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The Coming of the Maori

Sounds that are Still

Sounds that are Still

In various parts of Polynesia, the slot gong and the shark-skin drum still beat the time for native dances, and in Hawaii the gourd gong and gourd rattle assist the drum in producing a varied programme for the entertainment of authences. In New Zealand, however, the Maori musical instruments have long been still. Trumpets and flutes were long ago acquired by collectors. Hence the old time instruments now repose mostly in museums and they are only awakened when musicians of another race seek to produce their native sounds in order to fetter them to a European scale.

The most primitive instrument of all, the roria, was replaced by the metal Jew's harp. This became very popular and the name roria was given to it. Great care was taken in buying to select one with a soft enough spring. A lump of sealing wax was attached to the projecting end of the instrument's tongue to still further soften the sound. By using lips, tongue, cheeks, and cupped hands, the players were able to mould the sounds into softer Maori forms and words that courting lovers could understand. The page 269era of the jew's harp passed and I doubt if one could be bought today, let alone played with the old time expressions of friendship and affection.

The vanished shell and wooden trumpets were succeeded, for a while at least, by the readily available cow's horn which, in the North Auckland area particularly, performed the function of calling attention to official announcements and impending events at tribal gatherings. With the share mat we have had in two World Wars, I have wondered whether the cow's horn has in turn been replaced by the military bugle.

In the 'nineties the Taranaki followers of Te Whiti, including my own tribe, established a drum-and-fife band as the wooden fifes made a nearer approach to Maori instrumental music than brass. The attempt to regain Maori music succeeded after much practice and trial and the band was able to play Maori laments in such a way that the whole congregation was able to give vocal utterance in perfect time with the music One of the favourite laments commenced with a reference to the unjust war which broke out at Waitara in 1860.

E kore e pouri tonu Waitara
I whakamamaetia i nga ra i mua ra…
Darkness will not always cover Waitara
That was caused to suffer pain in days gone by…

To me the melancholy wailings of the fifes were instrumental sounds but after I had learned the words of the lament, I could hear the fifes repeating them as if they were human. And so, I imagine, it must have been with the koauau. But now, the fifes of that renaissance period are as silent as the koauau.

The last player of Maori music was probably Iehu Nukunuku of Ngati Porou, mentioned in Andersen's work. If Iehu had had a real Maori instrument when he learned to play, he or someone else had parted with it. To fashion a new instrument, the convenient material provided by the bone of an enemy was no longer available and so Iehu, or whoever made it, had recourse to a 12 inch length of iron gas pipe in which three holes were bored towards the lower end. Best, Andersen, McDonald, and I, on a Dominion Museum field expedition, heard him play at the home of Sir Apirana Ngata in Waiapu in 1923. He was an old man then so even the sound of this hybrid instrument, which bridged the gap between bone and iron, must now be still.

The old gave way to new. The concertina and the accordion penetrated to country districts and were popular with both races. The piano and the violin marked the rise in acculturation. The Maori had a good ear for music and the transition from instruments that somehow retained the sorrows of the past to instruments more expressive of hopes for the future was easy and painless. Individuals have attained skill, and orchestras and page 270bands developed from time to time. The Otaki Maori Brass Band was an outstanding achievement in its day. The words of Maori songs, chants, and laments have been preserved in written pages and in gramophone records but any attempt to reproduce their sounds in music must now be arranged for alien instruments because the koauau and its stone-age comrades are forever mute.