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No. 48 (September 1964)
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I was most interested to read, in the June issue of ‘Te Ao Hou’, the two articles by Mr Mervyn McLean on Maori chant, or traditional music. Mr McLean, a professional student of traditional music (the academic term for this is ethnomusicologist) is devoting a great deal of his time to collecting and preserving old Maori chants. He is studying their nature and structure, and he has worked out a method of notating the airs.

But he is not stopping there. He is re-distributing recordings of these chants within the tribal areas from whence they came, at no charge to the tribal authorities; he asks only that they be made available to groups within the area wishing to make use of them.

Thank goodness for people like them, and how ashamed it makes me. For I continue to think how great a tragedy it is that the preservation of such material should almost always rest in the hands of a few far-sighted Europeans who see further ahead than we ourselves do.

Can It Survive In Traditional Form?

While Mr McLean is performing a most valuable service in preserving a fast-dying art form, I am myself most dubious as to whether it will be possible for Maori chant in its present form, to survive as a living part of our culture. If asked to give one short answer to Mr McLean's question, ‘Can Maori chant survive?’ I would, I think, have to say, ‘No, because not enough younger Maoris care sufficiently to help it to survive.’

I should like to explain my reasons for thinking this, and then offer a suggestion as to how, in a somewhat less traditional form, it might have a much better chance of true survival.

When primitive Maori society was thrust so abruptly into the modern world, the future of Maori chant would have been sure only if the elders, on realising the difficulties of the new environment, had really exerted themselves and done all within their power to make it as easy as possible for the chant to survive. But this they could not do. The shock of transition was too great, and by the time that the Maori-Pakeha wars were over, and the race had been greatly reduced in numbers and brought to the lowest point in its morale, the next problem was not the survival of the chant, but rather the survival of a race.

Naturally enough, if this is your target you will not place too much emphasis on the survival of unnecessary non-physical extras. So the race rallied and lived, and the action song came into its own. I sometimes wonder whether it would be better to have no music at all rather than a bastardised Maori version of European pop tunes. It's such an easy way of making music. And with all due respect to those Maoris who will disagree with me, Maoris like to get things easily. I do myself.

Language Also Declining

During this time the language also was declining, for it was much harder to be bilingual when one had to speak only English at school. While all of this was happening, Maori chant was being performed still at tangis and other gatherings, but because of the impact of the new society there was not the same need or opportunity to gather and sing together.

Today very few Maori children learn their language in their own home. The only places in which other people can learn Maori are at some Maori schools, at Adult Education classes throughout the country, and at the University of Auckland. But today if you want to learn Maori you have to be really keen, and once you have learnt Maori you have to be fanatic to learn the old chants. They are not easy to learn and, many would say, not easy to listen to.

Difficult At First To Understand

I have a musically trained ear, and yet when I first started listening to Maori chant when employed by the N.Z.B.C., I was amazed at the seeming ‘monotony’. It took many weeks of solid listening before I began to appreciate this completely different musical form. As for understanding the words, I speak reasonable

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Maori and yet I found them very difficult to comprehend. I did finally come to admire and enjoy tremendously this traditional music, but I believe this was at first primarily because I wanted to like it.

How many younger Maoris like myself have had the opportunity of spending eighteen months listening solidly to traditional Maori chant, combined with twelve years of musical training, and an (albeit small) knowledge of the Maori language? I would venture to suggest that they would be very few, and yet it took me weeks of listening to come anywhere near an appreciation.

When I was compiling Maori programmes for the N.Z.B.C. I felt that if people did not have the opportunity of hearing Maori chant they would never learn anything about it. So I prepared a series of programmes mixing both chant and action song together. We received many letters and phone calls asking ‘what this rubbish was’ and ‘how much nicer the action songs were than these old has-beens’. Conversely we did receive several letters from Maoris saying how much they had enjoyed having the opportunity of hearing the old traditional music. For those few people I think the programmes were justified and well worth doing. But the many unfavourable reactions certainly showed the difficulties that people experience when they first attempt to listen to this music.

(Incidentally, as Mr McLean mentioned in his article, the N.Z.B.C. has a fine collection of recordings and tapes, some sponsored by the Maori Purposes Fund Board and collected mostly by Mr W. Ngata, and many others recorded by the N.Z.B.C. There is also a collection of cylindrical recordings made back in the first years of this century, which is held by the Internal Affairs Department. Unfortunately no detailed work has been done on these, and because of technical problems all this music will have to be re-recorded if it is not to be completely lost.)

The Problem Of Tradition

Mr McLean raises the point that tradition can be a barrier to people wishing to learn this music. And he is right. Why people should worry so much now about tradition, when their whole way of life has been changed and will never be the same again, is very hard to understand. This traditionalism has meant the loss of very many chants and customs, and I have even been told by old people that they would rather something died with them, than that they should do the wrong thing and pass it on. He is also right when he says that one important barrier to the passing on of songs is that of song ownership.

If there were a genuine desire amongst Maori people, particularly the elders, to see the chant survive, surely the tribal barriers could be broken down. If some young Maori wants to learn a particular song, he is at least showing a desire to retain his culture, and in these times that is far more important than clutching jealously to oneself a song which should be handed on.

I was refused permission to learn one of the old instruments by one of the few people left who know how to play it because I was told that I did not belong to the tribe. And yet that same person showed and explained to a European musicologist (not Mr McLean) the basic rudiments of playing it. Ironically enough he showed me. In my opinion this is quite unfair. You must surely be consistent and either show nobody except your own tribal members, or else show anybody who genuinely wants to learn.

Fear of ‘Commercialisation’

As far as commercialisation is concerned, Maori chant, despite its literary and musical value, holds little appeal for most people. And even if the appeal were wider, what is wrong with an honest man receiving honest money for honest work? Surely the important thing is that people should have access to the chants, for only in this way can they survive.

Because of all these difficulties, I feel that Maori chant is not likely truly to survive in its strictly traditional form.

It is absolutely vital for the collection, preservation and study of Maori chant to continue, and I am delighted and grateful that Mr McLean is doing this so thoroughly and well. As well as studies of this kind, I would myself like to see composers adapting and interpreting the chants, for perhaps it is in such interpretations that its best hope for survival (as distinct from preservation) lies.

Culture Must Continually Evolve

For any part of any culture to survive and be a living breathing force, it must continually evolve. I believe, and very much hope, that there will always be many who will want to listen to, and sing, the chants in their traditional form. As well as this, however, there is surely room for music which will interpret them in a way easier for our Western ears to comprehend. If the basic melody line and the beautifully poetic words were interpreted in a

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more modern form, accompanied by Western instruments (and I don't mean guitars), there could come from this fusion of our two cultures a new and living art. If, after hearing such music, younger Maoris and Europeans should take a greater interest in the chants in their traditional form, then so much the better.

A start on interpretative music of this kind has been made in the ‘Songs with Strings’ records by Phyllis Williams with the Alex Lindsay Orchestra. By marrying the Maori chant and the European orchestra into a cohesive unit, this performance has shown us what a superb culture we as New Zealanders could have by fusing Maori and European cultures.

In other words, we could again have a living culture, instead of a dying art.

Mrs Hill, formerly Amy Mihi Taylor, belongs on her mother's side to Ngati Raukawa; her father is Pakeha. She was educated at Horowhenua College. Hukarere College and Victoria University. For two and a half years she worked with the Broadcasting Corporation in Wellington, spending much of this time studying and classifying the Maori records in the broadcasting archives. Aged 24, she lives in Wellington.


Miss Tui Uru, a Christchurch contralto singer and radio announcer, has returned to New Zealand after eight years overseas. These eight years were ‘crammed with music and sightseeing’.

Miss Uru left Christchurch in 1955 to take part in the City of Sydney Eisteddfod, winning 11 first places, two second places and other awards. After this she set off for London, where again she had much success; among other public performances, she took part in a concert programme at Wigmore Hall and sang as a soloist at the Westminister Central Hall. During the day Miss Uru worked in an office, and in the evening she studied music, languages, and singing. She specialised in recital work, which she prefers to operatic singing.