Over the last four decades, New Zealand musician Richard Nunns has headed the revival of taonga pūoro, fusing the traditional Māori instrument with modern forms of improvisation
Richard Nunns’s life-work has been akin to reconstructing a large, complex and ruined tapestry with only a few remaining threads, a handful of antique tools and some shared memories to help. In recent times his search for tools had led him into some surprising territories.
Since the late 1970s, Nunns has been at the forefront of a revival in the playing of taonga pūoro – traditional Māori instruments. When he became interested in the tradition it was towards the end of a long steady decline that nearly extinguished all knowledge of how and why the instruments were played. In the decades before, Māori language itself had come close to dying out following a concerted effort to suppress it in New Zealand schools. In the 1970s traditional instruments were just one strand of Māori culture that was at risk of disappearing.
Basic knowledge about taonga pūoro had been lost: how were the instruments held? Were they played with the mouth or nose? What sounds were they supposed to make? Simple carved flutes, trumpets, percussion, bullroarers and others carved from bone, wood, shell and stone were ciphers to be decoded over decades.
Though Nunns is Pākehā, or of European ancestry, he developed a network of collaborators and advisors in Māori communities throughout the country. Trekking from one small community to another and slowly building up trust and knowledge, he set about working out how dozens of instruments might have been originally used. I’ve heard a telling story from him several times over the years that illuminates the relationship he built with Māori communities. After a workshop at a central North Island high school he spoke with the deputy principal about how the kids had received it. Very well, he was told, but a Māori student had tugged at the deputy’s sleeve during the concert to ask: “Hey miss. Is that Māori fella up the front there a Pākehā?”
I first met Nunns in 1999 at the beginning of a new chapter in this process. He had been asked to perform a duo with Evan Parker at a jazz festival in Wellington. This concert would have an impact not only on Nunns’s approach to the music, but also on the wider New Zealand experimental scene.
Suggested by local free jazz impresario Jeff Henderson, the concert was a first. Though Nunns originally had a background in jazz and was a fan of Parker’s work, never before had taonga pūoro been combined with free improvisation. It turned out to be extremely fertile territory. In the decade and a half since, Nunns has engaged in a multitude of collaborations with local and international improvisors, both at home and in restless, constant touring around the globe.
Nunns found the improvisation community to be fearless in their approach to music. He was impressed by their ability to tackle any musical situation with confidence. Learning from them “opened up whole musical worlds” for him. He describes how this allowed him to discover that he had his own, genuine musical voice apart from the tradition he was rediscovering. Improvising musicians were open to extremely close listening and smaller musical gestures, he tells me. These skills are necessary for interacting with taonga pūoro which “are very limited in their ability to interact. They have such subtle voices. It is a very small sound range and volume with microtonal shifts of the finest degree.” Improvisors, he adds, caught on right away.
Improvisation was already key to the rediscovery of taonga pūoro performance. With such a huge gap in knowledge, experimenting and improvising was the only approach. The free improvisation duos and ensembles that followed extended Nunns’s technique and understanding of what was possible with the ancient instruments. Matching their limited musical ranges to much more flexible Western instruments pushed taonga pūoro playing into new directions. Eventually it was not only Nunns who was performing in this context. A younger generation of musicians had developed, largely under his guidance, who naturally swing between the worlds of improvisation and experimental music and that of taonga pūoro. It’s as if, instead of reconstructing the lost tapestry of taonga pūoro, Nunns has helped put together a patchwork of contemporary forms, constructing an entirely new form of playing.
I asked Nunns if there had ever been a backlash against this new wave of experimentation. Were there elders who seethed against a misuse of their tradition or considered it a watering down of the music? “There is a risk that the traditionalists might say 'you're trampling our traditions.' No one has said this to me, but they might.” He admits, however, that his own mana, or prestige, in New Zealand might stop people from bringing their concerns to him in person.
I spoke to Nunns by phone in Nelson, a town at the top of the South Island famed for its sunshine. He has lived in Nelson for most of his life, but is now residing in the Whareama Care Home as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005, and in the last couple of years his punishing schedule of touring and teaching has been tightly curtailed. He’s not one for letting something like poor health slow him down though. While he might not be performing and teaching, 2016 saw him win an award for his book which describes his musical journey, Te Ara Pūoro, and 2017 will see at least a couple of new releases from Nunns.
“Pūtorino Rakau Rewarewa” featuring Evan Parker from Rangirua, Leo Records, 2001
Recorded live at the Wellington International Jazz Festival, this concert was revelatory. I remember the palpable excitement in audience after the gig. Richard remembers coming out well after the show to pack up, only to discover hundreds of people still in the theatre chatting excitedly. This features Parker’s soprano saxophone weaving in and out of a pūtorino, a unique instrument played both like a flute and trumpet.
Mike Cooper, Richard Nunns, Elio Martusciello Live At Cineclub (excerpt), Hipshot, 2002
Mike Cooper is probably the only other septuagenarian I know who has toured so widely and ceaselessly as Richard Nunns, possibly more. While Cooper has visited New Zealand on a number of occasions, this one was recorded on a visit to Rome in 2002.
Richard Nunns, Mark Lockett, Jeff Henderson “Material Instinct” from Redaction, Rattle, 2015
Jeff Henderson is a force of nature in the New Zealand experimental music scene and has also been a longtime friend and supporter of Nunns. There are a number of recordings featuring them both (see below with Marilyn Crispell). This album with jazz drummer Mark Lockett veers mostly towards a kind of jazz fusion, but the track demonstrates Nunns’s willingness to dirty up his tradition.
“This Appearing World” with Jeff Henderson and Marilyn Crispell
Crispell first visited New Zealand in 2000 and joined the Urban Taniwha project, a touring big band combining large ensemble improvising with taonga pūoro and other Māori performance. She returned in 2008 to perform and record with Nunns and Henderson. This video includes footage from the recording of the album This Appearing World (Rattle) and an interview with Henderson explaining their working practices.
Radical Spirit with Richard Nunns, Jonny Marks & Natalia Mann
The last time I saw Nunns play live, this was a concert of ecstatic music I organised at a church in Wellington in 2013. It features two locals, Natalia Mann on harp and vocal genius Jonny Marks. Afterwards, though Nunns was already quite worn down by travel, playing and the travails of his Parkinson’s condition, he regaled a rapt group of musicians downstairs with tales of his touring and meetings around the world. My only regret is forgetting to get a better audio recording of this beautiful set.
Rattle Records are set to release Mercury, featuring Natalia Mann, David Long and Richard Nunns, this June