He Iti Te Oro He Nui Te Kōrero
One of my elders, Hinewirangi Kohu Morgan, once told me not to worry about growing up without te reo, because that statement wasn’t true. For every Māori child, that first cry we make as our mother’s karanga cracks the sound barrier is our first te reo Māori; te reo oro, the language of vibration and sound.
Hinewirangi taught me that the karanga itself is what brings our own oro into the world, a sound that weaves together the voices of generations of our women and all the ages that we are yet to experience. The lovestruck rangatahi with their voice full of passion, the mellow tones of the kaumatua rising up from the depth of our waters, the voice of the māmā held sweet in the throat, and te upoko, which to me is something beyond communication in this language. You have to be present to understand how we remove the barriers between worlds, and over time, that presence is how you learn how we speak.
I have been learning te reo Māori all my life, and I hope to one day hear my grandchildren surpass me in their kōrero. I will say to them; ‘he aha tera kupu?’ and ‘He aha ai, e moko?’, but it won't be their reply that will tell me that the way we raised them is tika; it will be the tone behind their words. Will they lilt each syllable back to me? Will their lines be smooth and melodic? Or, will they snap staccato, like paddles on water? This moment will be my greatest test not just of te reo Māori but of ngā reo Māori, the Māori languages. If they reply without the rangi, the tune, I will feel the notes I have sent to the skies since I first held a kōauau fall down upon me, like a dark rain that never moves to the sea.
Language, as in all things, has whakapapa. Whenever I get the opportunity to sit around a table with our Pasifika brothers and sisters, we swap words and play with language together. Around our table, aroha becomes alofa, becomes aloha. A rhythm settling into place as we go around the circle, as we weave vā and wā. In this moment, we become our islands by the act of singing their songs, taking our words around a miniature Pacific and watching them grow and change to fit new lands. These words are waka for our rangi, our tunes, notes, and inflections; our reo oro a taonga tucked into a ship’s hold.
When we look at our taonga pūoro, most of our taonga are able to be carried on our person. Just like how we carry our reo Māori and reo Pākehā within us, we carry our reo oro within us too. And like any language, it takes relationships to keep it alive. The first relationship is between us and our breath; between us and Tāne Māhuta, who gave breath to our ancient grandmother, the first woman Hine Tītama. However, our lungs themselves are gifted by Tāwhirimātea, or for Southern whānau, whakapapa to the mother of southern winds (and grandmother of Māui) Hinepūnui-o-toka. Once we have formed a relationship with the whakapapa of breath and its origins with our wind atua, and within the stories of the very beginning of our humanity, our next relationship is the one we form with our taonga themselves.
There are many ways to learn kōauau. In some sense, there are as many ways as there are learners. But, the way I always begin is with sharing breath and oro with the instrument. When we first begin to share breath, we hear two voices: the oro of our own voice, and that of the instrument. They whisper together in different pitches, in different timbres that belong only to them, created by each taonga’s specific dimensions, materials, and history. Our own oro is the same: a culmination of all that makes us resonate. Once they are sounding together, I tell my tauira to use their oro to awhi that of their taonga. Slowly, if the relationship is good, the two voices move towards each other. Then, all at once, they come together and a new sound is born. Both voices are contained within the new voice, which is stronger for being within this relationship than it would be by itself. This process is the same as when our mothers’ and fathers’ spiritual waters combined to create or fetch down our spirit, to create our wairua from their two separate essences. And just like that first karanga, our first sound from our kōauau comes as a new sound, to break through the darkness.
Throughout all of this process, there is consent. If we pick up our kōauau and blow with all our might, it will refuse to sound. If we move too far from its breathy oro, then again, it will give us only silence. We have to work together and sing together in order for our relationship to be fruitful. It is through this that we learn to listen to those whose voices in society may be quieter than ours: to children, to our pākeke fallen on hard times, to those who spend their lives living between realms. Pūoro is a language of compassion and empathy, but more than anything, it is a language of equity and aroha. It is a language that, when spoken with these virtues at its centre, will emanate widely across the land as new voices are picked up and carried within its swell.
The next relationship we tend to is the one between us and te taiao: the environment from which we and our taonga pūoro originate. Though, really, the set order of these relationships is more like a spiral than a linear process. A koru, like the new growth coming up from the floor of the ngāhere, unfurling towards Maui’s slowed sun. Some say it was Maui who climbed to the heavens to retrieve our baskets of knowledge. Others say it was Tāwhaki who climbed a great and ancient web. Either way, their journey led to the gifting of human language. Rehua, husband of Matariki and father of her children, dwells in the highest of our heavens. Around his head are our tuakana, ngā manu kōkō. Or you may refer to them by one of their many voices—tui. Tui, tui, tui tuia. Tuia ki runga, tuia ki raro. An onomatopoeic sound, and also the act of binding, of weaving worlds and knowledge together with sound. The tui who were once flying around the head of Rehua, came down to earth with whoever the hero is within your knowing of the tale, wearing white feathers at their breast to assure us of their heavenly knowledge, of their holding of the kauae runga. When they came to earth, it was when we were still atua and tīpua, larger-than-life figures of mythos made reality. But for the humans that were yet to be moulded from earth, who were yet to find their own voices, it was these birds who were our tuakana. Our language comes from them.
In te reo Māori, our word for melody is rangi, because we send these invisible yet profound communications up to the sky above us, from the earth below. There are rangi in the air around us. Sometimes I have felt them slip into my skin and when I have pressed my lips to my taonga, they soar upwards to their intended receiver. There are moments within this where it feels like I am of a clear liquid or mist, always moving, yet somehow in place as a channel for this communication that is bigger than music alone. In modern jazz education, transcription is often a valued part of how we learn and develop this tradition. Jazz, too, is described as a language, and looking at the environment that jazz sprung from, we can see the value of this coded communication in a world that did and does not allow Black musicians the human rights and manaakitanga that they so deeply deserve. When learning pūoro, we listen to more experienced players, but our first port and call is te taiao. In the ngāhere, the sound of the tui becomes our teacher for language once again, transporting us back to our first breaths with Tāne Māhuta, and the time we spent learning who we were from what we sprung from. We learn the health of the awa by its sounds, and we learn the health of the shore by the size of rocks we can use as tumutumu. We watch the waters rise over time as we hear our tumutumu change. Pitches shifting higher and higher as boulders are beaten to pebbles. For we are not the only ones speaking; the environment has been in conversation with us since sound and time began.
As indigenous peoples, we know that the land sings a song of both its history and future. A song of its well-being, a song of its status in relation to all the atua that whakapapa back to the nourishment around us. When we hear that song change, we know that something in the ecosystem is being affected. In te ao hou this can be referred to as bioacoustics: the observation of geophony, biophony, and anthropophony to understand the health of a landscape and its inhabitants. In habitats untouched by the human hand, bioacousticians often find a highly organized profile of sound, where every voice has its own place in the soundscape. Each bird occupies a different place in the pattern, a different band of frequencies. But when even one voice is lost, the entire structure changes. It’s like an orchestra without a conductor, where each player only knows where to begin from hearing another player sound before them. Very quickly, we no longer have an orchestra, but a room of soloists who are speaking across each other, who are calling to each other across a sky of falling birds. Our ngāhere are orchestral chambers and some of our audience have tucked guns into their tuxedo jackets. The floor of our stage is littered with empty chairs—a huia feather floats down and touches the floor with a sound so light that only the feather itself knows that it has sung.
As part of being a pūoro player I have learnt the call of the huia. I learnt it from my tuakana and from my elders, and I learnt it from a recording of Henare Hāmana, who in 1909 was part of an expedition to find the last huia. The party was reported unsuccessful. But who’s to say that singing the huia’s song back into the world isn’t a success? Who’s to say that travelling throughout the ngāhere and singing a last song for the huia wasn’t an act of love? Who’s to say that teaching that song to the ngāhere and its descendants isn’t the passing on of our language?
One day, if my grandchildren snap at me with my pēpī reo Māori, I will not be silenced. Nor will I silence them. I will simply take their hands and lead them to the forest where I learnt to speak. I will karakia at the edge of the ngāhere and feel the wind pull us in. I will walk forwards softly and hear their steps at my side. I will lift my taonga to my lips, and I will play the huia back into the bush. I will show them the beauty of the oldest reo we have, and I will teach them how to make the huia sing without a single harsh word from my mouth.
Batley, R., & Hāmana, H. (1949). Recreation of Huia Calls [Audio file]. Retrieved from https://www.ngataonga.org.nz/blog/nz-history/the-call-of-the-huia/
Krause, B. L. (1993). The niche hypothesis: a virtual symphony of animal sounds, the origins of musical expression and the health of habitats. The Soundscape Newsletter, 6, 6-10.
Re, A. M. (2004). The role of transcription in jazz improvisation: Examining the aural-imitative approach in jazz pedagogy.
Tikao, T. T., & Beattie, H. (1990). Tikao talks: ka taoka tapu o te ao kohatu: treasures from the ancient world of the Maori. Penguin Books.
It is important for me to acknowledge the kōrero and wisdom of Hinewirangi Kohu Morgan, who shared with me her kōrero around the different voices within karanga and our own voices as wāhine, which has greatly shaped my perception of reo Māori and ngā taonga pūoro.
It is also important for me to mihi to taonga pūoro practitioner Rob Thorne, who shared his ideas around taonga pūoro as reo, and always stimulates me to think deeper about what underpins our taonga and oro.
Thanks too must go to the taonga pūoro community that I am privileged to be a part of, and to all within this community who have provided the space and time for wānanga that have allowed me to grow my thinking and understanding in order to be able to write this article for our hapori.
Ruby Solly (Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu) is a writer, music therapist, musician, and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. Her first book Tōku Pāpā, was released by THWUP in 2021. As a musician and composer, Ruby has worked with Trinity Roots, Yo-Yo Ma, Whirimako Black, French for Rabbits, and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.