The original release in 1991 of ‘Toiapiapi’ by Hirini Melbourne (1949-2003) was a profound and beautiful landmark on the soundscape of NZ music. A first of its kind with an exclusive use of te reo incorporating the then barely-heard traditional instruments, the album possessed a depth of culture that was absolutely undeveloped in 1991, and one of the reasons why Melbourne created the work.
Already a well-known composer of waiata by then, and working within the national education administration since 1977, one of the primary motivations for his work was to create resources where there were none. So often in creative arts the best work is driven by a deep personal need, and for the devoted family man, the recognition of a lack of Māori-centric educational material became focused around his children for whom a lot of these songs were written. Huge amounts of research on the traditional instruments (taonga puoro) was being undertaken when ‘Toiapiapi’ was recorded, and Melbourne was seeking to invest the learning into a deeply practical form for all of New Zealand to access. That it was so ahead of its time is evident in the way ‘Toiapiapi’ has more than remained, it has parented so much. Many people know these songs from early school days and because of this and their authentic, simple beauty we still hear them sung today, and often on marae.
By establishing the form, ‘Toiapiapi’ has become of both personal and national significance. Like many other seekers, the original text/cassette package was one of the first things I discovered in my search for information about taonga puoro 16 years ago, alongside another CD/book beauty of Melbourne’s, ‘Te Wao Nui A Tāne’ (1999). Songs like Pūrerehua, Porotiti, Taku Pūtōrino and Karanga Weka literally embody and demystify the instruments in a way that we not only learn but remember for life, while others capture and instil in us the mystery of these ancient taonga by their subtle presence, such as in the track Tangi Mokemoke a Raureka where the pūtōrino is used to evoke an indeterminable howling that might be an icy inhospitable mountain-scape or possibly the howling dogs accompanying Raureka on her fatal ordeal.
In the book’s introduction Richard Nunns, friend and peer to Melbourne, speaks to the intent in the process saying that the work sits together in a “mixed fashion to show that the old instruments needn’t be restricted to just ritual performance. They can take their place in a modern setting, and can be played or not played by choice… although the instruments have much to teach us about the past, I believe they can also help us develop future traditions in music-making.”
Of course this hope has come to fruition in many ways since the package’s original publication 25 years ago, so much so that ‘Toiapiapi’ has now become part of the tradition that was its future on first release. Undoubtedly it will continue to speak to the new and (un)changing times, evidenced in the way the song Waitangi te Tiriti is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.
‘Toiapiapi’ is a gorgeous package of confirmation, continuation, longing and hope, both musically and culturally. It allows the one that started it all to return refreshed and accessible to its rightful place amongst its successors, for the young and old, those who have grown up in it, and those who have been there since before the start, to renew their connections and begin again, together.
The ‘Toiapiapi’ book/CD package and the standalone CD are available on its website and through Shearwater Publishing’s website. It can also be found in various bookshops and museum shops, and is available as digital download on iTunes.