A history of Aotearoa in seven musical instruments

Māori girl playing a Jew's harp, early 1900s (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library, Tesla Studios Collection (PAColl-3046))

Māori girl playing a Jew's harp, early 1900s (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library, Tesla Studios Collection (PAColl-3046))

Following the success of Neil MacGregor’s radio series and book, A history of the world in 100 objects, it seems as though everyone is writing history through objects – and who am I to buck a popular trend? So, here are some key themes in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, traced through musical instruments.

Pūtōrino – the natural environment. The pūtōrino is unique to New Zealand, and has both a flute-like ‘female’ voice and a trumpet-like ‘male’ voice, depending on how it is played. The story goes that Hine Raukatauri, daughter of Tāne, loved her pūtōrino so much that she decided to live inside it by turning herself into a case moth. The case moth’s long, tapering cocoon resembles, and may have inspired, the shape of the pūtōrino. Not only were taonga puoro, Māori musical instruments, made from natural materials but they were also inspired by the shapes and sounds of the natural world which Māori observed so closely.

Human voice – community. The power of the human voice unites us as human beings – almost everyone can sing or chant, after their own fashion. From the karanga welcoming visitors to the marae to traditional waiata telling of love, loss or ancestral deeds; more recent Māori songs of remembrance, celebration and political protest; folk songs recording the pleasures and pains of everyday life; wartime songs relieving the tension and boredom of military life; national anthems sung together on important occasions; the vocal virtuosity of beatboxing, an integral part of hip-hop culture; or the joy and power of singing together in choirs – singing reminds us that we belong to communities. Singing can be a means of self-expression, too, but even then we can take shared pleasure and pride in the talent of individual singers, from Kiri Te Kanawa to Lorde.

Jew’s harp – culture contact. The Jew’s harp is a small instrument played by placing one end in the mouth and plucking a reed attached to the frame, producing a twanging sound. Māori had a similar instrument, the rōria. Because they are so portable, Jew’s harps were brought to New Zealand from the earliest days of Pākehā settlement, and were used as part of the payment for the New Zealand Company’s ‘purchases’ of vast areas of Māori land (in Whanganui, for example). Like so many other new technologies and ideas, they were taken up enthusiastically by Māori, replacing traditional instruments.

Bugle – war. Māori had a number of instruments – such as the pūtātara and pūkāea (shell trumpet and wooden trumpet) – whose sound carried over long distances and which were therefore used for signalling in time of war. The bugle was used in a similar way by Pākehā. During the New Zealand wars, the bugle featured in such stories as that of Bugler Allen, killed at Boulcott’s Farm in the Hutt Valley, and Te Kooti’s lieutenant Peka Makarini, who used misleading bugle calls to confuse colonial troops. Bugles were also used in the First World War and later conflicts, and now play an important role in commemoration of war during the Last Post ceremony.

Piano – domesticity. For Pākehā, the importation (and, later, the domestic production) of pianos helped to create a sense of home. A piano in the home was both an important part of the décor and a focus for entertainment, with family and friends gathering around the piano to sing and dance. For women, playing the piano could sometimes be a respite (however brief) from household chores. There was a class dimension to all of this, of course – not everyone could afford a piano – and in time the more affordable, but arguably less participatory, radio took the place of the piano in living rooms.

Drum – diversity. Drums are often associated with uniformity – keeping people in time and in step. Yet they can also represent New Zealand’s diversity of cultures and beliefs. Traditionally, Māori had a range of rhythmic instruments, but unlike their Polynesian cousins they did not use drums – their closest equivalent was the pahū, a wooden gong. During the colonial period, drums were part of the equipment of war, but were also used by Māori who were dedicated to peace. Drums are an important part of New Zealand’s diverse marching and parading traditions, whether those parades are political, religious, military or carnivalesque in nature. More recently, migration and cultural exchange have brought a much wider range of drums and drumming traditions to New Zealand, including those of the Pacific, Africa and Asia.

Guitar – fun. As in much of the rest of the world, guitars are central to popular music of all sorts in New Zealand, including folk, country and blues, pop and contemporary Māori music. Guitars also give New Zealand popular music some of its distinctive inflections, from the classic ‘jinka jink’ Māori strum to the jangling or droning guitars of the Dunedin sound and the Pacific flavour of New Zealand reggae (heavier on the guitar and lighter on the bass than the Jamaican original). Above all, the guitar has become New Zealand’s good-time, party instrument. Nothing symbolises this better than the enduring popularity in New Zealand of a relatively obscure Engelbert Humperdinck B-side, ‘Ten guitars’. The song has become a cultural reference point for everyone from bored troops in Vietnam to sculptors. So, all together now: ‘I have a band of men and all they do is play for me…’

2 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Michael Brown || August 18th, 2015

    Thanks for the interesting blog Ewan. It’s a good concept.

    The war bugle has added significance to New Zealand, in that Māori and European bugles/trumpets were sounded during the first encounter between Europeans and the tangata whenua in Golden Bay, 1642. This resulted in a “musical misunderstanding” that had fatal consequences for those involved.

    I wondered also if the organ could be an eighth instrument? Church organs have played such an important role in New Zealand religious life, accompanying hymns and playing music for significant occasions like weddings and funerals. Pipe organs and Wurlitzer organs are also among some of our largest musical instruments.


  2. Comment made by Ewan || August 19th, 2015

    Great points, thanks Michael!

    The organ could definitely be a contender – probably to illustrate the theme of religion, although of course organs were also used for entertainment (in theatres etc). The only problem would be that organs are mainly associated with one religious tradition (Christianity), although I know portable harmoniums are used in some Indian religious traditions (I have an Indian harmonium myself at home).

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