Finding Puhihuia

In Te Ara, as in life, one thing leads to another, and the outcome is pleasantly uncertain.

A friend told me recently that a second-hand bookshop in town was selling the sheet music for a song called ‘Puhihuia’. He thought I’d be interested because I’d been researching a Māori legend about a pair of lovers named Ponga and Puhihuia. I went to the shop and bought the song for 20 bucks. That seemed pretty good for eight pages of sheet music from the 1940s, with the cover printed in a marvellously tacky typeface incorporating Māori designs.

The cover of the sheet music for 'Puhihuia'

The cover of the sheet music for 'Puhihuia'

The song had a pretty tune and lyrics that, like our national anthem, could be sung in either Māori or English. These showed me that it was indeed based on the legend I was interested in. The story had been collected (some say invented) in the early 19th century by the pioneering, and somewhat dodgy, ethnologist John White. He had grown up in the Hokianga from 1835 and spoke fluent Māori.

The introduction to 'Puhihuia'

The introduction to 'Puhihuia'

Both the music and the lyrics were attributed to Mari Hamutana, a musician I’d never heard of. A bit of internet searching revealed that the name was a pseudonym for a Pākehā composer named Ruby King. She had been brought up in the King Country, the daughter of a schoolteacher, in the 1880s and, like John White, learned to speak Māori fluently. She wrote many songs in Māori and English, and some were broadcast on New Zealand radio. ‘Puhihuia’, her only published song, was also broadcast by the BBC in London in 1937. A Miss Eileen Driscoll of Wellington sang several Māori songs, including ‘Puhihuia’, on programmes beamed to Australia and Shanghai.

The sheet music for 'Puhihuia'

The sheet music for 'Puhihuia'

That’s about as far as I’ve got with this bit of pure and unplanned research, but if anyone can add more information on either this song or its composer, I’d be interested to hear it. In the meantime I’m thinking of passing ‘Puhihuia’ on to the ukulele orchestra that’s been formed here at work, in case they want to add this song to their repertoire.

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