Hirini Melbourne, who died early in 2003 after a year-long battle with cancer, was from Tuhoe and Ngati Kahungunu. A writer of stories, a composer, singer and respected academic, Hirini was a significant figure in the revival of the Māori language, with dozens of his now classic folk songs sung in classrooms throughout Aotearoa.
Hirini devoted his life to promoting Māori language, culture and music. As a student at Auckland University in the 1970s, he was a member of Māori activist organisation Nga Tamatoa, which petitioned Government to have Māori taught in schools as part of its focus on Māori identity. He began writing songs and stories to fit with the urban experience of Maori of his generation and turned his frustration with the quality of educational resources for Māori into action by becoming editor of Māori School Publications. As Associate Professor Te Tari Māori at the University of Waikato, he was a respected scholar and his prolific writings form the core of Māori language sections in libraries throughout the country. A member of the NZ Film Commission and of the NZ Music Commission, Hirini also composed music for various festivals, productions and orchestras. He served with Te Waka Toi and on the Arts Board of Creative NZ. His extensive knowledge of te reo, the history of Tuhoe, and of music has enhanced the profile of Māori arts.
Hirini’s early musical experimentation soon extended to a fascination with the traditional Māori instruments, which he had initially seen only in museums. In 1989 he and Richard began performing regularly on marae, and in galleries, in concerts and in festivals such as WOMAD and the NZ International Festival of The Arts.
In 1994 Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns walked into a recording studio to make an album that marked the culmination of 30 years of travel, research, kōrero, composing and performing. The resulting CD, Te Ku Te Whe (“the woven mat of sound”) has since gone on to become pivotal to the rediscovery of sounds and practices of taonga puoro (traditional Māori instruments).
Te Ku Te Whe was unrolled again in the 2006 release Te Whaiao: Te Ku Te Whe Remixed. Through its layering of digital textures and live performances, via a dream team of remixers, Te Whaiao (“daylight”) opens a new window into a space in our shared musical consciousness.
Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns have revived and revitalised interest in traditional Māori instruments, and made them come alive again in contemporary recordings. Without them, this knowledge may have been lost forever.