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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

The Pahu or Gong

The Pahu or Gong

It is a singular thing that the true drum was not employed by the Maori, as it was widely used in both Polynesia and Melanesia. The Maori of New Zealand has never, so far as we are aware, made or used anything more than the wooden gong. There were two forms of this instrument; one was simply a flat hewn slab of heart of matai (Podocarpus spicatus), said to be a resonant timber. The other form was more elaborate, a block of sound heartwood hewn into the form of a canoe, and hollowed out carefully, and at the expense of much time and labour, so as to leave a long narrow aperture that widened out to a large hollow space in the interior. The latter form was probably much rarer than the slab form, and the only one ever seen by the writer was made by a Rua-tahuna native for the late Mr. C. E. Nelson about the year 1899. It was about five feet in length, probably smaller than those of former times. It is shown in Fig. 103.

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Fig. 103 A Pahu or Wooden Gong, as made by the Tuhoefolk of Rua-tahuna Sketch by Miss E. Richardson

Accounts of the slab form of pahu differ in explanation of the mode of striking them. Some say that they were struck with a wooden club; others that the club was rattled in a hole made through the middle of the slab. These gongs were usually suspended by two ropes, one near each end, from two posts erected on the lookout platform of a pa or fortified village. It was the watchman's duty to strike the gong occasionally, to show that the people were on the alert. It was also used for signalling purposes in war times. The following extract from Mr. White's lectures shows that the slab was sometimes suspended by one end:—

"The resolution for war, or the approach of an enemy, is communicated to the people at large by a trumpet called a pu tara, or by a kind of gong formed out of a piece of matai wood, hung by one end and struck with a stone at the other."

In the Journal of Sir G. Grey's overland expedition in 1850, mention is made of a pa named Nga Tukituki a Hika-wera, that formerly existed on Mount Aroha-uta, which had been built by a chief named Ruinga. This fortified place had been considered almost impregnable; the posts of it still remained at that time (1850). "As an instance of the great distance at which the sound of the pahu or ancient native gong could be heard, he informed us that the pahu in this pa had been heard at Matamata, which is not less than twelve or fourteen miles."

"The pahu or native gong was a large piece of oval wood, hollowed out something in the shape of a shallow bowl, and made as thin as possible, upon the principle of the sounding board. This instrument was hung to a post in the centre of the pa, and was sounded (by striking it with a heavy piece of wood) as an alarm in case of attack in time of war, on which occasions only it was used; and in order to prevent it being sounded by children, or otherwise without reason, it was hung at a great height, so that the person sounding it had to mount a sort of platform or scaffolding, in order to reach it."

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Angas has left us a note on this instrument: "Amidst the decaying ruin of the pa of Otawhao I found the pahu or war bell, an instrument now fallen into disuse, and regarded as obsolete; it was only sounded when an enemy was expected. It is an oblong piece of wood, about six feet long, with a groove in the centre; and being slung by ropes of flax, was struck with a heavy piece of wood, by a man who sat on an elevated scaffold, crying out at every stroke the watchword of alarm. It was only during the night that the pahu was sounded, for the purpose of informing the enemy that the inmates of the pa were awake, and also to let the people of the pa know that the sentinel is on the look-out. Its sound is a most melancholy one, the dull heavy strokes breaking with a solemn monotony on the stillness of the night: tolling, as it were, the death knell of many to be slain on the morrow." The pahu illustrated in Angas' Savage Life and Scenes is of the same form as that illustrated in Thomson's Story of New Zealand, a flat slab of wood suspended above a watchman's stage in a horizontal position, not edgewise, a hole in its centre seems to be a pierced one, not a mere groove. The operator is shown as having his beater thrust into the hole, as though he was dashing it from side to side of the aperture. This illustration is reproduced in Fig. 104 (p. 299).

Thomson provides a brief passage on the gong:—

"Suspended by cords from an elevated stage hung a wooden gong twelve feet long, not unlike a canoe in shape, which, when struck with a wooden mallet, emitted a sound heard in still weather twenty miles off."

Thomson's illustration of the gong is not the one he describes, but that illustrated in Angas, a very different form; see Fig. 104 below.

Fig. 104 A Wooden Gong suspended on an elevated platform. After Angas. The decrepit looking fence represents no pre-European structure. See p. 299

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Among Ngati-Porou the pahu was made of totara, matai, and, in some cases, says Tuta, of maire, which seems unusual. In some cases it was apparently merely a large slab or plank of wood suspended from two posts, sometimes made like a kumete or trough, then turned bottom uppermost and so struck. But, according to Tuta Nihoniho, the better type was made by hollowing out two pieces of timber, then fitting and lashing them together, when they somewhat resembled a cask in form. One, and sometimes two, mallets or beaters were used to sound these pahu, such clubs being occasionally fashioned from a whale's bone.

Some corroboration is needed ere this latter form of pahu is accepted. While an excellent way in which to construct wind instruments, such as flutes and trumpets, it seems rather doubtful whether a wooden gong would produce much sound when beaten, if made of two pieces bound together with vines. It resembles, however, a Rarotongan form, though this seems to have been a true drum, not a gong.

The following extract from Out in the Open shows that a wooden gong was in use in the Waikato district as late as the early eighties of the last century:—"The Hauhau call to prayers is sounded by the beating of the pahu, a sounding piece of wood, struck on its edges by persons furnished with short batons as it hangs suspended from a pole supported by two forked sticks. It is made (when procurable) of the wood of the porokaiwhiria (Hedycaria dentata) an aromatic tree. According to Paora Tu-haere (Ngati-Whatua), these wooden gongs were formed of large dimensions, sometimes over twenty feet in length; they could be heard at some twelve miles distance; it was struck in cases of alarm, when the people flocked immediately into the pa. A celebrated pahu on a hill in the isthmus of Auckland, sounded the alarm for the whole isthmus." No large sized slab or plank of kaiwhiria timber could possibly be obtained, it being but a small tree. Matai would provide a long and wide plank of heart wood.

Tradition tells us that a slab of nephrite (greenstone) was used as a gong at the fortified place on One Tree Hill, Auckland, in former times. See Dominion Museum Bulletin No. 4 (p. 193)

There is yet another kind of pahu to be mentioned, for standing trees, stumps, or even logs, that had become hollow, and possessed resonant qualities, were sometimes utilised as gongs. On the old bush track from Ruatahuna to Maunga-pohatu, at a place called Te Kakau, stood for many years a hollow totara (Podocarpus totara) tree known as Totara-pakopako. This was a 'sounding tree' used page 301as a gong. Travellers approaching the little hamlet at Te Kakau were wont to signal their approach by striking the tree a few blows with a wooden club kept there for the purpose.

Fig. 105 Tree Gong at Te Whaiti From a sketch made by Capt. G. Mair, in 1869

A more famous tree gong was one that formerly stood on a hill near Te Apu, on the old native track from Whirinaki to Ahikereru, Te Whaiti district. Of this tree Captain G. Mair writes:—"When General Whitmore's force invaded Ruatahuna in May, 1869, the friendly natives represented to the General that it was of supreme importance to secure this tree to prevent the enemy giving the alarm and ambuscading the column. Accordingly the writer was sent forward during the night with forty picked natives to seize the position, which was done, and thus the force was enabled to capture the Harema pa and a large number of prisoners. This unique pahu was formed out of a living totara tree. The tree had a page 302
Fig. 106

A. A Wooden Gong from New Britain

B. A Wooden Gong from Tonga

C. A Wooden Gong from Admiralty Isles From the Edge-Partington Album

shapely trunk but was hollow, and a valve or key had been formed by cutting out the tongue as shown in the sketch. The tongue was elaborately carved, and when struck with a hardwood club, the vibrations were tremendous and could be heard at Ruatahuna, many miles away." Another account seems to show that the sounding tongue was but partially hand fashioned, that the tree had been attacked by fire, which left a long projection of sound wood intact.

Mr Coleman Wall informed me that he saw a hollow tree trunk serving as a gong on a small island off Malekula, in the New Hebrides, many years ago.

Ellis mentions a case in which a stone suspended from a tree was used as a substitute for a church bell on an isle in Eastern Polynesia:—"It was a rough, flat, oval shaped stone, about three feet long and twelve or eighteen inches wide." This was struck with a smaller stone, and the sound so caused is said to have been considerable, but not such as could be heard at a distance.

The other form of pahu, an artificially hollowed block or log of wood, is found in Melanesia and western Polynesia, but apparently not in eastern Polynesia, where the true drum is used.

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The Rev. G. Turner describes a drum used by the Samoans that must have resembled one form of the Maori pahu; it was a log of wood, six or eight feet long, hollowed out from a narrow elongated opening on the upper surface; and this they beat with a short stick or mallet. This was a Fijian form. See Fig. 107 (p. 303).

In writing of the natives of Niue, Mr. Percy Smith remarks:— "Drums were used called nafa and longo; the only one I saw was a log hollowed with an open split nearly its whole length."

Fig. 107 Two forms of Wooden Gong of Fiji A. and B. From Fiji and the Fijians by Rev. T. Williams. C. In Auckland Museum. See p. 303 Photo by W. R. Reynolds

Cook gave us the following account of the drums of the Tongans:— "They are large cylindrical pieces of wood, or trunks of trees, from three to four feet long, some twice as long and some smaller, hollowed entirely out, but close at both ends, and open only by a chink about three inches broad, running almost the whole length of the drums, by which opening the rest of the wood is certainly hollowed, though page 304the operation must be difficult …. with the chink turned towards them, they sit and beat strongly upon it with two cylindrical pieces of hard wood about a foot long and as thick as the wrist, by which means they produced a rude, though loud and powerful sound. They vary the strength and rate of their beating at different parts of the dance, and also change the tones by beating in the middle, or near the end of the drum."

The following remarks on the Tongan gong are from the account of George Vesson's sojourn in that group, he being one of the first band of Missionaries sent to that group:—"The principal instrument is a kind of drum, formed out of a log of wood, hollowed through with a long small aperture, and laid lengthways upon two pieces of wood. This is beaten…."

This Tongan instrument is decidedly a Melanesian form, resembling the Fijian lali, which was a short log, hollowed out, square ended. The long opening on the top was much narrower than the interior hollow. It was beaten on the edges of the narrow opening.

St. Johnston speaks of the Fijian lali or gong as being about four feet long, boat shaped, and formed from one thick log of wood.

That the pahu of Tahiti, is or was, a true drum, is shown in the following passage. Ellis states that, at Tahiti, dancing was accompanied by songs, and the music of drum and flute. The Tahitian drum (pahu) was cut out of a solid block of wood, the open end being covered with a piece of shark's skin. A smaller drum was termed toere (Cf. Maori tokere).

Of the Tahitian drum Banks writes in his journal:—"Their drums. … are made of a hollow block of wood covered with shark's skin; with these they make out five or six tunes, and accompany the flute not disagreeably. They also know how to tune two drums of different notes into concord, which they do nicely enough." We have now ample proof that the Polynesians who peopled New Zealand came from the Society Group, and it seems curious that they did not introduce the true drum here, unless the knowledge of that instrument has been acquired since the settling of New Zealand.

Ellis speaks of the Hawaiian drum as a hollowed out block of wood, the top being covered with shark's skin, and beaten with the fingers or palm of the hand…."A neat little drum, made of the shell of a large cocoa-nut, was also fixed on the knee, by the side of the large drum, and beat with a small stick held in the left hand." Elsewhere he speaks of "a rustic little drum, formed of a calabash, beautifully stained, and covered at the head with a piece of shark's skin." Forster remarked that the drums of the Marquesans resembled those of the Tahitians.

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Williams speaks of having seen at Savaii:—"Two persons drumming an instrument formed of a mat wound tight round a framework of reeds." Now I was once regaled with what I considered to be a wild tale, related by a member of the Ngati-Porou tribe, of a contrivance formerly used as is a pahu, to sound an alarm. A quantity of bark of the houhi tree was wrapped round with whitau, dressed Phormium fibre, and suspended on the watchman's platform. It was termed a pakuru, and was struck with a wooden beater. How any sound could be so produced the writer cannot understand. In the British Museum, however, is a so called New Guinea drum consisting of an oblong sheet of bark.

The name of the smaller drum of Tahiti was toere (to'ere), a word showing the dropped 'k'. This would be tokere in Maori, and, curiously enough, we have the word in Williams' Maori Dictionary as meaning a musical instrument, though what is not stated. The example given, however:—"E whakatokere ana nga tohunga i nga iwi o Wahieroa" seems to show that the tokere was a form of flute, fife or whistle. A native of the Tuhoe tribe states that a kind of clappers formerly used were called tokere, but no corroboration of this has been obtained.

In Fig. 103 (p. 298) we have a fair representation of the canoe shaped form of wooden gong, as made by the Maori folk in former times. Of the very long slab-like form, suspended edgewise, we have no illustration to insert here. So far as we knew the Maori never employed here the true drum of Polynesia, as used at Tahiti and elsewhere, but confined himself to gong-like forms. These gongs were widely used in Fiji and Melanesia, and it will be noted that the Tongan gong in Fig. 106 (p. 302) closely resembles that of Fiji marked B in Fig. 107 (p. 303), as also that of New Britain in Fig. 106 (p. 302). The box-like form of Fiji (Fig. 107 A and C p. 303) was apparently unknown in New Zealand.

Illustrations of the true drums of Polynesia and New Guinea are given in Fig. 108 (p. 306). Here we have four specimens of the true drum, as distinct from the gong-like forms of Figs. 103, 104, 105, 106, and 107 (pp. 298 to 303). A represents a large drum from the Cook Islands that is 4 ft. 11 in. in height and 20 in. wide. It is covered with some kind offish skin. B is from Mangaia Island; it is 2 ft. 2 in. in height and 9 in. in width. This specimen is open at one side, and so resembles some of the gongs illustrated. In C we have an Hawaiian form that is 1 ft. 2 in. in height; it is a hollowed section of coconut palm trunk and is covered with shark skin. D shows a drum from New Guinea, a type that is represented in the Dominion Museum. This is quite a handy form, being but 2 ft. 1 in. in height and being provided page 306
Fig. 108

A. Drum from Cook Islands

B. Drum from Mangaia

C. Drum from Hawaiian Isles

D. Drum from New Guinea. See p. 305 From the Edge-Partington Album.

with a hand grip. All these reproductions of illustrations appearing in the Album of Edge-Partington, as also in divers works on the Maori and other Pacific folk, are the work of Miss E. Richardson.

A large and cumbrous form of log gong from Melanesia is in the Dominion Museum; it is shown in Fig. 109A (p. 307). Fig. 109 (p. 307) represents carefully made sketches of three specimens of similar gongs of the New Hebrides that are depicted in The Savage South Seas, by Norman Hardy and in the Edge-Partington Album of artifacts of Pacific lands. These log-like forms were set up in a vertical position, the specimen marked A is 7 ft. 10 in. in height.

Fig. 109A (p. 307) represents a log gong from the New Hebrides that is in the Dominion Museum. This specimen is a cumbrous form of gong, little wonder that such were inserted in the earth and so left. Its height is 10 ft. 6 in. as it now stands, and a few feet must be added to that, probably not less than two, for the missing part that was formerly embedded in the earth. The log is not round, being 1 ft. 5 in. in diameter one way, and 1 ft. 10 in. the other. The slit-like aperture through which the interior was hollowed out is 2J in. wide at its narrowest part; the edges have crumbled away in some places; this slit is of the same length as the hollowed interior, 5 ft. The hollow page 307 Fig. 109—A. A Log Gong from New Hebrides. See p. 306. From the Edge-Partington Album Fig. 109—B. Two Log Gongs at Mele, New Hebrides. From the Savage South Seas by Hardy and Elkington Fig. 109a. A Log Gong from the New Hebrides. In the Dominion Museum. See p. 306. J. McDonald, Photo page 308 is 13 in. by 18 in. and the task of excavating it must have been an exceedingly tedious one. The eyes of the grotesque face are eight inches in diameter. Connected with the parallel carved lines sur¬rounding the face are several rude scrolls.