30 Oct 2016

Celebrating 25 years of Hirini Melbourne's landmark songbook, Toiapiapi

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:06 pm on 30 October 2016

It's been 25 years since Hirini Melbourne's famous children's songbook Toiapiapi, was released. To mark the occasion. RNZ's Justine Murray spoke to his family and dug into the archives to find recordings of Hirini himself.

Whale Tooth Nguru by Brian Flintoff

Whale Tooth Nguru by Brian Flintoff Photo: Supplied

A 1991 edition of the Hirini Melbourne’s children's songbook Toiapiapi proved so rare that the publisher of its re-release had to source a copy from the online shopping site, amazon.com.

Toiapiapi was first published in 1991.

Toiapiapi was first published in 1991. Photo: Shearwater Associates Ltd (Publishing)

The book’s second edition was recently launched in Wellington at a gathering that included some of the Māori artists who worked on the original.

Dr Hirini Melbourne playing the Koauau.

Dr Hirini Melbourne playing the Koauau. Photo: Brian Flintoff

Dr Hirini Melbourne was a composer of te reo Māori language nursery rhymes about insects, birds, atua Māori (Māori gods/ancestors) and the environment.

Hirini (1950 – 2003) was from Ruatoki and his iwi Tuhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu. Te reo Māori was his first language.

Describing his songwriting style in a 1978 interview, Hirini said his inspiration came from nature: “It’s quite simple really, the bird songs themselves suggest the melody line, just listen to the range of notes they can make, and of course they vary from different times of the year.

"No other tui would sing the same thing all the time, but I just take a part of the phrase I suppose, the tui, owl and kiwi and I think, 'Oh, I can imitate that and I can develop a melody line from it.'”  

Hirini met his wife Jan when they were both students at the University of Auckland.

Hirini was doing a teaching degree and Jan fondly recalled that she was ‘amassing’ stage one credits and spending lots of time in coffee bars. She says Hirini was a very shy person, so much so that it was hard to get him to talk, but he always played his guitar.

“He was self-taught and couldn’t read music but had an amazing ear. He started to write songs when our children were little because he wanted them to have nursery rhymes in te reo Māori to go alongside the English ones they were learning”

Hirini and Jan’s daughter Mahina Melbourne is the first to admit that she doesn’t possess all the musical talent that her father Hirini did.

“Both my sister and I are not particularly musical and so the disappointment on peoples faces when they meet me and then discover that not only do I not sing or play guitar, but that I can only marginally play some of the tāonga pūoro.

"They look at me and say, 'Yay she’s going to sing a song, but that doesn’t happen”

Mahina completed studies in traditional music at The University of Waikato, and can play a few of the tāonga pūoro. When asked about her father’s music, Mahina says that one of her favourites is Purerehua because it is one of the first songs taught at Kōhanga Reo (Māori pre-school total immersion playcentre).

Mahina remembers that her father was not one to sit down and write at a table, instead he would spend time in the bush or walk around with his guitar, he would play with words and tell stories in this manner, she says there was a lot of fluidity in his songs and discovered from his diaries there one song had many versions.

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

“Hinemoana was written in a boat when the family were holidaying in Te Kaha, the song Hinepukohūrangi is about identity and whakapapa (genealogy).

"He’s got songs that inspires activism and awareness, He has songs that teach you about a Māori way of looking at the world. A Māori way of seeing the things in the environment.”

As a child one of Mahina's favourite memories is eating fish and chips on parliament grounds and sitting under his desk at school publications office in Wellington.

Dr Hirini Melbourne and Dr Richard Nunns met in 1989, they worked together to ‘breath life’ back into tāonga pūoro and as Hirini put it, “to take them out of museum glass cases”.

Both men performed in schools, concerts and marae. They released the album Te Ku Te Whe in 1994. The album Te Hekenga a rangi was released in 2003, that year he was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit.

Toiapiapi is published by Shearwaters.  

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Archival songs and interviews supplied by Ngā Tāonga Sound and Vision.