TARARUA'S JOURNEY ON THEIR BIRD LIKE MEN ALBUM (2021): Taonga pūoro to the future

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TARARUA'S JOURNEY ON THEIR BIRD LIKE MEN ALBUM (2021): Taonga pūoro to the future
A year ago in a conversation Ruby Solly -- the Pōneke/Wellington-based taonga pūoro artist, singer, writer and film-maker – mentioned how she was of the third, contemporary generation of musicians using traditional Māori instruments.

After the kaumatua whose knowledge Richard Nunns, Brian Flintoff and the late Hirini Melbourne drew on as the first contemporary generation in the late 20th century came Al Fraser, Rob Thorne and Ariana Tikao.

Solly learned from them and is now passing the knowledge of the instruments and their possibilities to her students.

At the time she was just 24 and laughed about being the oldest of her generation.

Some time after that Fraser was in touch about an album he had recorded with percussion player Rikki Gooch (Trinity Roots, Fly My Pretties etc) titled Rangatira.

He mentioned in passing he was recording a new album with Solly, Tikao and the bassist/composer Phil Boniface (with whom he had recorded the exceptional Ponguru album).

At the time I joked that what he had was a taonga pūoro super-group.

And the evidence of their album Bird Like Men, under their group name Tararua, confirms that.

None of the three taonga pūoro players has been constrained by conforming to tradition – although of course it is respected and drawn from – but rather (as did Nunns and many other more recent performers like Horomona Horo with Moana and the Tribe) they use the evocative sounds of the instruments to convey states of being and consciousness as well as suggesting place and sensibility. All in a contemporary, art music context.

There are threads of precedent for Bird Like Men in the recent work of these musicians.

Fraser with guitarist Sam Leamy and electronica artist Neil Johnstone created the remarkable Panthalassa in 2019 (with Tikao on vocals and bassist Boniface in places) which evoked ancient oceanic forces and the mysterious and largely unknown world of the sub-aquatic realms.

tara3Solly's debut album Pōneke was recorded in response to various locations around the capital.

It is in the nature of taonga pūoro that in the right hands – and Tararua are certainly those – that they have the capacity to suggest the elusive world of pre-history as much as the deep bush and majestic mountains of this country.

Bird Like Men – recorded in Lee Prebble's Surgery Studio – offers a broad musical palette beyond the more expected and familiar sounds of taonga pūoro.

Certainly there is waiata in both te reo Māori and English, but with broody cello and the double bass touching some walking pace funk on Tikao's dark, folksy Tūtūmaiao; Ko Au Tonu a spoken word poem over a soundbed weaving between nimble folk and the 19thcentury Pākehā front parlour; the traditional instruments alongside melancholy cello easing towards a place between electronica and contemporary classical music (Hinepukohuraki with a choral passage) and sonic landscapes suggesting a world between Māori and Pākehā (Haereka), this is an album which reaches far beyond the expected.

Among the most moving pieces is Puaka at the end which is soaked in an ineffable, universal sadness induced by these traditional Māori and Western instruments but elevated by beautifully melodic vocal lines.

Tararua draw on personal history, the inspiration of ancient stories and knowledge, and the dark beauty of this country.

And what better than taonga pūoro -- and this group -- to convey the depth, breadth and geographical reach of all that?


Tararua's Bird Like Men (Oro Records) is available on bandcamp here

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