Taonga Pūoro or Singing Treasures


The first Polynesian settlers in Aotearoa were greeted by a noisy soundscape and a plethora of new materials for making musical instruments.  Centuries later, the botanist Joseph Banks described the beauty of the dawn chorus in Queen Charlotte Sound on 17 January, 1770.   “(Their) voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable.”1

taonga nguru

Nguru carved by Brian Flintoff. Real Aotearoa.

Ancient Māori musicians are known to have taken inspiration from the sounds of nature: birdsong, crashing waves and wind; and to use natural objects to re-create these sounds.2  Bone and wood were carved into flutes, wind instruments and humming discs.  Gourds, shells, flax and leaves were also used to make taonga pūoro (singing treasures).3

Along with entertainment, the instruments were used for healing, sending messages, opening and closing life’s doors (childbirth and death) and other significant ceremonies.  In 1807 it was noted that ‘every man was his own musician’ and with such small and portable instruments ‘they were never at a loss for entertainment.’4  However, while other strands of Māori culture remained unbroken, the instrumental strand within the weave of Māori culture was severed in the 19th Century.5  The decline was probably a combination of the pressure of missionaries and teachers who discouraged the use of the instruments and the appeal of newly introduced European instruments.6

taonga Richard Brian

Richard Nunns, left, and Brian Flintoff have received Queen's Service Medals Marion van Dijk

The way the silent instruments were stroked back to life is the story of a remarkable working relationship between three people with different, but converging, cultural backgrounds and modes of artistic creativity: Richard Nunns, Brian Flintoff and Hirini Melbourne.

taonga nunns melbourne

Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns performing at TePapa. Courtesy richardnunns.net.nz

Richard Nunns came from a musical family and learned the trumpet at an early age. This instrument gave him the educated, adaptable lips required to coax music from traditional Māori instruments.7  He first became aware of taonga pūoro in the late 1950s as artefacts in museums, when curators believed the objects were musical but the knowledge of how to play them was thought to be lost.8

While teaching in the Waikato, Nunns had learned some traditional moteatea melodies on the European flute. He had also examined, photographed and tried to play Auckland Museum’s Māori instrument collection.  In 1978, he became Head of English at Nelson College for Girls and met Nelson carver, Brian Flintoff and their long collaboration began.9

taonga richardnunns2wildtomato

Richard Nunns. Image courtesy Wild Tomato

Flintoff began bone carving as a relaxing hobby in the late 1970s. While teaching in Wainuiomata (Wellington) he began carving with young boys at the newly opened kohanga reo. By 1983 he was in Nelson and carving full-time.  Flintoff moved from making Māori pendants to a focus on Māori musical instruments but he couldn’t coax sound from the replicas he made.10

Musician, composer and academic, Dr Hirini Melbourne (1949-2003) possessed the qualities essential for bringing the project together and launching it out of its Pakeha tributary into the mainstream of Māori cultural life.

taonga Brian Flintoffwholehousereuse

Brian Flintoff. Image courtesy Whole House Reuse Project

The partnership between Richard, Brian and Hirini began at a hui at Te Araroa in 1984.11  “We couldn’t have achieved what we did without the confluence of our separate sets of skills. We’ve worked closely as a symbiotic trio, moving around the country together. There was Hirini’s superb musicality, his compositional skills, first-language facility in Māori, traditional knowledge and deep roots in the Māori world. "Brian had superb carving skills, plus an ability to think laterally when tackling musical problems. I had the facility to play the instruments that Brian made, and to weave them into the music Hirini composed", said Nunns.12

The trio were invited to do workshops at marae from one end of New Zealand to the other. With Havelock carver, Clem Melish, they formed Te Haumanu to foster the playing and making of traditional instruments.13

taonga investiture

Richard Nunns and Brian Flintoff receiving Queen's Service Medal for services to taonga puoro. Office of the Governor General.

Nunns has become a mentor for young Māori singers and has been involved in collaborations with acts as diverse as the New Zealand String Quartet, Jonathan Lemalu, Tiki Taane, Madeleine Pierard, Whirimako Black, Dudley Benson, Salmonella Dub, King Kapisi, Pitch Black's Paddy Free, and even Icelandic enigma Bjork.14

In 2005, Nunns was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and, while he continued to travel the world, mentor students and coax the ethereal sounds from his instruments, in 2015, he told the Nelson Mail that he is unlikely to do major shows again.15 Richard died on 7 June 2021.16 

But the music of the ancient instruments lives on: “there is a growing body of people who recognise and understand them (taonga pūoro), and a growing body of players with substantial skills. It’s as much as I could ask for, really. The sounds are back and hopefully here to stay,” said Nunns.17

Listen to Richard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xeHyxErPV8


Updated June 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Nunns, Richard (2014)  Te ara puoro : a journey into the world of Māori music. Nelson, New Zealand : Craig Potton Publishing, p 26.
  2. Flintoff, Brian (2004) Taonga pūoro = Singing treasures : the musical instruments of the Māori. Nelson, N.Z.: Craig Potton Publishing, p 17.
  3. Flintoff
  4. Flintoff, p 16 -17
  5. Beatson, P (2003) Richard Nunns: the renaissance of traditional Maori music Music in the Air. 16. pp. 17-33.
  6. Flintoff, p17.
  7. Beatson
  8. Lancashire, R. (2010, Feb 6) Keeper of the treasures. New Zealand listener, 222 (3639)
  9. Beatson.
  10. Murdoch, H. (2004, Nov 17)  Sounds of Maori.  Press, 17 Nov 2004; p.D3
  11. Nunns, p 13.
  12. Beatson
  13. Murdoch
  14. Arnold, N. (2012, Sep 8) Music keeping maestro alive. Press, C4
  15. Arnold, N (2014, Jan 25) Playing the next note. Nelson Mail, p.1
  16. Yeoman, K. (2021) Man who helped breathe life back into Māori music instruments has died. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
  17. Richard Nunns in Wild Tomato:

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