The most common English explanation for an oriori is that it’s a traditional Māori lullaby. Here, composer Paraone Gloyne explains to Connie Buchanan why an oriori is so much more than that, and why he’s composed a new one for his iwi.
When the colonisers arrived in Aotearoa and saw our people comforting their pēpi and singing an oriori, they thought: “Aw, look, what a sweet lullaby for the baby.”
Elsdon Best saw it like that, Percy Smith saw it like that, and they wrote down their impressions like that, and it became a received truth — that an oriori is a lullaby.
Today, that’s still the most common translation of the word.
But when I think of a lullaby, I think of Rock-a-bye Baby. A soothing and repetitive song to lull a child to sleep. And that’s not what an oriori is. It’s not simply pretty words to send a child to sleep. Me muku tērā kupu, we must scrub that word lullaby away.
An oriori is a curriculum. They are a framework for intergenerational transmission of mātauranga Māori. They were traditionally composed for children of nobility. They carried references to the child’s whakapapa from our atua and notable tūpuna. They included the iwi’s kōrero about significant historical events, including key marriages, battles, and journeys.
They contained kupu, whakataukī and pēpeha relevant to the iwi and hapū. They carried our reo karakia to the next generation. They were, in other words, designed to ensure a child is prepared for the challenges of life.
Another word for oriori is pōpō. Pōpō means to pat a baby’s back. It’s a different thing from poipoi, which is when you are rocking the baby. Pōpō is patting and it has a different rythym. It’s a solid, regular beat which sets the beat for the chant of the oriori.
Pōpō is also the title of a very famous oriori. If you study that oriori, you’ll see it talks about the divine origin of the kūmara, when it should be planted, the stars it should be planted under, and when it should be harvested. It transmits an enormous amount of important knowledge.
The other two famous oriori that are still widely known today are Pinepine Te Kura from Ngāti Kahungunu, and Tūteremoana from Ngāi Tara.
We really only hear these sung nowadays as part of a kapa haka set at our competitions. The other place where we find ourselves singing most of our traditional waiata is at tangihanga.
It’s long been my belief that we need to look for new spaces for our traditional songs to live in — other than tangi and competitions.
I’m Ngāti Raukawa and I’m a trustee for the iwi. We had a wānanga a few years ago to ask ourselves about the knowledge that was missing from our world. What was some of the teaching and learning from our tūpuna that we could bring back into our lives in a meaningful way?
One of the things that we felt was missing among us in Raukawa was wānanga ukaipō — teachings for our parents, grandparents, and whānau on traditional birthing and childrearing practices.
As we were sitting there talking about this mahi of our tūpuna, I said: “Well, if we do this, we’re going to need an oriori.”
When I really thought about it, it’s not only the child who gets the mātauranga from an oriori. Everybody in the whare who is singing it learns those rich things alongside the baby. And it starts when the pēpi is in the womb. The parents are learning and singing it then.
So I said: “Okay, I’m gonna compose an oriori.”
My partner Ngahuia and I haven’t been blessed yet with tamariki. So we got a group together for a hui to make sure we had the right expertise. I called in kaumātua and parents. We made sure we had a baby there. And we had a hui about what this oriori should contain.
We decided that the verses would correspond to the years of the child, and it would start from the womb up until tae tamatanga, or puberty. A verse for each year.
The first verse is one for the mother and father to learn and to sing while she is still hapū. And that’s the only verse they learn at that point. After all, the full oriori is full of battles, marriages, ngā tohu whenua. You don’t want to be singing all that to a puku at once!
When the mother is ready to give birth, the parents learn the second verse. Then when the baby is born, they sing the second verse to the child as a whānau. In the child’s second year, they sing the third verse, and so on. So that structure was one of the first big decisions we made.
Then we thought, right, so what’s actually going to go in those verses? Which bits of our history and knowledge?
Composing is quite a process for me. Sometimes, yes, everything just falls out of the sky. Kupu in one hand, melody in the other, everything is beautiful. Most times, though, e heke ana te wera — the sweat has to run.
The pōpō rhythm provides the vehicle for the words, the words are the medium to convey thoughts, and the voice is the instrument through which all of these converge in a song. There needs to be a synergy between all of those things — and when you have them in balance, you get magic.
For the Raukawa oriori, I thought of it as waiatatia taku orokohanga, kia puta ki te whai ao ki te ao mārama — an act of singing oneself into being, of singing the child into creation. I poured everything I have into it.
It’s a life’s work, really, all in one composition. I’ve put my blood and sweat and tears, and heart and soul, into this oriori.
During the composing process, I kept going back to the kōrero of Te Wharehuia Milroy, who said: “Inā inu koe i te wai, me mahara koe ki te puna.” When you drink the water, remember the spring from whence the water came.
So the title of the oriori is E onge āku e, referring to the treasures that belong to us. Onge is not a word that’s used anymore, and that particular sentence structure isn’t one that you hear very often either. So the title itself is all part of remembering the spring of our ancestors’ knowledge. It’s a way of saying that returning to tradition doesn’t mean returning to the past — it means reconnecting to the wisdom of our ancestors and bringing it forward with us.
The first verse is about Tainui’s unique creation story. We have a kōrero about Hani and Puna. They are the two toka at Kāwhia that mark the prow and the stern of the Tainui waka and they feature in our creation story.
There are 13 verses altogether in E onge āku. If I was to go through and dig out each line from each verse, there’d be a whole wānanga for each of these lines. He iti te kupu, he nui te kōrero.
That’s because one of the things that composers do, is to use each line, each kupu, as a touchstone. What you see on the surface is the exoteric, the visible knowledge. You don’t get the kura huna, the hidden knowledge, until you wānanga with the kupu and really spend time with each word. Then you get the esoteric meaning too.
In this oriori, I put all of the pakanga into one verse. So, all of the war and battles that affected the history of Ngāti Raukawa as a people. Within those lines are also the tatau pounamu — the peace that came afterwards.
It’s a way of saying to the child, to the tamaiti: “Have your riri, your anger, then get over it and move on.”
The child also learns that, yep, sometimes we were victorious and we won, and sometimes we got our asses whipped. They learn from these histories that you’re not going to win all the time but you always give your best.
When we were recording the verse about the battles, I found that we were drifting away from the oriori rythym. We had too many syllables in each line and we were turning it into a pātere.
So I actually had to rewrite the verse while we were singing. To do that, I just kept going back to the pōpō, the rythym of patting a baby. Anytime I felt that we were going off track, I would go back to the pat-pat of a pēpi and that would set us right.
We’ve recorded the entire thing now. Some people might think, oh man, 13 verses, that’s long. But just look at the manuscripts we have of our old waiata. They were way longer. We know our tūpuna could recall hundreds of verses in hundreds of waiata, and thousands of names when they recited whakapapa.
There’s nothing stopping us bringing that depth back, and embodying that magic that our tūpuna had, for ourselves. Kei roto i ō tātou ngākau katoa, tērā mauri. It’s still within all of us.
The response from my own iwi and others has been so humbling. People are hungry for this knowledge and connection.
To help our whānau get to grips with it, we’re planning for the oriori to have a companion reader. Each verse will have a chapter to help explain its meaning and use. I’ve also composed the oriori so that some of the verses can be taken out alone and used as karakia by different iwi.
Perhaps one hundred years from now, every child born to Raukawa will know our oriori and be singing it as they grow. My hope is that it will feed the minds and hearts of our tamariki with their rich history.
Far from being just a lullaby, it will wake our babies up to who they are and where they come from.
Paraone Gloyne (Ngāti Raukawa ki Wharepūhunga, Ngāti Maniapoto) is a prominent composer, orator and peforming artist who lives in Te Awamutu. He’s a long-standing advocate for the revitalisation of te reo Māori and tikanga Māori, including through Mahuru Māori. Paraone and his partner Ngahuia Kopa are the tutors and leaders of the kapa haka Mōtai Tangata Rau. Paraone hosts a weekly podcast Taringa through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, which is a bilingual discussion of kupu, iwi stories and tikanga.
As told to Connie Buchanan, made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund
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