Richard Nunns (Photo: Simon Darby)

Richard Nunns was a teacher and a gifted musician. He was also a seemingly unlikely hero of the revival of taonga puoro, the musical and healing instruments of Māori which, thanks to missionaries and colonisation, had been all but lost to te ao Māori. He died in Nelson earlier this month aged 76. Moana Maniapoto remembers her friend and former band member.


When I think of Richard Nunns, I picture him bouncing through the giant wooden doors of an ancient convent overlooking Florence. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, he’d been up at the crack of dawn, walking the streets of that glorious city while the rest of us slept off the effects of the night before. Too much kai. Way too much wine. 

All we could do was look up at him from the breakfast table, incredulous and more than a little bleary-eyed.

I always admired that about Richard. He was years older than the rest of our band but was forever out and about, meeting the locals and striding the cobbled streets. Savouring every minute of life on the road. 

Richard was an exceptional musician and teacher. He’d taught English at Nelson College for Girls until his 50s, when he gave it up to become a full-time musician. At various times over the years, he was also the most unlikely-looking member of both of my bands: the Moahunters, and the Tribe. 

He was a tall, slightly hunched-over figure of a man. Big and pale. He looked more Pākeha than any Pākehā I knew. And we were a large band, mainly brown, so it’s fair to say that Richard stuck out on stage. There was no hiding those blond Scandinavian looks, even when he had his black formals and pounamu on. 

But his was a life deeply immersed in te ao Māori. He was one of the best taonga puoro players in the world. A leading force behind their revival.

An ally and a champion of Māori, Richard died nearly two weeks ago in Nelson. He’d been living with Parkinson’s disease since 2005. 

I hadn’t seen Richard for many years. Life is like that. But death has a habit of throwing up images and sounds and memories — snatches from long ago. 

Moana & the Tribe perform at Olympia, Greece (photo ©2003 Stuart Page)

Richard (front, left) onstage with Moana and the Tribe at Olympia, Greece, in 2003. (photo ©2003 Stuart Page).

My first album was Tahi. I was curious about taonga puoro and wanted to include some on my album. All I knew about was kōauau (a short flute). But I remembered stories I’d heard from Dr Hirini Melbourne, who used to lecture me at Waikato University. He was the leading exponent of pre-European instrumentation at the time. One day, Hirini sent me recordings of putorino, poiāwhiowhio, tumutumu and pūrerehua.

My producer pumped up the speakers. We were captivated. It was primal and hypnotic, absolutely immersive. We sampled some of the sounds and were hooked. I got Hirini into the studio to record pūrerehua and poiāwhiowhio. 

After we released Tahi in 1993, I received a long letter from Richard Nunns, introducing himself. 

“Congratulations,” he wrote. “What a splendid creative album. Some of those sounds you sampled? That was me, not Hirini. It would have been nice to have been acknowledged. PS, I’d really like to play on your next album — in person.” 

I apologised. Rich forgave me pretty quickly. He and Hirini had a deep friendship based on their shared love of music. In 1994, both men suggested I attend a puoro wānanga in Ōtaki. 

That was the hui that launched Te Kū Te Whē, the seminal taonga puoro recording by Hirini and Richard. All of us participants made our own kōauau during that wānanga, tutored by the wonderful Brian Flintoff — a master carver and another Pākeha ally and champion. 

Those three — Hirini, Richard and Brian — were the catalyst for a movement. I remember being captivated as they told us what happened. 

Taonga puoro had been silenced after the arrival of Pākehā missionaries in Aotearoa. Many ended up in glass cases in museums (sometimes flutes were incorrectly labelled as “cloak toggles”) or in private collections overseas. Others were smashed to pieces during public conversions of Māori to Christianity. 

Few people had seen them, or knew what they sounded like. Or even knew how they should be played. 

Hirini Melbourne (left, playing a pūtōrino) and Richard Nunns (ororuarangi). Credit: Rattle collection

Hirini, Richard and Brian travelled the country, gathering evidence from museums and private collections, and visiting marae and communities to ask elders about traditional instruments. They wanted to know how they had looked, their sound and uses. 

Based on what they were told, Brian would craft a piece which his two mates would take back out again to those same elders for feedback. 

Richard often described the mission to revive puoro as “a hugely privileged task and journey”. As he said in this 1999 RNZ interview, that journey first began for him when he moved to the Waikato to teach and became involved in the building of an urban community marae for Melville High School. Suddenly, te ao Māori opened up to him.

“It was an inroad into another way of seeing and being in this country that I suppose never knew existed,” he said. 

“It fascinated me for sure and I was very lucky with the people who helped me and ushered me into that.”

One of those people was educator and kuia Rangimarie Rose Pere. Richard remembers telling her of his interest in learning about the traditional instruments of Māori. “And in the nicest possible way, it was as though she had never heard the question. She kind of turned away, and I knew enough not to pursue that.”

But a year or so later, after she’d listened to him playing the flute, she told him: “You make those instruments speak as though they’re people.” 

And then she said: “You remember you asked me about the traditional instruments? Well, if you are meant to find out, you will.

Clearly, it was meant to be. In 1978, Richard moved to Nelson where he met Brian Flintoff, whose particular skills would later help to solve the acoustic challenges associated with the reconstruction of taonga puoro. And in 1984, at a wānanga in Te Araroa, they connected with Hirini.

It was a remarkable coming together of talent and skills. Hirini with his reo and compositional skills, and his deep knowledge of te ao Māori. Brian, the exquisite carver who was able to translate oral descriptions into living creations. Richard, the former jazz musician, perfectly placed to breathe voice into Brian’s instruments.

Soundcheck at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens Greece (photo ©2003 Stuart Page)

Richard (in the red top) during a soundcheck for Moana and the Tribe, at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens Greece (photo ©2003 Stuart Page)

Taonga puoro are deceptive in appearance. They take real skill to play. Back then, no one could match Hirini and Richard. No one could play taonga puoro like them. At that time, few people even had any. 

And, as he had suggested at the beginning, Richard ended up on our recordings. 

He memorably opened my second album Rua up with a pūtātara solo. He then struck the pahū pounamu for the start of the song “Ancestors”. And he joined our band.

We took him to the Festival of the Dreaming in Sydney 1997 in the lead up to the Olympics, and then to Womadelaide that same year. 

In 2001, I was part of a Māori business and arts delegation to Florence, Italy. We  pulled a band together in a helluva hurry. Figuring that classical Māori instruments in Italy’s most classic city would go down a treat, I invited Richard to come along. Five thousand people watched him play taonga puoro on the steps of Piazza della Signoria while the sun went down. Dustin Hoffman wandered up and had a yarn to a star-struck Richard about our show.

When the Tribe was formed in 2002, we toured through Europe and Richard joined us on and off between teaching commitments. His case of instruments was huge. And heavy. They were his babies. Honestly. He took ages to set them out on the table. He would caress them — and woe betide anyone who touched his babies without getting permission. 

In Italy, we nabbed a spot on a huge sports programme on Rai Uno. It was the Football World Cup that year. We arrived at the TV studio with all our instruments in tow, looking for the PA to plug into. The TV crew watched us, looking amused. Then told us we had to do “playback”. Turned out that meant lip syncing. But Richard wasn’t having it. He dug his toes in. 

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “We have to do it live.” 

That wasn’t going to happen. There was no PA at all and the audience was rolling in. There would be a viewing audience of millions. 

“Come on, Richard,” I begged. “Just pretend.” 

It was the only time he downed tools. Refused to budge. We survived, did our thing. We were pretty good, too. But that’s when I learned that Richard had a line that he wouldn’t cross. 

Richard on a pūtorino and Horomona Horo on a pūtātara from the film Voices of the Land — Nga Reo o te Whenua by Dr Paul Wolffram. (Photo: Dr Paul Wolffram)

Richard eventually started playing with other artists. But his mentoring of other young puoro exponents meant I wasn’t left high and dry. The best in my book has always been Horomona Horo, who referred to his mentors Richard and Hirini as “Ebony and Ivory”. Watching Horo carefully and lovingly lay his babies out on the table onstage before we performed was always a flashback to Rich. 

Rangi Rangitukunoa was another protégé, and Richard also introduced me to Jerome Kavanagh whose taonga puoro playing featured on a Grammy Award-winning album in 2011.   

Our band was offshore a lot, so I didn’t see Richard as much toward the end of his life. 

Even after Richard was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he continued to pass on his gifts — his love and knowledge of puoro — to many. I remember him chuckling as he told me about the time he was teaching a young woman kōauau and he noticed she was following every instruction to the tee — even emulating his tremors. 

In 2009, Richard was made an arts laureate. And in 2013, there was a beautiful tribute concert for him at Te Papa featuring an incredible array of amazing musicians he’d worked with over the years. He was so chuffed. 

Taonga puoro are now heard in recordings by artists like Tiki Taane, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Six60. All of us are beneficiaries of that movement in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when Hirini and Richard — and others like my Ngāti Tūwharetoa relative Rangiiria Hedley — were leading the charge. It lives on through Haumanu (the taonga puoro collective), in books, film soundtracks and musical recordings. Taonga puoro feature onstage at Matatini and at classical concerts. They’re even taught in schools now.

Throughout his career, Richard amassed a collection of over 70 traditional wind and percussion instruments. 

But honestly, the man could pull a tune out of anything. He’d grab a leaf off a tree or a piece of uncooked giant macaroni to blow into — just because he could. That was the depth of his talent. 

I still have chunks of rock, shells and bone he’d given me over the years — that connection with nature was so deeply embedded in him that he was always looking for hidden treasures. 

I like to think that Richard’s old buddy Hirini is waiting for him on pūtātara, welcoming his wingman into the other realm. And that Richard’s wife Rachel — the classy, respected and accomplished poet he was so proud of — will be standing next to Hirini, reciting a special poem. 

E moe e te rangatira. E kore koe e warewaretia. 


Breathing voice into taonga puoro

How a Pākeha of Scandinavian and Yorkshire whakapapa came to be so uncannily good at giving voice to taonga puoro was a mystery to many Māori.

There was his musical background, of course. Richard’s family on his dad’s side had a long history of involvement in Yorkshire brass bands going back several hundred years. After moving to New Zealand, they’d dominated the brass band scene in the Gisborne area. Richard learned to play the trumpet when he was nine, and the flute when he was at teachers’ college in Christchurch.

And, as he told RNZ: “All the work in brass bands, all the work in the school orchestras, all the work in the jazz groups and the rock groups that I worked with, and the kind of concentrated jazz work in Nelson and so on — all of those skills and all of those talents particularly to do with woodwind and brass, have been shaping a mouth to make noises out of virtually anything at all.”

But there was also a spiritual element to learning to play taonga puoro.

“How they should be held and how they should be breathed into voice has actually come to me in a sequence of very literal dreams,” he told RNZ’s Eva Radich in 1999.

When he finally got up enough courage to talk about those dreams to some of the old people who’d been his mentors within the Māori community, their reaction was one of relief. “As though: ‘Oh, now I know.’ As though it explained something to them in a way that hitherto had been a mystery to them,” he said.

“I often have the sense of feeling as though I’m some kind of conduit or vehicle. I occasionally have the sense of being able to step aside from my playing in performance . . . of people standing at my shoulder.”

Dr Richard Nunns is survived by his daughters Molly and Lucy, five grandchildren, and his two brothers and a sister. He was born on December 7, 1945, and died in Nelson on June 7, 2021.  He was awarded an honorary life membership of the New Zealand Flute Association, and in 2001 was honoured by the Composers Association of New Zealand with a Citation for Services to New Zealand Music.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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