Kino Hughes’s legacy, Paul Wolffram

Songs of a Kaumatua: Sung by Kino Hughes
Mervyn McLean & Margaret Orbell
Auckland University Press, $89.95,
ISBN 1869402588

Songs of a Kaumatua was initiated by Kino Hughes, the remarkable personality at the centre of this book. Hughes was born in the small rural community of Ruatoki, close to Whakatane, in 1891. Throughout his eventful life, he built up an impressive repertoire of songs. In 1972, at the age of 80, he began the considerable task of recording the songs for posterity. Following the production of Margaret Orbell’s and Mervyn McLean’s first book together, Traditional Songs of the Maori (1975), Hughes extracted a promise from the two that a similar volume would be compiled from the songs he had recorded. Hughes died in 1986, at the age of 95, and Songs of a Kaumatua marks the fulfilment of the authors’ promise. Their stated aims in producing the book have been “to assist new generations of singers to maintain and revive these songs, while directing attention to the richness of the poetic and musical heritage enshrined in the repertoire of this one outstanding singer.”

Mervyn McLean is an accomplished ethnomusicologist, who has made many recordings among the Maori of Aotearoa and the Cook Islands. Until 1992, he was Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Auckland where he founded the Archive of Maori and Pacific music. He has written a number of books on Maori and Pacific music, including Maori Music (1996) and Weavers of Song: Polynesian Music and Dance (1999). Margaret Orbell is also a scholar of Maori culture and the author of several books on Maori and Polynesian traditions, oral literature and belief. She was until recently Associate Professor of Maori at the University of Canterbury and is now a full-time writer.

Within the literature of ethnomusicology Songs of a Kaumatua is an exceptional book. Few such texts have dared to explore the music of a culture or community by focusing on the experience of the individual. This is surprising, given that many ethnographic studies rely on only one or two specialist informants who are willing to give their time and knowledge. Hughes presented the authors with a remarkable opportunity to document not only the songs; he also provided descriptions of how he came to know them, his knowledge about their use and suggested personal interpretations.

The book is in the same format as Traditional Songs of the Maori and presents 60 traditional songs as Hughes sang them. The text begins with a brief introduction about Hughes himself, detailing where he lived and worked and how he came to collaborate with McLean and Orbell. Hughes’s repertoire is briefly discussed, revealing that most of the “songs were learnt from Tuhoe singers and are of Tuhoe origin.” A short chapter, “The people of Tuhoe”, presents the history of the tribe, their origins, social and political make up and the changes brought about by the arrival of Europeans. This chapter introduces Tuhoe cultural heritage, the importance of their language, tikanga, song and history.

The second section, entitled “The Music”, presents some of the technical aspects of the songs as well as a brief introduction to the world of Maori music, outlining the general features of the singing and chanting styles. The transcriptions are presented as analytical aids and guides for learning the songs along with the two superbly recorded compact discs included with the volume. The authors take care to mention that no book or recording can be a substitute for the traditional ways of learning employed in an oral tradition. A final introductory section, entitled “Song Categories”, briefly explains the book’s layout and the traditional categories used by Maori.

The body of the book is presented under the title “The Songs”, which is further divided into subsections of related groups such as “Ritual chants before speaking” and “Tangata whenua and manuhiri”. Each song is presented with a full and fascinating explanation of the circumstances in which it was traditionally performed. The accounts often provide an insightful perspective on the song’s use, emotional content, and the Maori way of life. Textual transcriptions are provided for each song along with an English translation. The explanations of the poetic content of the song texts are extraordinary and clear, revealing the incredible amount of time and consultation that must have gone into producing them. A western musical transcript is also provided for each piece. Each song or chant is presented in detail and the sheer number of examples is remarkable.

Song 44 is a good instance of the central role of song in Maori culture. It was composed by Te Kooti and acts as a reminder to his Tuhoe and East Coast followers not to forget him. Te Kooti begins: “Petera and you others, be constant in your love for I am one.” In the second and third verses, Te Kooti’s people reply: “[S]ir, here is my love.” The song goes on to employ the language and poetic conventions of waiata aroha: “Rain down, rain, rain down outside.” The rain is associated with tears of sorrow and possibly greeting. Despite the lack of information known about this particular song, its use of traditional Maori poetic conventions and historical information make it fascinating to read and listen to. Many of the other songs in the book provide an equally valuable historical perspective and reveal the depth of the Maori poetic tradition.

Unfortunately Songs of a Kaumatua falls short in one respect in its admirable attempt to describe the musical world of its subject. As mentioned above, this book is significant in the literature of ethnomusicology because it uses an individual as the lens through which Maori music is seen. An individual’s perspective of a culture’s music is a valid and important one, a perspective that is too rarely employed.

Such a perspective does, however, demand a full and frank presentation of the individual at its centre. Songs of a Kaumatua presents Kino Hughes as an exceptional man – but how exceptional? We need to know. The two-page introduction to Hughes is hardly an adequate preface to the personality who provides all the musical material in the book. If Hughes were an atypical individual, say, his performance style, memory, relationships etc would not have been representative of Maori in general. The book provides a fair account of the history of Tuhoe, but what was Hughes’s relationship with his people? Our perspective on the book would be dramatically altered if we were told, for instance, that Hughes was a controversial figure among his own tribe. Was Hughes representative of his generation? We are told that he learnt the songs mostly from Tuhoe singers, but are told nothing of who these singers were, how they taught or what Hughes thought of them. An understanding of who Hughes was and what role he played in his community would further serve to illuminate the songs presented in this special and beautifully produced book.


Paul Wolffram is a postgraduate student of ethnomusicology at Victoria University of Wellington.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in History, Māori, Music, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category