taonga puoro

A broad, multi-disciplinary study of international significance is underway at the University of Otago. The haunting and beautiful sounds of taonga pūoro is something rooted in the fabric of our landscape in Aotearoa, but currently there is a significant knowledge-gap in the music-making of the very first Polynesian settlers. The study, led by Dr Jennifer Cattermole aims to discover how the first southern Polynesian colonists of Aotearoa, Rēkohu and Rangihaute – and their descendants – adapted tropical musical instruments and traditions to the new resources of a large, cool- seasonal continental island group. We spoke to Dr Cattermole and taonga pūoro expert Alistair Fraser about the study:

Let’s paint a picture for the readers who might have very scant knowledge about our musical history. What sort of time/date does the study look back to? Which particular areas of Aotearoa are included in the study? Would these first colonists of Aotearoa, Rēkohu and Rangihaute be what we call Moriori? Is this a time before or during Māori settlement?

There’s been lots of academic debate over when the ancestors of Māori first arrived in Aotearoa, and when the ancestors of Moriori first arrived in Rēkohu. This study looks back as far as 1200-1500 CE, which is roughly when these archipelagos are believed to have been colonised. Most current evidence suggests that Aotearoa and Rēkohu were settled around the same time – Rēkohu possibly slightly later than Aotearoa. The ancestors of both Māori and Moriori are thought to have voyaged mainly from central Eastern Polynesia – particularly the Society Islands, Southern Cooks, Australs and Tuamotus, though voyagers may also have travelled from much further afield. Direct voyaging to Rēkohu from the tropics may have occurred, though it is likelier that the ancestors of Moriori travelled there via Aotearoa. Following the decline of long distance voyaging across Oceania from around 1400-1500 CE, the peoples that became Māori and Moriori developed their own distinctive cultures in isolation – until Aotearoa and Rēkohu were rediscovered by peoples from other parts of the world. This study encompasses all areas of Aotearoa and Rēkohu.

“There’s some interesting parallels with instruments from other parts of Oceania, but also some really curious differences.”

Dr Jennifer Cattermole

Why is there a knowledge-gap of this period of music-making in our history?

I suspect at least in part the answer to this is that it’s not a very easy knowledge gap to address. It involves working across lots of disciplines, and also looking at some big questions: when did the ancestors of Māori and Moriori first settle Aotearoa and Rēkohu, respectively?; where did those ancestors voyage from? How and why did their musical traditions change as their own distinctive cultures developed? The data is quite scattered, and not always very easy to access in order to collate and analyse it. It’s a pretty ambitious project!

Oral histories are a really  important  part of this study, as they provide important records of taonga pūoro that were played by particular people in particular places for particular reasons. One such account is the famous love story involving Murirangaranga, the kōauau Tūtānekai played to seduce Hinemoa (according to some accounts). The kōauau was named after a famous tohunga, Te Murirangaranga, who was  killed  soon after Tūtānekai’s birth, and is made from Te Murirangaranga’s arm bone. Actually, if it’s possible to put a call out to people in the community, if anyone’s willing to share their stories about taonga pūoro,  they’d  really help in a big way with this study.

Alistair Fraser is on the search for the instruments themselves held in museums and private collections. I imagine there are preliminary findings about the instruments? Can you give a brief outline about the sort of instruments they are? Parallels (or differences) with other Polynesian instruments? Māori instruments vs Moriori?

Actually, there’s been a few people doing this part of the mahi for this project. Al’s done some in the past, and is about to do some more. Irene Hundleby, Maramena Tuna, Hata Temo and myself have also been involved.

  • A brief outline: several different kinds of flutes, bird callers, trumpets, percussion instruments, and instruments that are swung or that create sound through tension on a string. There’s quite a variety!
  • There’s some interesting parallels with instruments from other parts of Oceania, but also some really curious differences. One taonga pūoro, the pūtōrino, is utterly unique to Māori. The addition of a wooden mouthpiece to the conch trumpets (pūtātara) is uncommon elsewhere (used in Tahiti and the Marquesas). An interesting absence in Aotearoa are the slit log gongs and skin- headed drums found elsewhere in Polynesia; Māori percussion instruments were quite different in design.

The only musical instrument that shows up in the archaeological record for Moriori are albatross bone flutes (two of these are housed in museum collections, and one has recently turned up in an archaeological dig on Rēkohu). There are written accounts, though of other types of instruments too – mainly percussion ones: including the striking of trees in order to change the wind direction or cause rain.

The study is also ground-breaking in that you will CT Scan the instruments! Can you expand a little on this process and what you think you will learn from this? How will these images be used? Is it like a hospital CT scan…or a different technology?

We actually used the CT scanner at the Dunedin hospital – so, it’s exactly like a hospital CT scan. With the CT scanning, imagine each instrument being chopped up into 0.6mm horizontal slices, with each slice being an x-ray image of the cross-section  of the instrument. Local designer Michael Findlay used a medical viewing application called Horos to create virtual 3D models from the CT scan data. Because Horos wasn’t compatible with the 3D printing software, another application called Meshlab had to be used to prepare the virtual models for printing, and the instruments were successfully printed using a plastic medium.

There were some pretty cool aspects of this. One of the most important things was that the prints were playable. Most instruments in museums can’t be played – either because playing them would damage them, or because they’re treated with chemicals that would harm players. So the prints were a way to let the taonga sing once more. More study of their sounds could help us learn more about how past Māori music sounded. We were also able to create pull-apart versions, which is a way to learn more about the internal structure of the instruments. This is important knowledge for makers of these instruments, as the internal construction is not always easy to learn about just from looking at the outside of an instrument, and is super- important in determining the sounds the instrument is capable of. Another possibility that we explored was digitally ‘repairing’ broken instruments, and then printing the repaired versions. Another interesting thing was that we could actually see the wood grain of the instruments; micro-CT scanning would likely show that info in even greater detail. Eventually, that kind of info could be used to help identify the types of trees used to make the instruments, and possibly also   to date the age of the trees they were made from.

The study mentions you will be working on an app. Is this something you see as being used by the wider-community, schools, etc?

The aim was to create both a publicly accessible, searchable database, as well as an app. That’s sadly not going to happen now for this project. Things got pretty complicated over who could access that data and under what kinds of conditions. There IP issues involved are tricky, and I suspect will take some time to navigate. This is still very much a longer-term goal for this research, though. It’s just going to take a bit more time to try and make it happen.

This study looks like it will have huge significance not only for our own communities but also paint a wider global picture of the journey of music, ideas and people in the Pacific. Can you talk a little about the international dimension? Talking to Cook Islands, Tonga, Ethnomusicological Conferences?

Thanks, and yes, hopefully it will shed light on broader issues of Oceanic trade, migration, cultural development etc. It kind of goes to the heart of Oceanic scholar Epeli Hau’ofa’s idea of Oceania being a sea of islands, and pointing out the connective aspects of the Ocean rather than being something that divides and isolates. This project’s very much about what connects peoples in Oceania, using Polynesian peoples’ musical instruments as a lens. It’s also very much interested in stories of ingenuity, innovation and adaptation – looking at how and why musical instrument traditions brought from the tropics changed to suit new ways of life in new places. The aim is to share this info widely, via conference presentations and publications.

If you have any stories about taonga pūoro to share and help with the study, please contact Dr Jennifer Cattermole: jennifer.cattermole@otago.ac.nz

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