Moving from revival to renaissance: the first taonga pūoro festival

Moving from revival to renaissance: the first taonga pūoro festival

Late last year Te Whanganui-a-Tara | Wellington hosted Pūoro Tū, a festival of “adventures in Māori instruments and sounds”. Here, taonga puoro practitioner and Pūoro Tū organiser Ruby Solly reflects on this six-day celebration of the oro.

Surprisingly, this story doesn’t start with oro. It starts with the smell of mīmiha; ambergris from the artwork Stick Stone + Bone by Nathan Taare in the stairwell of Pyramid Club. Sculptures in red, black, and white adorn the stairwell as the artist and his baby daughter swirl a clicking chandelier of bamboo to accompany puoro players. Puoro practitioners whakatangi their taonga, sticks, stones, even building tools, to breathe their into the space. To play the sounds that link us back to our whenua and ancestors who lived and innovated in harmony with this land.

This is not just what survival looks like, it is also where survival blossoms into thriving. Perhaps this is where revival moves to renaissance.

Puoro Tū poster
Puoro Tū poster, 2021. Image courtesy of Ruby Solly

Puoro Tū was apparently the first taonga puoro festival within modern history, as said by puoro practitioner Jerome Kavanagh in a mihi during our Thursday night performances at San Fran Bath House. Although, we didn’t set out to achieve any great firsts when the project was initially thought of between members of the puoro community including myself and Al Fraser, as well as the experimental music community, based around the hub of Pyramid Club on Taranaki St including Daniel Beban.

Dan is one of the artists behind Wellington’s Sound and Light Exploration Society, and a major support for the Wellington music scene in terms of bringing people together and organising events around music, sound, and how the two inform each other.

In an opening mihi Dan acknowledged the interconnectedness of the two communities, who both have matua Richard Nunns within their whakapapa. Richard worked with musicians from the community surrounding Pyramid Club and related hubs such as Audio Foundation in Tāmaki Makaurau, including players such as Jeff Henderson who was supposed to be a part of Pūoro Tū but due to Covid-19 restrictions was not able to be with us. Richard’s music was played throughout the festival as a mihi-puoro to his work and to the connections that he built between the two communities.

A sign that says, written in chalk, “Pūoro Tū 7:30 sold out”
Sign outside San Fran, 18 Nov 2021. Photo by and courtesy of Sam Palmer

Rāapa | Wednesday – kōrero and performance, livestream

On Wednesday night, festival go-ers were treated to a kōrero from practitioner and member of Haumanu collective James Webster, who spoke on his puoro practice and his use of karetao, or Māori puppetry, within puoro, theatre, and community. The multidisciplinary nature of both te ao Māori and this part of the music scene created an audience with a living understanding of how mahi toi is an interlinking practice.

James shared stories of sharing his knowledge with other indigenous peoples around the globe and prompted audience members to reflect on their practices and how tradition can both be honoured and used to innovate for the benefit of our practice.

After this thoughtful kōrero from one of our pou within taonga puoro, we continued to reflect and share our whakaaro in a panel including Shane James from Te Papa, taonga puoro within rongoā practitioner Mahina Kingi-Kaui, carver and community puoro facilitator Sam Palmer, and myself as kaiwhakahaere. This kōrero expanded on some of the underlying themes brought to us by James, including the need for puoro to be an active part of community rather than a craft preserved at one point in time, and for Māori to head innovation within the space.

Two women on stage. One is playing an acoustic guitar. The other is telling a story, adorned in a shawl and with feathers in her hair
Khali Meari Mataroa, left, and Te Kahureremoa Taumata at San Fran, 18 Nov 2021. Photo by and courtesy of Sam Palmer
Two musicians on stage. One plays a harp and the other a viola
Michelle Velvin, left, and Ruby Solly at San Fran, 18 Nov 2021. Photo by and courtesy of Sam Palmer

Rāpare | Thursday & Rāmere | Friday – live performances, San Fran

Because of Covid-19 restrictions on audience numbers at Pyramid Club, most of the festival events were held off site. Thursday and Friday nights were held at San Fran in Cuba Street, with the Friday night being under a blood moon that had not been seen in this way since our tupuna, Kupe, arrived here and basked under its light. The performances included instruments from around the world, with players from around Aotearoa.

There was a strong sense of whakawhanaungatanga within the room during both nights, where it was common for performers to mihi, to give their pepeha, and to give the individual stories around their instruments and what had brought them to this point in time. The audience wasn’t just there for music, they were there for all that the performers could bring. There was harp, koto, electronics, URN playing a kawakawa plant with assistive tech, waiata with audience harmonies, throat singing with the guttural accompaniment of pūkāea, free jazz with the moth-like flutters of pūtōrino, and of course, there was puoro both on and off stage.

A man stands in front of a crowd of people in a church
Riki Gooch leads a taonga puoro session at Futuna Chapel, 19 Nov 2021. Photo by and courtesy of Sam Palmer

Rāhoroi | Saturday – taonga puoro ensemble, Futuna Chapel

Saturday’s event was held at Futuna Chapel in the late afternoon, including a set from Al, Dan, and I as curators, and a featured conduction from Riki Neihana Gooch who workshopped with the puoro players to create a conducted improvisation for the first known taonga puoro orchestra of its kind. Though with that said, we as performers could feel that this wasn’t a first time at all, but an echo of what must have been sounds from a time before when our tupuna would have shared oro together in groups, as we do now throughout not only Wellington, but throughout the country.

As we waited for the concert to start, puoro players laughed and talked together on the lawn. A group of players start a game with porotiti being moved between hands across a circle, while singing and laughter gives rhythm. Something can be felt here in the afternoon sun, something that feels like both the past, and an astronesian future that each person is contributing to.

The concert at Futuna is one that I’ll always hold close. During the opening set, Dan used found sound from around the church while Al and I played taonga puoro. In his opening mihi, Dan explained his relationship with the church and how one of his ancestors helped to found the space along with Māori architect John Scott. There was a sense of a makeshift tūrangawaewae, of being allowed to be in a place and to use it to help both ourselves, and the space to resonate.

The taonga puoro orchestra sat across the stage around the altar, reclaiming it with pūkāea and pūpakapaka layed upon it. There was a ceremonial feel as Riki lifted his tira to the waiting musicians, including the group’s youngest member, ten-year-old Piiata, who played next to her māmā, Kahu. Riki and his albatross baton lead us through all the sounds of te taiao in harmony and dissonance, creating a journey for audience and player that grounds us here in this time, while allowing us to hear echoes of past and future. When we came to an end, with whispered instruction Riki passed the tira to Piiata who lead us through a second piece where each player soloed in turn with puoro tautoko from all of us. The tira had been passed in more ways than one and the room was in a state of wonder, and hope.

Four people playing their taonga puoro (Māori musical instruments) in an army bunker
Al Fraser, Ruby Solly, Salina Fisher, and Tamihana Kātene at the Brooklyn Army Bunkers, 21 Nov 2021. Photo by and courtesy of Sam Palmer

Rātapu | Sunday – performance at Brooklyn army bunkers

The last day of the festival took place in different outdoor locations, beginning with an interactive session at the Brooklyn Bunkers, with participants moving freely through six resonant spaces while audiences braved the rain to experience the different ensembles that constantly moved and changed.

My favourite moment of all was when a friend’s new baby was brought in to one of the quieter bunkers where Al Fraser and I played pahū pounamu and , lulling the baby to sleep with an audience as small as the ensemble, and the most meaningful moment of playing I have had for a very long time.

The morning culminated in a performance with all the puoro players in one bunker which finished with karakia from Tāmihana Kātene as pūrerehua and pūtātara rung out through the concrete chamber into the hills.

Sound foraging workshop and performance at Te Kopahou Reserve

To finish the festival, we gathered at the South Coast visitors centre for a taonga puoro and found sound workshop led by Sam Palmer, Tāmihana Kātene, and Ricky Prebble.

Sam lead us through his whakaaro on tikanga around found sound and using taonga found within te taiao, before facilitating a conversation where the players present added in their kōrero to the workshop participants about found sound, taonga puoro, and working as a kaitiaki of the whenua when interacting with it through sound.

Then we set for the beach to search for our own taonga. Sounds of pākuru, karanga manu, and kōauau drifted over the ocean towards my home of Te Wai Pounamu as first time players right up to tohunga of taonga puoro played, experimented, and shared oro with the landscape and each other.

After the beach, we headed back to the visitors’ centre to show our new sounds, before Dan turned on the sound installation Matapihi ki ngā Orooro; a work for eight speakers by Dan, Al, myself, and Anthony Donaldson featuring found sounds from the coast, including kōauau made from bones gathered here and the sounds of coastal walks. We all explored the space before poroporoaki where tears were shed (mine, always) and bounds were strengthened.

As we left, we returned our found taonga to the whenua where their mauri is the strongest. Fittingly, whenua ki te whenua is how this chapter of the story ends. Pūoro Ora, Pūoro Tū!

Video footage of Pūoro Tū by Sam Palmer

Read more about Pūoro Tū on the Pyramid Club website


In order of appearance in the article:

  • oro – sound, or note
  • whakatangi – to play a musical instrument
  • – breath, or tone
  • matua – chief
  • mahi toi – art and craft
  • pou – expert
  • whakaaro – thought(s)
  • rongoā – medicine
  • kaiwhakahaere – organiser
  • pūkāea – trumpet-like taonga puoro
  • pūtōrino – large flute-like taonga puoro
  • porotiti – disc-shaped taonga pūoro that spins on a string
  • tūrangawaewae – the place where you have a right to be
  • pūpakapaka – conch shell trumpet taonga puoro with a long-stemmed wooden mouthpiece
  • tira – baton
  • puoro tautoko – musical support
  • pahū pounamu – gong-like taonga puoro made of pounamu
  • – single-stringed bow-like taonga puoro
  • pūrerehua – taonga puoro made of wood, stone, or bone attached to a long string and swung
  • pūtātara – conch shell trumpet taonga puoro with a short wooden mouthpiece
  • pākuru – “mouth resonator”
  • karanga manu – taonga puoro used to mimic bird-calling
  • kōauau – small flute-like taonga puoro
  • tohunga – expert
  • mauri – energy
  • poroporoaki – farewell speech
  • whenua ki te whenua – “everything begins and ends with the land”

Explore taonga puoro further


  1. Kia ora Ruby.

    Thank you very much for this blog post that gives us an in depth account of your festival. Nga mihi nui.
    When Richard Nunns was alive, I think he did have festivals and performances on marae- particularly when he reclaimed instruments from museums and reunited them with their iwi. Richard named all his instruments as people, who were included on his passport.
    For readers/listeners/musicians coming to this mahi new, it is good to give full acknowledgement to Richard and the pioneers he worked with, in the post’s opening. This will help us all to realise what a debt of aroha and tenacity we owe him and his team.
    I will leave this task in your capable hands and look forward to more of this work happening in the community.

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