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Article  •  12 October 2021

 

Kia Kaha profile - Hirini Melbourne

Hirini never thought he would become a musician. He couldn't read music, but he was good at listening and very dedicated, so he taught himself.

HIRINI MELBOURNE | MUSICIAN, MĀORI CULTURE CHAMPION

1949-2003 | NGĀI TUHOE, NGĀTI KAHUNGUNU 

Illustration by Ms Meemo

Kia mau rā, kia mau rā, ki te mana motuhake me te aroha. 

Hold steadfast to self-determination and compassion. 

 

Hirini Melbourne grew up in Rūātoki, fascinated by the creatures in Tāne's forest. His mother especially loved hens and ducks, and together they would walk through the bush on the edge of Te Urewera, observing the world and the sounds all around them. 

Hirini was surrounded by Māori speakers - the school teachers were some of the few English speakers in the area- and he absorbed all the teachings he could before he went off and studied to become a teacher himself. 

A few years later, Hirini had children of his own, Mahina and Māia. At night he would sing them nursery rhymes, but after a while he got bored of cows jumping over the moon and mice running up clocks. He wanted to teach his tamariki about the things outside their window, about birds and butterflies and whakapapa, even trains, and to sing to them in te reo Māori. 

Hirini never thought he would become a musician. He couldn't read music, but he was good at listening and very dedicated, so he taught himself. As it turned out, over time, he developed a magical power - he could make instruments sing alongside his words. 

One day, Hirini sat down with a kuia who knew lots of old waiata about birds. They exchanged songs and Hirini developed more. His friend who worked in radio recorded some of them and, when he played them to other people at the radio station, they all went 'Wow!'

Soon Hirini's waiata were being played on the radio and in schools across Aotearoa. His music was teaching the next generation, even if some of them couldn't understand all the words. 

Hirini was an excellent teacher, but remember that teachers still love learning too. In 1985, Hirini discovered a collection of taonga puoro in the National Museum. 'These instruments are amazing! The sounds are beautiful!' he thought. There was the nguru, which can be played with your nose; the pūtātara, which is made from a shell; the small flute called a kōauau; and so many more. Hirini began to learn about them whenever he had the chance. 

In the past, only tohunga could play these instruments, and as time passed many of them ended up sitting in museums. 'We must take them out of their glass cases,' Hirini said. And with help of his friends Richard Nunns and Brian Flintoff, he made it his mission to ensure these beautiful instruments were played and that their voices were heard. He travelled around Aotearoa, doing what he loved to do - teaching and sharing- and bringing taonga puoro back to life once more. 

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