Story: Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro

Page 3. The family of Papa – rhythmic instruments

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Tumutumu family

Tumutumu are made from stone, wood or bone and struck with stone or wooden strikers to create rhythms. Flakes of argillite held in the cupped palm produce varying pitches. Tōkere are small pieces of hard wood or shells held in the palm by dancers and played like castanets. Some small versions of the pahū (log drum) suggest their use in music.

The gourd instruments hue puruwai and hue rarā are variations of rhythmic shakers with loose seeds or pebbles inside. They have mixed parentage – as gourds they belong to the family of Hinepūtehue, while as rhythmic instruments they are part of the family of Papa.


The pākuru is a slender rod, sometimes elaborately carved, held over the mouth cavity to use its resonance and tapped with another rod while the performers also sang and danced. In the late 19th century Gilbert Mair described ‘a number of skilled performers, standing in a row, their swaying bodies and little tapping mallets keeping perfect unison … The effect is remarkably melodious and pleasing.’1  The pākuru and the poi were the only instruments used in large groups.


The rōria is a form of jew’s harp, and was often a length of split kareao (supplejack vine) about 8–10 centimetres long. One end was held in the mouth or against the teeth, and the vine was plucked with a finger of the free hand. A skilled player could manipulate the rōria to produce speech-like sounds.

The kū is a single-stringed instrument, which is tapped with a slender rod and played using the mouth cavity for resonance in the same way as the pākuru and rōria.

The family of Hineteiwaiwa

Hineteiwaiwa is the goddess of women’s arts, including the poi. She and her daughters were part of the first recorded travelling music troupe, which included a number of instrumental musicians, singers and dancers.


The most common rhythmic Māori instrument is the poi – a ball of dried flax on a string, swung and tapped by hand to make rhythmic patterns and sounds. Used by groups of women during dances, it can be the most spectacular of instruments.


In the 1920s Ngāti Porou elder Tuta Nihoniho explained how the turorohu (bullroarer) was used to bring rain. An expert practitioner would throw a handful of ashes to the south (the rainy quarter) and swing his instrument around to make a dull roaring sound. At the same time he would expose his buttocks to the south and recite an insulting karakia. ‘This curious performance … would certainly produce a rainstorm from the south.’2

The family of Tāwhirimātea

The children of the god of winds, Tāwhirimātea, have no bodies. They are considered to be spirit children, and the instruments that copy their sounds have spiritual purposes. The taonga puoro of this family are said to take the player’s hopes and distribute them on ngā hau e whā, the four winds.

Pūrerehua or turorohu create eerie sounds as they spin on the ends of their cords. Stories are told of them calling rain, summoning tears and even enticing food from hiding places.

Porotiti are small discs with a looped cord, which are spun and create special rhythms as they wind and unwind. Sometimes they are known as kōrorohū when spun, but kōrerohua when the spinning vanes are blown on. They are also used as healing aids. Their ultrasonic sounds and vibrations are said to clear infants’ sinuses and aid with arthritis.

  1. Quoted in Mervyn McLean, Māori music. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996, p. 172. Back
  2. Elsdon Best, Games and pastimes of the Māori: an account of various exercises, games and pastimes of the natives of New Zealand, as practised in former times: including some information concerning their vocal and instrumental music. Wellington: Government Printer, 1976 (originally published 1925), p. 294. Back
How to cite this page:

Brian Flintoff, 'Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro - The family of Papa – rhythmic instruments', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Brian Flintoff, published 22 Oct 2014