Remembering Richard Nunns

Richard Nunns, the world's foremost expert on taonga pūoro passed away at the age of 76 on Tuesday. Photo: RNZ Gareth Watkins

Staff Reporter

The world's foremost expert on taonga pūoro passed away at the age of 76 on Tuesday.  

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

Born in 1941, Richard 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.

Together with Hirini and Brian, Richard released a seminal work using taonga pūoro in the mid-1990s.

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

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

Richard 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.

Brian said he would often visit Richard 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."

Brian says he and Richard were embraced by Māori because they were working with Hirini 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."

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

Story from RNZ.