Taonga pūoro are a range of musical instruments and other sound making devices indigenous to Aotearoa New Zealand. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, they were scarcely heard outside of just a few whānau scattered throughout the motu. Leading taonga pūoro practitioner and Arts Laureate Ariana Tikao (of Kāi Tahu descent) is a member of newly formed Maianginui, alongside three other Wellington-based wāhine taonga pūoro players. With the aid of Ariana the group discuss how each got involved in taonga pūoro, and what it’s like being a wahine player.
Over the past few decades there has been a resurgence of the knowledge and practice of taonga pūoro, led by people such as Hirini Melbourne, Brian Flintoff, Richard Nunns, Hinewirangi Kohu-Morgan, and Aroha Yates-Smith. They formed the group Haumanu, which literally means, the breath of birds, but can also mean revival. The public face of the movement in the first few decades was largely male, but there is a growing number of wāhine playing taonga pūoro in a range of different ways.
First my fellow wāhine introduce themselves:
Ruby Solly: Ko Aoraki te mauka, ko Waihao te awa, Ko Kāi Tahu, rātou ko Kāti Māmoe, ko Waitaha ōku iwi. Ko Kāti Huirapa tōku hapū o Kāi Tahu. Ko Waihao taku marae. Ko Ruby Hinepunui Solly tōku ingoa.
Khali: Ko Khali Meari Materoa tōku ingoa, he mokopuna ahau nō Ngāti Rangi ki Reporua. Otirā nō Te Tai Rāwhiti Whānui.
Kahu: Ko Ngāti Kahungunu, ko Ngāti Tūwharetoa ōku iwi. Ko Ngāi Te Upokoiri, Ngāti Hinemanu, me Ngāti Manunui ōku hapū. Ko Ōmāhu tōku kāinga ūkaipō. Ko Te Kahureremoa Taumata tōku ingoa.
All three experienced taonga pūoro as children at their schools, which would not have been the reality just a generation earlier. Kahu and Khali both had the pūtātara – a trumpet-like instrument made with a conch shell and wooden mouthpiece – instead of the school bell at their kura.
“I was lucky to go to a Kura Kaupapa that had pūoro around, so we played pūtātara for our school bell to call us to karakia in the morning, or let us go for lunch,” says Khali. “We also had kōauau around the school but we didn’t really understand at the time how important they were. So we kind of took them for granted a lot. We also got taught to make pūtangitangi out of clay, which was a school project that heaps of us did in the ’90s. Yet we didn’t really appreciate how precious those experiences were.”
Ruby had a teacher at National Park Primary School in the central North Island who taught the kids to play. She is now a multi-instrumentalist who has toured with Trinity Roots and played with Yoyo Ma. In 2020 Ruby released a critically acclaimed debut solo album of place-based taonga pūoro and cello tunes, called ‘Pōneke’.
“When I was at primary school I was really lucky to have a teacher who played taonga puoro, and girls learnt kōauau and boys learnt pūrerehua.”
This practice was discontinued however after a kaumātua objected to the girls learning kōauau. She started to play taonga pūoro again while studying music therapy at Victoria University many years later, and now is studying for a PhD on taonga pūoro through Massey University.
Kahu’s early experiences with music came from within her whānau.
“I come from a really musical family. Like for heaps of other Māori, [I learnt] mostly through osmosis. Music was always around. The first instrument I learned to play was the guitar. But my dad, he’s a kaitito waiata.”
She describes a period in her childhood where only Māori music was allowed to be played in the home, so her family was fed on a diet of Hirini Melbourne, Iwi Hit Disc compilations and other classics of the ’80s and ’90s. She started playing taonga pūoro as a young adult.
“It wasn’t until I was about 19 that I actually got into the practice of playing taonga pūoro for myself, in an intentional way. It started off with a kōauau blank, and then when I started working at Te Papa, when I was 23, I just forced myself into the Haumanu ki Te Papa group.”
The kōauau is probably the most common type of flute, a basic cylinder shape that is cross-blown.
“I use them to accompany waiata or to sing waiata itself. I find the bone kōauau are really good for tangi moments, waiata tangi. They’re very versatile in terms of when they’re appropriate to use ceremonially.”
Kahu and Khali met while working at Te Papa, which had started a Haumanu group. The group is still active today and they play taonga pūoro for pōwhiri and ceremonies associated with the museum’s Māori activities. They’ve been friends since and have been collaborating on music, storytelling, and various projects. Kahu has also been producing her own music, videos and digital art under the name of Ladyfruit, and also using her own name Te Kahureremoa.
Ruby finds both pluses and minuses to being a wahine pūoro player.
“One of the positives is there is a connection to the line of wāhine that go all the way back to Papatūānuku, Hineahuone and [others]. But their stories have predominantly been told by men in the recent past, and we don’t currently have enough sources to know what it looked like before that.
“Because of the way that history is written through a male lens, we don’t always see ourselves within the more colonial histories of our instruments. So you have to carve out a lot of spaces for yourself.”
“The challenges we face as women taonga pūoro players are the same as in the non-taonga pūoro music industry, that it’s real male-dominated. Sometimes it can be hard to be heard and trusted and seen and kept safe. But always in response to that women just link up even more,” Kahu says.
All three wāhine [along with the writer of this article] have formed a quartet called Maianginui, are working together on various projects and excited to be supporting other wāhine players. They’ve recently started being mentored by Hinewirangi Kohu-Morgan who grew up playing taonga pūoro in her whānau, and is a pioneer in using taonga pūoro for healing.
“[This] is really what learning in te ao Māori does look like… with kaumātua, and tuākana-teina. And that doesn’t always happen in the wider scene,” says Ruby.
Khali loves to share taonga pūoro with others and to help make them accessible, and feels that being a wahine contributes to this.
“I have all this space to share, and to nourish and nurture the curiosity in people. Pūoro aren’t the most straightforward, you know, they don’t just have a string to pluck or a specific way to blow in and it makes a sound. There is a connection that you have to have to the pūoro, and a relationship that you grow with the pūoro. Because I’m a wahine I can forge those relationships between pūoro and others.”
“Wāhine are just bomb. I feel like, especially since Maianginui has come together, I feel so much more held,” Kahu reflects. “Even though I was already growing my own little kāhui wāhine of players with Khali, my sister, my baby, and doing it that way but also since we’ve all connected and Nan’s [Hinewirangi] mentoring us now. That’s pretty much for me, the most exciting thing that’s happening in taonga puoro everywhere in the universe… That feels like more momentum than I’ve ever felt in a long time.”
Maianginui was set to perform a new composition written by Ruby with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in March 2021. Ruby explains how the opportunity came about.
“The APO asked me, ‘If I could do anything with the orchestra, what would I do?’ and I said that I’d work with the four of us. And they were keen on that. So I was really excited because it would be the first time a wāhine taonga pūoro quartet has performed with an orchestra.”
She went on to talk about the kaupapa of her composition.
“I really wanted to focus on the story of Tinirau and Kae, but looking at it from the perspective of the atua wahine… who were in charge of all of the action.”
The tale is an origin story for Māori performing arts, wherein a group of women, led by Hineteiwaiwa, need to identify the tohunga Kae by making him smile. They try all sorts of performance types, including haka and various taonga pūoro to get him to smile and reveal his crooked tooth, so they can identify him, and kill him for a previous misdemeanour.
“The atua wahine use all the skills that they’d developed to get what they need. In the piece which is called Ātahu [charm or enchantment] it’s about channelling all [our] skills, so that we could turn the audience into Kae and his men, and we would be enchanting them…
“We got to put the story through the feminine lens… [and] also we got to wānanga together about the different versions of the story and came up with one together that we all could play to, and that we all liked. So it’s quite a different composing process than what would happen in te ao Pākehā, I think.”
Ruby was also mentored by the prominent NZ composer Salina Fisher, who supported her with the orchestral component of the piece. The premiere performance of Ātahu had to be delayed after Auckland was put back into a level 3 lockdown around the time it was due to be rehearsed, and is being rescheduled. But meanwhile, Maianginui will keep breathing life back into the instruments of their ancestors.