Recently the Robert McDougall Art Gallery hosted a show by Brian Flintoff and Richard Nunns. These two men – introduced by none other than the esteemed Sir Tipene O’Regan - have spent the better part of their careers learning about traditional Māori musical instruments and the musical expression of pre-colonial Aotearoa.
We were treated to a retelling of the creation story complete with sound effects incorporated into beautiful and haunting songs sung by Ariana Tikao. Brian tells a good story. It starts with the separating of Sky Father Rangi - for whom tunes are named after – and Earth Mother Papatuanuku - who provides the heartbeat and rhythm. This is the work of their eldest son Tane, who then filled the new space with sounds, breath of the birds – haumanu, and things from which to make these sounds. This connection with the ‘cosmogony‘ (cor, what a word!) is why they are called singing treasures.
Richard and Brian have been hanging out for years and their hilarious banter gave some extra personal flavour to the storytelling.
The instruments themselves were amazing to hear and see. Carved and decorated whales teeth and bones, shells, hardwoods, soft stones, gourds, pounamu and even kelp are then blown, struck or swung to create sounds that mimic those made by nature. My favourite instrument is the ‘hue puruhau’. It is a gourd that when swung in a big circle, emulates the low boom of the male kakapo. Way cool!
And how about this for a true story… a flute with one hole, the pumotomoto, is played over the fontanelle of a new-born baby’s head to implant songs and information on tribal heritage directly into the child’s subconscious. Now that’s an idea.
The echo of the marbled art gallery chamber made the sounds and songs come alive. Another thing that really struck me was how eerie some of this was. If I was about to go for a walk in the woods at night, I’d be scared!
In this Radio NZ programme Richard Nunns plays the instruments and talks about them too.