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No. 52 (September 1965)
– 25 –

SINGING SHELLS

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This trumpet decorated with a strip of bird's skin is in the Dominion Museum.

For thousand of years in countries throughout the world, the awe-inspiring tones of conch shell trumpets have sounded on ceremonial and religious occasions.

In New Zealand shell trumpets or pu moana were of the triton variety of conch. The shells were not so easily found as elsewhere in the Pacific, and the Maori were the only Polynesians to possess wooden trumpets. But they still blew their shell trumpets to assemble the people or to announce the arrival of visitors. In some chiefly families they announced the birth of a first-born son.

Susi Robinson Collins wrote her poem ‘Hine-mokemoke’ after reading this legend recounted by Harry Dansey in the ‘Auckland Star’:

‘It seems that once upon a time the people of the East Coast, near where the Wajapu River runs out to sea, used to hear when fishing strange music … one day some people hauled up a crayfish trap and there clinging to it was a triton shell. And, wonder of wonders, the shell was singing. So they took the shell and made it into a pumoana … and ever afterwards this same trumpet sang to them sad songs of the green ocean depths … And they gave the magic trumpet a special name -Hine-mokemoke which means, the lonely maid.’

Hine-mokemoke

From
the sea deep
Hine-mokemoke sings;
come surging up
the sad tales whispered
in the ear of frail shells
on the ocean's floor.
Lovely and lonely
Hine-mokemoke sings
down amid the curling fronds
dark and secret songs
of the tremendous deep.
Against my ear rests
the singing shell.
all its secrets murmuring
soft
as the waters of Waiapu.
gentle
as Titipounamu.