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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

The Roria

The Roria

We know that, of all musical instruments introduced by Europeans, but few appealed to the Maori, and among these were the concertina and Jew's harp, to which, in later days, was added the mouth organ. The Jew's harp has ever been a great favourite, and is called roria; in some places kukau. The name roria was that of a very primitive instrument used in pre-European days.

In describing Marsden's visit to Kaipara in 1820, a native said:— "The things that Mr. Marsden brought with him were pipes, Jew's harps, and a she goat. The Maoris were delighted at the Jew's harp, for their own roria were made of supplejack bark."

It would appear that roria is a genuine Maori word and is given as such in Williams' Maori Dictionary, which gives its meaning as Jew's harp. Mr. White's remarks seem to show that there was a pre-European roria, which might account for the name of Tangi-te-roria, a place in the Kai-para district. The Rev. J. Buller tells us that the place was named from the audible vibration caused by tide waters rushing swiftly through an eel weir, which sound was compared to that of the large conch shell, which was their war trumpet. Hence the name of Tangi-te-roria.

We lack any evidence, other than the above, that the term roria was applied to the shell trumpet; it is highly improbable.

In describing his travels in the far north in the thirties, Polack remarks:—"I was pleased in being able to add to their amusements by the gift of that primitive instrument, a Jew's harp, which was received as an inestimable gift and essayed upon by each of the company."

The great care displayed by a Maori in selecting a Jew's harp, and their ingenuity in altering its sound, is well described by Colenso in Contributions towards a better Knowledge of the Maori Race, published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. 13, p. 82.

A description of Maori instruments given by a native to Mr. John White contains the following remarks:—

Another instrument was the roria. It was made of matai or titoki or maire wood. A piece of wood was split about the size of the little finger, and flat. It was scraped with a kokota shell and shaved down with greenstone until quite thin at one end, but left larger at the other end where held in the hand. The larger end was held in the left page 312hand and the small end placed against the teeth. The performer kept opening and closing his lips and striking the thin end of the roria with the forefinger of his right hand. He also accompanied the performance with a song, not a real song but only a murmuring in his throat to which the sound of the roria gave expression as the lips of the performer were moved. The roria sounds very well when played by an expert.

W. B. tells us that the hard, black parts of the interior of the trunk of the mamaku tree fern (Cyathea medullaris) were utilised as material for roria. A strip about 6 in. long and ½ in. wide was dried, then shaved and scraped until very thin. This was held against the teeth and struck outwards. During the vibration of the instrument the operator is said to have crooned words in such a manner that the vibration amplified the sound. In syncopating passages of a song it is said to have been effective.

All these instruments were played in the whare matoro in times of peace. On such evenings elderly men would teach young folk how to perform on such things, and speak of famous performers of former times, and teach the songs that pertained to the different instruments, for each one had its own peculiar song. The notes of the pu tara conveyed certain words, but no words pertained to the pahu, which was merely made to resound.

In his account of the Caroline Isles and their inhabitants, Mr. Christian writes:—"It seems to me that they had a sort of Jew's harp of their own, like the Samoan utete, but the modern ones have ousted the ancient article." He also states that the islanders possessed flutes, and shell trumpets pierced as are those of Fiji and Tahiti.

A form of Jew's harp consisting of a piece of bamboo, is employed by some tribes of Borneo; a specimen from the Solomon Isles is depicted in Edge-Partington's Album. The material employed by our Maori folk in most cases was a strip of the outer part of the supplejack cane. In late times a piece of the outer part of maize stalks has been used for the purpose. The Fijians employed a strip of bamboo for the purpose.

Natives tell us that players of the roria, pakuru, and certain wind instruments would repeat the words of a tune they were playing by breathing such words. In this connection Tylor tells us that the common Jew's harp can be made to utter the vowel sounds by simply putting the mouth in the proper position for speaking the vowel, when the harp is struck. The player's voice emits no sound, but the vibratory tongue of the harp placed in front of the mouth acts as a substitute for the vocal chords.

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If the Maori had a primitive form of roria in pre-European times it is quite possible that it was a similar instrument to that made by the natives of Borneo from a piece of bamboo, and which is depicted in Ling Roth's Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo.

The manipulation of Jew's harps by Tongans is described by St. Johnston:—"Berrill gave the musician two little Jew's harps, whose shrill tones he changed to mellowness by wrapping a thread round the tongue of each, and the music that he produced from those miserable things was marvellous. He could play two harps at once, holding one to his mouth, which he played with a finger, and the other one held in his teeth, which he played with his tongue, and the effect was astounding. Afterwards he and his friend played a duet, snapping their fingers as a sort of rude accompaniment, the chief musician introducing a strange variation by playing the instrument with his tongue, and placing his hollowed hands over his mouth, he slowly opened and closed them, which made the sound to swell and then to die away, as though it were miles distant."