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The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days

Maori Songs and Music

Maori Songs and Music

The Maori had a marked fondness for song, and relied on it to a considerable extent for the purpose of expressing his feelings. Not possessing any form of script in which to conserve knowledge, our Maori included much of his history and myths in his songs, especially in laments for the dead and in songs sung to children. These latter caused children to become acquainted with incidents in tribal history, in connection with which they often sought further information in after-years. The Maori folk composed songs on many different occasions when we would never think of doing so. If a woman was accused of indolence, or some other fault, by her husband, she would in many cases retaliate, or ease her mind, by composing and singing a song pertaining to the subject. In the event of a person being insulted or slighted in any way, he was likely to act in a similar way. Songs were composed for the purpose of greeting visitors, of imparting information, of asking for assistance in war, and many other purposes of an unusual nature from our point of view. Singing entered largely into the social and ceremonial life of the people, and in making a speech the Maori breaks readily into song.

Although our Maori knew naught of rhyme, yet he had the greatest appreciation of rhythm. His singing in most cases is monotonous, and by no means pleasing to European ears, however melodious to his. It has been compared to Arab singing. In some cases, as in war-songs and haka, also the derisive songs termed ngeri, a fierce energy was introduced into the rendering, and it was in such effusions as these that rhythm was most noticeable. In singing a Maori does not, in many cases, trouble to end a line when taking breath. He may take breath in the middle of a line, but he does not commit the error of dropping his voice at such a juncture. Nor does he often take breath—his lung-powers are remarkable; and this was especially noticeable in the priestly experts of former generations, who had to recite long ritual chants without any break in the rendering. This was done by means of relays, as it were. One man would carry on the ritual, or rather intoning, as far as he could, and then stop abruptly, perhaps in the page 148 middle of a word. With great precision and marvellous celerity his companion carried on the chant with no perceptible break or pause. Any pronounced break in the delivery of ritual formulae had a very serious effect on their efficacy, in native belief.

Maori orators, when addressing an assembly of people, often broke into song, in which case those members of his clansman who were acquainted with the song would arise and join in the singing. Many of the native songs are marked by pathos and sadness; others by hatred, contempt, and other emotions; but the humorous song was not a common Maori production. A few short effusions of the umere type betokened joy and satisfaction, though such feelings were not expressed in the words in manner European. Euphony was ever sought by song-makers, and was sometimes acquired by lengthening or shortening words, by long-drawn vowel sounds, and suchlike alterations. Many songs contain so many brief allusions to events in tribal history, to myths, beliefs, superstitions, ritual observances, &c., that in order to understand them one needs to be acquainted with a vast amount of tribal lore. In Maori songs we meet with most interesting concepts and idioms, with quaint mythopoetic ideas, and pathetic farewell directions to the spirits of departed friends.

One of the most peculiar songs ever composed by natives was a lament for a defunct pig that died many years ago in an East Coast hamlet. It was the first pig acquired in those parts, and so was made much of; its death was mourned by a wide circle of friends, and a special dirge was composed in its honour. Another native song on record bewails the loss of an eel-pot; another the grief of a fisherman who had lost his fish-hook; and yet another voices the plaint of a man afflicted by skin-disease. No occurrence was too trivial, apparently, to claim recognition in song. At the present time many of the songs composed, such as laments for the dead, consist largely of extracts from old songs.

Many songs commence with some reference to the heavenly bodies, as in following examples:—

Yonder the Evening Star rises.
Descend, O Sun! Sink into the abyss.

In connection with time-songs, chants calling for united action, such as hauling a canoe, as also songs accompanying certain posture dances, the fugleman was much in evidence.

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It is a peculiar and interesting fact that barbaric man utilizes song much more than does civilized man, and anthropologists tell us that poetry was the natural utterance of any strong emotion among such folk as the Maori, and even others occupying lower stages of culture. We know that in former times the Maori was wont to intone his remarks under circumstances wherein we employ the most matter - of - fact tones. Thus prose and poetry were not divided, as with us; they coalesced, as it were.

Fig. 54.—Two pu kaea, trumpets

Fig. 54.—Two pu kaea, trumpets

The musical instruments possessed by the Maori were but simple types, consisting of two short forms of flute, one of which was used as a nose-flute, and a longer instrument termed a pu torino. Concerning the latter instrument we have but little information, but the short mouth-flute, termed a koauau, is better known. The Maori had not evolved any string instrument, unless the ku was a genuine native instrument. His wind instruments were the ones already mentioned and two rude forms of trumpet. One of these was made by attaching a mouthpiece to a Triton shell, which are occasionally found in the northern part of the North Island. These shell trumpets are known as pu tatara; while the pu kaea is a long wooden trumpet made in two pieces and neatly bound with pliable stems of a climbing-plant. These two forms of trumpet produce a doleful and unmelodious hooting sound; they were used for signalling purposes, as in time of war.

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Fig. 55.—Carved wooded koauau, or Maori flute (on left). Carved wooded nguru, or nose-flute, in British Museum (on right)

Fig. 55.—Carved wooded koauau, or Maori flute (on left). Carved wooded nguru, or nose-flute, in British Museum (on right)

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Fig. 56.—Two pu torino (British Museum)

Fig. 56.—Two pu torino (British Museum)

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Fig. 57.—A pu tatara, or shell trumpet (Dominion Museum)

Fig. 57.—A pu tatara, or shell trumpet (Dominion Museum)

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The Maori has not shown any desire to adopt even the simpler forms of our stringed instruments, and his attention has been principally confined to the jew's-harp, concertina, accordion, and mouth-organ. He can appreciate a brass band, more especially, perhaps, the booming of the drum, and several native bands have been formed. Interest seems, however, to flag, and in a few years a band dwindles away and is no more. Sustained effort in such activities is scarcely a Maori virtue. Earle, an early writer on the Maori, states that natives disliked the sound of the violin, although some natives of Tikopia were much excited by it. Natives seen at Dusky Sound by Cook in 1773 took no notice of the bagpipes and fife, but seemed to take some interest in the drum.

The koauau flute was not infrequently fashioned from the thigh-bone of a tribal enemy, and the owner would derive much satisfaction from playing upon such an instrument. Mr. John White has stated that flutes were occasionally fashioned from the bones of defunct relatives, and that such specimens were used in a very peculiar manner. If a child of the family chanced to be ill, then the instrument was played over it, and this was supposed to have a beneficial effect. A similar act was performed over a woman in cases of difficult parturition—a singular usage that reappears in New Guinea.

A peculiar kind of whistle (whio) made in the form of a tongue is said to have been used in former times, though specimens do not seem to have been preserved. Some of the smaller bone instruments might be described as whistles.

The nguru is a curious form of nose-flute, of which specimens in stone, wood, and ivory (whale's tooth) have been preserved. These are but three or four inches in length, and have one end curved. The curved end is much smaller than the other, and the instrument was hollowed out by means of drilling a hole from either end, a tedious task with the old-time cord drill.

A form of horn or trumpet was made by attaching a mouthpiece to a gourd, the sound produced resembling that of the pu tatara, or shell trumpet, described by Forster as “a hideous bellowing.”

The rude instrument generally termed a “bull-roarer” was used in at least one district in a curious ceremony performed in order to cause rain to fall. The pahu, a form of gong, was in some cases merely a large plank of such resonant wood as matai suspended from two posts, and struck with a wooden mallet. Such rude instruments were often suspended on the elevated platform whereon watchmen page 154 were stationed in native fortified villages. Another form of gong was in the form of a canoe, the opening of which was a narrow slit, inside which was a much wider hollow. This method of hollowing out wooden gongs was a Melanesian peculiarity. The true drum was unknown in New Zealand, though employed in Polynesia. The pakuru, or pakakau, was a very simple instrument, consisting of a piece of wood about 15 in. in length. One end of this was held lightly in the left hand, and the other end placed between the teeth, while with his right hand the operator tapped out an accompaniment to his song. The tapper used was a small wooden one. A rude form of jew's-harp, merely a piece of resonant wood scraped thin, seems to have been used in pre-European times.

Fig. 58.—1. Bull-roarer (purerehua). 2. Whizzer (kororohu)

Fig. 58.—1. Bull-roarer (purerehua). 2. Whizzer (kororohu)

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In some lists of names of old-time instruments we find those of ku, to, and torehe. Concerning the two latter names I have gained no information, but the late Canon Stack stated that the ku was a primitive stringed instrument, consisting of a bone-shaped piece of wood and a single string. This string was not “picked,” as in the case of a banjo, but was tapped with a stick. No further information concerning this simple form has been collected. Evidently it was an extremely primitive instrument, and the Maori can scarcely be said to have possessed stringed instruments.