Even Stones Sing
This is one of the joys for me of knowing about this tradition. It’s just being out and about on the beaches, in the rivers, out in the bush. And just engaging or interacting with objects that you find. Same idea as found sound… You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on musical instruments. You can just find them on a beach.
Ambience: Stone Flute
Jen Cattermole is a lecturer in ethnomusicology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island. Although Jen is not a Maori, she has taught herself to play many of the traditional Maori musical instruments.
Cattermole: here I grew up was a small township in Canterbury, up the coast from here. A white community. We had one Maori family. (laughs). It was lucky in primary school that we had teachers who taught us Maori legends and stories..Maori weaving. That was a big part of my upbringing, even though Maori culture wasn’t a strong presence in my community.
Later on, my family were rock hounds. Amateur geologists. I got interested in Maori carving…Skipping forward to 1998, when I was a student here at Otago University, one of the main knowledge bearers of this tradition,.. Richard Nunns came to give a single class. I just remember him standing in front of the class. He had a black velvet cloth he spread over the table and he just laid out .. all these incredible cultural treasures. And he spent the next 50 minutes talking about stories and anecdotes and playing the instruments and telling about them. For me it was the combination of lots of things that I was already interested in. Maori culture, carving, music. I found them incredibly beautiful. I was really helped by stories that Richard told about. He told about being in Patagonia… the hotel he was staying in was just across the road from the beach. The beach dropped off really quickly. down into a deep trench. which meant the whales could come in close to shore. And he describes this experience of playing for these whales. These 3 whales that came in close, put their heads out of the water to listen to him play. This incredible powerful experience that he had with these whales.
I thought any instrument that would allow you to have those kind of experiences and connections with other things that are around us and share our world, like how amazing is that? Mind officially blown. Stories like that had me hooked.
With a small grant from the head of her department at the university, Jen commissioned the creation of a number of Maori flutes and began to amass a collection of instruments, shells, bones and rocks that were playable. The challenge was to learn how to play them.
Cattermole: I was really hung up for a start because I knew..these instruments were profoundly sacred for Maori. They are living descendants of.. Maori dieties. The powers that regulate the raw powers of nature. I didn’t want to…put a foot wrong (laughs). Scared of infringing the kapu, the sacredness. I tried reaching out to Maori colleagues to ask these questions and to get a bit of guidance. Nobody wanted to talk at the time. I was a bit hung up you could say.
Jen got hold of a book which offered a few suggestions on how to play Maori flutes.
Cattermole:: At the end of the book he gives a section on how to play. He doesn’t go into a lot of detail. He.. describes the cross blowing method or the oblique “ombashure”, which is used to play the majority of particularly flutes.
I read that, sat down and experimented until I got it (laughs). There are some that are not at all challenging to play. Especially the percussion instruments and some of the rattles. Things like that. But some of them have been a real challenge. Like bird callers. Even after YouTube videos and watching.. You can see what people are doing but even if you try and imitate sometimes you still can’t..grasp it.
Most of these instruments, it’s a combination of written instructions, listening, experimenting.. Literally the instruments are teaching you how to play them.
]It’s a very liberating thing… It’s not a proscribed aesthetic… Every instrument is unique. No two are the same.
Since learning to play, Jen has been in contact with a number of Maori musicians who have encourages her efforts and offered instruction.
Cattermole: Unfortunately we don’t have very much by way of recordings of the old way that these were played.These instruments were, because of their Tapu, their sacred status, the performance tradition came under threat when a particular act of parliament was passed in 1907. That was called the (sic) Torhorna Supression Act. Torhorna is a term that covers a variety of .. aspects of cultural knowledge. This act was aimed at supressing the activities of Torhona. Healing practices. There are quack doctors worldwide, right? That was seen as a bit of a threat. This act made the Torhona illegal, according to NZ law. A lot of these instruments fell into disuse or their practice went underground or it changed. Some became children’s toys. Whereas in the past they might have been used in healing or other sacred uses.
On Jen’s table, there is a remarkable variety of instruments. Some are clearly recognizable as flutes. but there are also snail shells, crab legs and what appear to be ordinary rocks with holes in their center.
Cattermole: You just trying to find anything with a hole in it! And seeing if you can play it! (laughs) Sometimes it might be a hole in a rock that’s part of a big rock face or a boulder on a cliff or something. You literally just line your face up with those holes in the cliff and you create this amazing music. So not all of these.. are portable. Some have to remain in the environment where we find them. Quite a lot of them are ones that you can pick up.. and play. And this is one of them.
Jim Metzner: That interface between the breath and the tone. One would think that this could be emblematic – coming across a sonorous place. This could be one of the emblems of a sacred space.
Catermole: Absolutely. That engagement can form about the environment. These (instruments) are living descendants of the Atua. The atua are- they were the originators of – still reglate the natural powers of serious aspects of the environment. The ocean, the forests, the winds. Anything that .. is part of creation… They speak to that. It’s their communication. The giving and receiving of those communications. These are conduits or channels or pathways that that appears.
Metzner; Do you see yourself as a conduit as well? You’re not Maori, but you’re the one who is giving voice to these instruments. How do you see yourself, your place in this?
Cattermole: I don’t see myself as a Torhona – cultural experts .. in spiritual matters. Torhu is signs. Omens. The voices.. especially whistling kind of on the edge, on the cusp kind of sounds, they in particular are seen as being communications from the gods. From the ancestors. Which is why these are so sacred, yes? I don’t see myself as being able to understand what those Torhu, what those signs actually mean. There’s something that for me is slightly lost in translation. Having said that, I still have a profound sense of connection to the environment when I play. ** When I play in a place – and there are places that are special for me – I can’t quite articulate what makes them special. There just are these special places. You tune into your environment. You literally tune in. You’re responding to what you hear, using voices that are similar to what you hear. And then what gets interesting is that communication comes to life.
confidence. It’s a sense of – a rhythm in the sounds. Give and take, like a call and response. Mostly that tends to happen with birds. Birds are curious and territorial as well. They will converse with you. It’s also in the rhythms with the wind. Or when you’re sitting besides a river where the water’s tripping over the stones. That melodic play, where you’re picking up and you’re hearing the melody that’s there.
My thanks to Jen Cattermole. If you want to see pictures of Jen playing her flutes, visit our Facebook page. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet