Henare Walmsley’s quest to rediscover Māori musical instruments or taonga puoro was showcased at Sacred Heart Church in Petone last month.
Henare from Te Kainga community centre and marae, a Māori Catholic group in Kilbirnie, Wellington, have incorporated taonga puoro (singing treasures) into their Mass. In the old days many of these taonga were used for healing, prayer and personal contemplation but fell into general disuse with the rise of Christianity and the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907.
Henare has spent several years searching for these instruments, playing them and reviving early Māori practices to recreate the voices of Te Ao Māori or the Māori world. Most of the voices reflect the sound of the environment. For example by pulling a wet harakeke leaf through a finger and thumb you can recreate the call of the kaka; two seal rib bones hit together, one end pushed into the cheek resonate a popping noise similar to piwakawaka or fantail; the grinding of rocks on a beach is produced by rubbing two rough pieces of argillite splinters together.
Drawing a group of about 40 people on a rainy night, Henare opened the session with the boom of an aboriginal didgeridoo. ‘Indigenous instruments, like this one, date back some 40,000 years and have strong connections to the environment,’ says Henare. ‘Australian Aborigines have a similar connection to earth mother and sky father in much the same way as Māori’. The voice of the didgeridoo speaks of the heart beat of the earth.
The putatara, for instance, was used to lift the spirit of the people in order to energise them or clear the way from harm. It also heralded a time of great celebration or harvest. The turning of seasons at Matariki was indeed a time to sound the putatara.
‘We are still exploring the wonderful language of the putatara.’ Henare explained that the instruments represented the voices of the ancestors and each taonga is dedicated to a particular Māori god or ancestor.
The putatara depicts Tangaroa in its shell and Tanemahuta in its wooden mouth piece. Tawhirimatea, the God of winds and storms, blows through the centre of Tangaroa and Tane sending out the karanga to people.
‘Mimicking the environment around you is to be at one with that space,’ Henare said. Pebbles cascading inside a hollow dried cactus plant create the voice of rain falling on moist earth. In old times M%u0101ori hunters used p%u016Brerehua (a kind of bullroarer) to draw down kereru from the forest canopy. Purerehua (butterfly) mimic the sound of fluttering butterflies coaxing the hunted ones to their inevitable peril.
Nguru or nose flute is a particularly sacred flute because the breath of the Tohunga is not (in concept) taken from noa or common source. Food mixed in the mouth contaminates the breath of a person therefore considered ordinary, while the ha or breath from the nose is considered sacred.
Flute voices are limited because they have just two or three holes – some of them none. So there is only a limited range of notes. Henare explained the challenges in getting them to talk. Much of the intonation is done in the mouth and throat. The didgeridoo, played by fluttering the lips, uses the back of the throat to make unique intonations. Aboriginal didgeridoo players use a technique of double breathing, or inhaling while blowing into the instrument to maintain a continuous almost human voice.
Henare said that Māori art and craft represents that of the human embodied form. Like that of a grand meeting house (wharepuni) representing the human depiction of an ancestor complete with arms outstretched, a head or koruru, back bone or tuara and ribs inside or heke/rafters.
Morna Taute, (right) Turanga Māori, is working with others to build a wharepuni for the Mass. ‘All the components for the Mass or Miha are contained in the whare. The poutokomanawa or post that holds the structure together is like the gospel holding the Miha together. The matapihi or windows invite the people to look in and their designs honour their ancestors.
Mandy Scanlan (left) also explained the tukutuku panels above the entrance to Sacred Heart church and how their whare embodied their ancestor.