When I was drawn to popular music at age sixteen as a pianist in bands around Christchurch I often found myself to be the only pakeha in the early bands I played in. My first jamming band (Tu Autawhit) was composed of nine Maori musicians. And me. The experience enriched me and over the years I found myself privileged to be invited into lots more opportunities to play music and talk with Maori song writers and music makers.

Between 1975 and 1990 I was fortunate to be part of some high profile Maori show bands. From time to time I picked up gigs as a  sideman keyboardist for The Hi Marks, Billy T James’ Show Band, Dalvanius and the Fascinations and Howard Morrison’s Band.( Sir Howard used to greet me by asking me “Have you found the brown notes on the keyboard yet, Doy?”).

 There were many other fine Maori musicians that I worked with – among them Aotearoa bluesman Sonny Day and the first teenage Maori pop diva, Erana Clarke. (Now Sydney-based, Erana was vocal coach for Australian Idol and sang the national anthem at a recent Tri Nations game).

There was the Auckland based Morgan family (Peter a superb vocalist and percussionist and his brother Howie one of this country’s first thunder-thumbs style funk bassists). My musicianship was kicked into shape by working with two superb guitarists: the studied disciplinarian Tuhi Timoti and the speed king of New Zealand guitar Tama Renata. (Tama was the composer of much of the soundtrack for the seminal 1990s movie Once Were Warriors).

The late 1980s saw the bourgeoning of the Maori Renaissance - a resurgence in Maori culture which had its genesis in the area I happened to move into - the Waikato. Maori education and cultural development was going through huge change at this time led by some great thinkers and artists at Waikato University.

One of the most well known of these cultural leaders was Maori composer, music educator and Associate Professor at Waikato University the late Hirini Melbourne (Tuhoe). He began his teaching career as a primary school teacher, writing songs for children and became renowned for his work in Maori language as well as music. Today students in most classrooms in Aotearoa would have been exposed to Hirini’s songs.

Music is a vehicle for keeping the Maori language alive. As well as promoting Maori language Hirini’s work collaborating with Richard Nunns literally unearthed a host of new sounds which had been silent in Maori culture for a hundred years suppressed and buried by successive Colonial and Dominion governments.

For Hirini the relationship between the land, the natural world and Maori music was central. He took the study of Maori musical instruments (taonga puoro) right from the source and literally revealed instruments which had not sounded for generations: the koauau (bone flute), the purerehua (the bull-roarer heard over the PA at every All Blacks’ game now) and the putatara (conch shell) among others.  

 Hirini and Richard recorded many taonga puoro on a seminal CD called Te Ku Te Whe in 1994. Every New Zealand musician should have a copy of this album (it’s available on Rattle Records).

This week there are many activities which celebrate Maori music and te reo. Among them is the launch of another volume of Moteatea – volumes of written and recorded waiata collated by the great Maori historian and scholar Sir Apirana Ngata. The books – they are tomes- make up a definitive body of work which gathers together and documents Maori music. The Moteatea collection should be accessible at any public library.

 Also being released this week are two new albums through maori music.com: Ruia’s  new CD  12…24 and the release of local Maori composer Carol Storey’s album Mokomoko.

I am very close to Carol’s work.  I love her voice and her songs. As a fellow musician I have to say it has been thrilling to see her songs taking flight on stage and on the radio. On Day One of Maori Language Week, Radio New Zealand National chose her song Te Wai to launch celebrations. The lilting waiata has an aged quality about it – a classic 1950s Blue Smoke feel – at the same time sounding very contemporary.

The Mokomoko album being launched in Tauranga this week is an important new body of Maori work. It has resulted in a Masters research thesis, is steeped in history and was three years in the making - reflecting Carol’s passion for music from her early years in kapa haka, as a folk and jazz performer and as a music educator. The album is also a collaboration with some fine musicians including Horomona Horo – one of the new generation of exponents of toanga puoro.

Carol studied for her Bachelor’s degree with her great mentor and friend Hirini Melbourne. The stories, the music and the language are passed with revernce from teacher to student. Through safe hands. Whakapapa.