Horomona Horo, a distinguished Māori musician opened a recent national choral festival in Rotorua, New Zealand ‘Sing Aotearoa 09’, with a most arresting sound. A soft "Toc… toc, toc", which changed in intensity, pace and loudness over a period of perhaps two minutes, created a wonderful sense of calm listening, regulated our breathing and a evoked a link with ancient lands. He was playing two pieces of pakohe or argillite  – one large, in the palm of a hand, the other smaller, in the opposite hand, tapping like a bird’s beak. He explained later that the argillite – a naturally occurring mineral in Aotearoa New Zealand – was particularly suitable for making these sounds and not quite as hard as the much treasured Māori pounamu or greenstone, which is also used for tools and making koru symbols and other jewels. The cupping of Horomona’s hand changed the pitch across the range of about an octave and a half, which was amazing to see at close quarters in a workshop that he ran for Sing Aotearoa participants later in the festival weekend.
The simplicity and beauty of Māori Taonga Pūoro (literally "singing treasures" and the traditional instruments of Māori culture) has begun to rub off on me during my five years here. I don’t think I knew how to respond initially. The instruments are traditionally used for marking rituals, moments of significance, and to heal - and so are of importance to Māori healers and therapists. Two musicians, the late Hirini Melbourne and friend Richard Nunns, have been greatly significant in the revival of the instruments in the last two decades, and together with master bone carver and instrument-maker, Brian Flintoff, they worked tirelessly to raise awareness, and to compose and play regularly throughout Aotearoa (Flintoff, 2004). Horomona is continuing their work, sharing the instruments and playing in contemporary collaborations with artists all over the world. In attending a graduation ceremony for Maori students earlier this year, I learnt that the tradition is for each person’s whānau or family to join in a song for the graduate, and /or the traditional instruments are played in a kind of call or sharing with the ancestors. It created a wonderful rhythm and shape in the – for me – normally rather routine graduation ceremonies experienced in the western traditions. The simplicity and the time for breathing and contemplation were what I experienced and greatly valued in the community of Māori, who were celebrating their adult learners.
Horomona’s playing reminded me of an audition for a percussionist music therapist, Josefina, at the Guildhall School over a decade ago shared with the (then) Director of Music. Josefina played two pebbles that she had collected herself especially for musical purposes, in a similarly arresting way for us, and I remember the Director of Music commenting in a really surprised voice that it was the best music he had heard all morning! This was a real coup with my traditional classical colleague who was affectionate but distinctly suspicious of the infiltration of music therapists and improvisation into the conservatoire.
From the experience of the pebbles, I recognised that I could make more of the resources around me for music-making, and have enjoyed collecting stones ever since, but particularly in New Zealand, whose beaches regularly invite me to roam and fill my pockets. As a way of working simply in a group to share and coordinate and laugh together, I have become very fond of using stone passing songs (mainly in our music therapy training groups, but most recently last week with a group of music librarians interested in music therapy as part of their annual conference). Stone passing games have a long tradition in African countries, and have very flexible resourceful qualities. They are often played sitting on the ground closely together and the stones are passed in front of your neighbour, perhaps with a variety of possible rhythms that can increase in complexity as the group gains confidence. (For less flexible adults they can also be played standing in a tight circle, picking and passing from your own palm to your neighbour’s). Adzenyah, Maraire and Cook observe that the game songs in African communities "embody moral teachings and cultural values" (Adzenyah, Maraire, & Cook Tucker, 1997) p. 27, in contrast to western traditions of children’s action songs that tend to promote learning of numbers and alphabet letters. So an Akan stone passing song from Ghana ‘Sansa Kroma’ has the translation "Sansa, the hawk. You’re an orphan, and so you snatch up baby chicks." p42. These song games also help children co-ordinate simple and then increasingly complex rhythms in a playful mode and, of course, the materials of the stones or the child’s body are always readily available. The following observation by Adzenyah and colleagues gives strong hints about the value of practising these game songs. One can imagine the benefits to young classical musicians of more exposure to such playful group-orientated singing.
"They increase coordination, train the child’s voice to be flexible and give … experience in projecting feelings to an audience through the medium of music. By the age of six, children in Ghana and Zimbabwe are eased into participation in music and dance during actual festivals and over time become perfectly comfortable with performing in front of hundreds… of people. The first ingredient in the recipe for no stage fright' is a good dose of participation in game songs." (Adzenyah, et al., 1997)p27.
In a wonderfully enlivening visit to an almost deserted beach near Cape Palliser Wairarapa coast, NZ in April of this year, I noticed that a lot of the stones had "stripes" of another mineral, - marble I think - and I became very absorbed in collecting all the stripy stones I could. The light and atmosphere in this beautiful space encouraged my singing, and I swopped notes with my husband about stone passing songs we could develop as I continued my search. The variety and prettiness of the collection entranced me and some are pictured here to show you the range of size, shape and possibility. The music librarians mentioned earlier liked them too, and we had a good conversation about the value of the stones as instruments and learning tools for people with special needs – how the stones got warm as we passed them, and how we enjoyed feeling the different weights and shapes and noting their contrasts. One man noticed how he completely forgot the rest of his day as we played the game. "It is impossible to think about anything else as you take part in singing, concentrating and sharing", he said.
Here is my stripy stones song to try when you have found some suitable natural materials. I recommend messing around and elaborating on the simple phrases as part of the group participation. For example chanting "pick and pass and pick and pass" for as long as you like as the stones move round at the beginning, or ‘on and on’ etc at the end can generate some nice improvisations.
At the end of the weekend of Sing Aotearoa, described in the opening, the whole singing conference of delegates was invited to the ancient Māori site called Te Puia to link with the local Iwi (tribe) and to sing to the exploding Geyser which bubbles and spouts gently at times, but at certain hours of the day sends huge plumes of hot sulphurous water high in the sky. We visited at this Geyser High Tide and it was great experience to share in the whole community towards the end of the weekend. Instead of singing to a tightly packed, immobile local audience in a hall, the 300-plus delegates sang outside with the workshop leaders (Simon Carrington, Sanna Valvanne, Māori poet Apirana Taylor, composer Anthony Ritchie and Horomona ) to a few international tourists, our Maori hosts of Roturua and the spectacular Geyser. Singers wonderfully outnumbered the human audience and there was something splendid about giving music back to the natural world in this way. It seemed a fair exchange for the borrowed stones to help our singing and coordination.
Thanks to Isabelle Lefrancq for permission to use her photographs from Sing Aotearoa 09, and to Horomona Horo for permission to use his image.
Horomona is student of the esteemed pioneers of the revival of traditional Maori instruments Taonga Pūoro, Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns. Horomona has performed in many different genres and has a wide experience and knowledge of taongo pūoro. In the photo, he is pictured playing the koauau, a carved bone flute, and holding the pūkāea, an instrument formed like a kind of alpine horn. Website for further information: http://www.orowaru.com
H and J Mitchell writing about the properties of argillite observe that : "Earliest Maori communities recognised its superior qualities of hardness, strength, and ability to hold a sharpened edge, ideal for making tools … and weapons. Another property – conchoidal fracture (like that of obsidian – volcanic glass) provided a source of razor-sharp flakes for filleting fish, preparing roots and vegetables, woodcarving, flax work and net-making." http://www.theprow.org.nz/pakohe-argillite/
Adzenyah, A. K., Maraire, D., & Cook Tucker, J. (1997). Let your voice be heard: songs from Ghana and Zimbabwe (10th Anniversary ed.). Danbury, CT: World Music Press.
Flintoff, B. (2004). Taonga Puoro: Singing Treasures: The musical instruments of the Maori. Nelson NZ: Craig Potton Publishing.
Sing Aotearoa 09, organised by the New Zealand Choral Federation, October 23-26 2009 http://www.nzcf.org.nz/events/sa09/SingAoteroa09.html
Hoskyns, Sarah (2009). Keeping Music Close to Nature. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colhoskyns161109