history books and wider kōrero.
With many Kāi Tahu practitioners, including Rua McCallum and Mahina Kingi Kaui, taonga pūoro has strong roots in Te Waipounamu. Mahina is a taonga pūoro practitioner working in both performance and health. She has played for ceremonies such as moko kauae and mataora, worked with people with brain injuries and mental health issues, and has performed on stage with pūoro.
“In Hokianga, in the harbour there, when the tūpāpaku would come past (for tangihanga), an old kuia would sit and play her kōauau and it would ring out across the water … I would remember those times. I would sit there and I would play.”
Mahina, too, has worked in performance, finding herself walking the line where therapy and performance meet.
“In a band called Big Belly Woman, we used the taonga pūoro because we loved the healing nature of it. I saw myself as being an open vessel. I don’t see myself as being a healer, but I see myself as being able to facilitate what’s needed in that person. The body is very capable of healing itself, and within each person these instruments help to focus that. That’s part of my journey with taonga pūoro.”
As with many of the wāhine players, Mahina is passionate about the importance of both mana tāne and mana wāhine being present and represented within pūoro.
“I find that women tend to be more sensitive to the creation of the melodic sounds, we tend to sit back, observe and gently go forward. Some of the roles such as pūkāea or pūtātara, it’s usually the men who have taken those roles on. But when you think about the kaitiaki of that; it’s Hinemokemoke, and the wāhine treat the playing of that story very differently to our men. It’s just like the yin and yang aspect of things; Rangi and Papa. We, women, have a very grounded relationship with the instruments and the elements. That’s what we bring.”
Hinewirangi’s understanding of wairua is the combining of the two waters and energies; the masculine and the feminine encompassing our duality as human beings. To have wāhine pūoro is not to take away from tāne pūoro; it is to exist in balance.
Before your kuia was born
I was held gentle within her
Then you were held gentler still
And if you close your eyes
Travel back through the blackness
The absence of colour that you will learn to love
You will learn to see the music she played for you
Te aho pūoro connecting us
On and on
In our legacy of song
Women are not only he puna roimata, we are also he puna pūoro. The music that pours forth from us is limitless, and the more we share it, the more it grows. Khali Meari Materoa and Te Kahureremoa Taumata are two such storytellers, musicians and taonga pūoro practitioners living in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. They are well known in a range of fields, including their work with children with taonga pūoro at its centre. Te Kahureremoa’s young daughter also plays pūoro.
“It comes really natural to her. She’s really curious, and we let her tutu and come along and be a part of everything. All the kids, all the whānau members are involved in our mahi. It’s all them, we can just recognise and pass on those skills.”
As part of her mahi, Te Kahureremoa travelled to Banff University in Canada for an artist’s residency. There she played taonga pūoro in a group with other Indigenous musicians and artists, helping our oro vibrate around the world, and using our mātauranga to support the knowledge of those seeking to revive and renew these practices.
The sounds of our instruments have created a pathway to healing for many of our wāhine, and Hinewirangi speaks of our instruments’ ability to help us find the healer within. If anything, the playing of taonga pūoro is a relationship that you form with your instruments. Spend time with your taonga, learn how they play and what they need, and they, in turn, will look after you. When teaching taonga pūoro, we often speak of combining your hā with that of the instrument; the two eventually coming together to create one clear sound. From there, you can use that sound together as one.
Kiri Te Taiao McGuire is a taonga pūoro practitioner and maker living in Taranaki, who began her journey with taonga pūoro after an injury. Now she works to make these instruments more accessible for our people.
“I was introduced to taonga pūoro through Thomas Wiremu Carroll, a maker. At the time of our meeting, I was in recovery from my second spinal surgery, living with chronic pain and opioid dependence. Taonga pūoro assisted me in discovering the power of sound and its ability to heal and be shared. Slowly but surely, the taonga and people entering my life through the kaupapa shifted my focus completely, as I learnt glassblowing concurrently. I am fortunate to have access to a hot shop facility named Amokura Glass, in Rotorua, where I make playable sound instruments inspired by traditional taonga such as the kōauau pongāihu and nguru. My aim is accessibility to people everywhere – not everyone can find or afford whale teeth or gourds. If at least one person starts on a pūoro journey of their own with what I’ve made, it’s worth the effort.”
Kiri’s work shows how, in te ao Māori, the right whakaora or rongoā finds the right person, and the more you give to the kaupapa, the more it gives back to you. But of course, you’re never doing it for yourself. We’re doing it to hear our wāhine doing pōwhiri pūoro, we’re doing it to listen to a lone kōauau playing in the bush, and we’re doing it to give voices and a new language to those who’ve had theirs taken from them.
As a taonga pūoro player myself, I’ve been fortunate to be mentored by the generations above me and learn with my generation of players. I not only have a whānau taonga pūoro, but I have a whānau within this group of women. Not a lone bird, a flock. And each of us brings our own song and way of being in the world. I’ve been lucky to work as a composer, a teacher, a player, a therapist, and most importantly a learner and listener within this kaupapa.
As players of taonga pūoro, we don’t put ourselves in cages. We let ourselves fly across the landscape, moving through all the different parts of pūoro. Listen for us in your landscape; we’re out there, reviving voices one taonga at a time, and soon we will have a whole forest full of birds.
Feature image: (from left) Ruby Solly, Hinewirangi Kohu Morgan and Ariana Tikao
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.