The Tales of Maori Musical Instruments

February 6, 2020

“It was in the night, that the Gods sang the world into existence. From the world of light, into the world of music,” said Ngai Tahu tribal leader Matiaha Tiramorehu in 1849, as he relayed the Maori creation story.

Tiramorehu, of course, said the words in Maori: Kei a te Po te timatatanga o te waiatatanga mai a te Atua. Ko te Ao, ko te Ao marama, ko te Ao tu roa.

Brian Flintoff, a master carver and traditional Maori instrument maker, stresses the above story in his book “Taonga Puoro: Singing Treasures: The Musical Instruments of the Maori.” Flintoff believes that to appreciate the Maori musical instruments, the cosmology that brought them into existence needs to be understood, that is, the Maori myths and legends.

These tales have passed down the generations largely by word of mouth, with the details of the stories differing slightly. “There are lots of versions of the creation story as would be expected from an oral tradition where important points were added or omitted as fitted the circumstances of the telling, which shows the deficiencies of the printed word,” Flintoff said in an email.

Traditional Maori musical instruments are more than the music they make.

“All the different types of Maori song stem from the emotions displayed by the gods during the creation aeons. There are songs of sorrow, anger, and lament; of loneliness, desire, and joy; of peace and love. The voices of the instruments and the movements of dance support and embellish the songs,” Flintoff wrote.

Maori musical instruments are therefore a key part of maintaining the Maori tradition of storytelling, used to convey myths, ancestral knowledge, and more, thus enabling Maori lore to flourish for future generations.

Songs for Well-Being

One of the simplest of instruments is the porotiti, the Maori word for circle. But a porotiti can be any shape as long as it’s balanced, Flintoff explained in a phone interview. It is spun on a string that goes forward and back through two holes in the center, and as it gets up to speed it hums.

“We used to use a coat button on a piece of cotton when we were kids,” Flintoff said. A throwback to Scotland’s heritage, he believes. Many may know the yo-yo, which is similar to the porotiti.

But Maori did something really unique with the instrument. They would blow on the porotiti as it was spinning, so it became a song catcher, he explained.

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