8 Jun 2021

Remembering Richard Nunns

From Upbeat, 12:05 pm on 8 June 2021

The world's foremost expert on taonga pūoro has died at the age of 76.

Richard Nunns at Karori Wildlife Sanctuary during the recording of He Ara Pūoro.

Richard Nunns at Karori Wildlife Sanctuary during the recording of He Ara Pūoro. Photo: RNZ/Gareth Watkins

Richard Nunns, a Pākehā - and alongside Māori musician Hirini Melbourne and Pākehā carver Brian Flintoff - was central to the revival of interest in traditional Māori instruments.

Born in 1941, he was an English teacher and jazz musician who became fascinated by taonga pūoro – which by the 1980s were mainly only seen in museums and seldom played.

In fact, much knowledge about the instruments and their use had been lost to te ao Māori.

Dr Hirini Melbourne and Dr Richard Nunns began collaborating in 1989.

Dr Hirini Melbourne and Dr Richard Nunns began collaborating in 1989. Photo: Ross Clayton

Together with Melbourne and Flintoff, Nunns released a seminal work using taonga pūoro in the mid-1990s.

They researched and recorded instruments held in museum collections, many of which had not been played for more than a century.

Nunns himself gave spine-chilling performances, breathing life into instruments made from wood, bone, stone, gourds and shells.

Music library AudioCulture Iwi Waiata writes that he evoked the sounds of Aotearoa's natural environment - its winds and waters, its birds and insects - and of its indigenous people - the wiri of hands, the rhythms of haka and the bending notes of old chants.

Flintoff said he would often visit Nunns in his final weeks.

"Some of us went in with our tāonga pūoro and played to him. And even though he couldn't communicate, we could see with little flickers of his eyes and movements of his hands and his tongue that he was really really listening and appreciating."

Flintoff said he and Nunns were embraced by Māori because they were working with Melbourne and because they worked closely with Māori who felt ownership over what they were doing.

"Hirini ... had the wisdom to do it by going to marae, especially up in the north in the start, and doing workshops and before the workshops started meeting with the kaumātua - the elders of that area.

"The whole thing grew from Māori, not from officialdom or the government sponsoring or anything like that.

"It made the old people [feel] part of it because the were the first ones consulted." 

Nunns received numerous awards and honours including in 2009 being made an Arts Foundation Laureate, QSM and being included in NZ Music Hall of Fame.

RNZ reporter Max Towle asked Flintoff about Nunns’ impact on New Zealand music:

More about Richard Nunns:

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