Story: Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro

Page 4. Decline and revival of Māori instruments

All images & media in this story

Loss of musical traditions

After European settlement, a number of factors led to the near-demise of use of taonga puoro (traditional Māori instruments). Many of the ceremonies at which they were played disappeared with the introduction of Christianity. Māori themselves put aside their traditional instruments in favour of introduced versions such as the jew’s harp, which replaced its equivalent, the rōria. Māori musicians were swift and adept at adopting a wide range of new instruments including banjos, pianos, bagpipes, brass-band instruments and, perhaps most popular of all, the guitar.

As traditional instruments became rare, they were acquired by museums and private collectors, and later generations of Māori did not learn the art of playing them.

Loud and soft

In 1994 Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns, leaders of the revival of traditional Māori instruments, were invited to record the first ever CD devoted entirely to these instruments. Te kū te whe (loud and soft) was recorded at Rattle Records’ Auckland studios in a day and a half. It featured some 19 instruments, and extracts later reappeared in other sound recordings and numerous radio and TV programmes, documentaries and advertisements. Te te whe became ‘the soundtrack to just about all media allusions to the Māori side of national life.’1


In 1991 Nga Pua Waihanga, the Māori Artists and Writers Society, held a hui at Te Araroa on the East Coast to recall what was still known of taonga puoro. Among those taking part were Hirini Melbourne, a composer, musician and linguist of Ngāi Tūhoe; Richard Nunns, a teacher and jazz musician; and Brian Flintoff, a Nelson carver and instrument maker. Melbourne invited Nunns and Flintoff to join him in reviving taonga puoro traditions and practice. With support from various elders, Melbourne drew together others from around the country with different areas of expertise, but the common intention of creating a human resource that would foster the revival of making and playing the instruments. This movement grew under the name Haumanu, which means both ‘breath of birds’ and ‘revival’.

Stirring up memories

Richard Nunns has a collection of more than 80 taonga puoro, including two kōauau made out of human bone. He says, ‘I played one of them at one of the ana koiwi [burial caves] way up on the side of Maungapohatu’ (in the heart of the Urewera). Nunns and other taonga puoro experts have played these instruments in Māori communities nationwide. ‘Kuia [women elders] would come up to them after a performance, sometimes in tears, and share remembered snippets they themselves had forgotten until the sound of Richard and Hirini [Melbourne] playing restored them to consciousness.’2

Taonga puoro in the 2000s

In the 21st century the unique sounds of taonga puoro were heard on radio and television, in films, videos, concerts and everyday events. Recordings such as Te kū te whe and Te hekenga ā Rangi were widely available. Popular musicians such as Moana Maniapoto, jazz artists such as Jeff Henderson and Evan Parker, and modern classical composers such as Gillian Whitehead and John Psathas had all used traditional instruments in their live performances and recordings. Taonga puoro had become re-established as a living treasure.

  1. Peter Beatson, ‘Richard Nunns: the renaissance of traditional Māori music.’ Music in the Air 16 (2003), p. 28. Back
  2. ‘Richard Nunns: the renaissance of traditional Māori music,’ p. 25. Back
How to cite this page:

Brian Flintoff, 'Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro - Decline and revival of Māori instruments', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Brian Flintoff, published 22 Oct 2014