Matariki 2017: Introducing Alistair

Thursday, 18 May 2017
Alistair Frase matariki

This year we are teaming up with Wellington Museum and, for the first time with Pātaka Art + Museum, to celebrate Matariki. These family friendly concerts will weave the hauntingly beautiful music of taonga puoro and traditional chamber music instruments in a unique homage to Matariki.

We've interviewed ngā taonga puoro artist Alistair Fraser, to find out more about these unique instruments and what we can expect at this year's performance.


What’s your musical background?

I was born in Dunedin where I was raised and at home was fed a diet of the music my older brothers and sister were listening to in the 1980’s. Funk, The Beatles, Bowie, 1960’s psychedelia and of course the Dunedin Sound were all played at home. I also used to listen to my Dad’s rock and roll collection, so Elvis and Bill Hailey featured heavily. I went through the Catholic school system and at St Edmunds we had concerts twice a year, ‘The Eisteddfod’ and ‘End of Year Concert’ which were three hour epics that had to be endured by all our parents. All the students were required to sing in class choir, year choir and a mass school choir as well as perform a solo song and poem. This and singing at church on Sunday were times when I was involved in music as a child. Pixie Williams of ‘Blue Smoke’ was a family friend and could always be heard singing at church on Sundays.

In my teenage years I learnt drums and then guitar and played in bands. I followed up on the guitar studying jazz and graduating from Massey University in 2000. I played guitar in a traditional Irish music group ‘Crannog’ during this time and in jazz groups around Wellington.


What lead you to taonga puoro – the making and playing?

I fell in love with the voices of ngā taonga puoro . I was doing a lot of tramping at the time I became involved with taonga puoro and was keen to learn and explore as much as I could about our country and people. Ngā taonga puoro was and still is the doorway for me to do this. When I was in my last year at University Richard Nunns played at a friend’s recital where I was operating the lighting. At the time I had a kōauau a friend had given me and had very little idea of the huge variety of instruments that Richard had out in front of him. The sounds made total sense.

This kicked started me into researching what other instruments were revived so I read McClean and phoned Hirini Melbourne to ask him how to make the pūtātara I was working on. I really had to make them myself as there was so one else around I knew of who was making and playing, however, when I was visiting my future wife in Rotorua in 2000 I chanced upon a workshop run by Ngawara Gordon at Hei Tiki Gallery where she had Hirini, Brian and Richard as tutors. I had no idea they all knew one another and that they had been reviving ngā taonga together for a long time already. Revelation!




What materials do you favour working with when making taonga puoro? Why?

I love found materials that already have the form and are playable with very little alteration to make a taonga when you find them. There’s a connection to the place where they’ve been found, their natural environment, that tells a story and is totally ‘of’ that place. I also work with bone, stone, wood and gourds.


Tell me a wee bit about your overseas research project in 2016

In 2016, I was made a Churchill Fellow to travel to the U.K. and Ireland to inspect, photograph and record, when allowed, collections of taonga puoro held in museums there. I visited 11 museums, inspected 18 taonga and recorded 8 of them. This project follows on from recording the collection of taonga puoro held at Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum and Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology where I recorded their collections of ancient taonga puoro.

My thought behind this is that these instruments were made to be played, as all instruments are. They need to be played in order to preserve their voices and maintain their mana. My hope is that the more this happens, the more normal it will be for museums to allow this to happen for cultural events. This sometimes goes against many museums kaupapa which tends to be about preservation of the physical object as it was collected.

The research I do is also valuable to me as a maker and player. I find nuances and voices in these old instruments that I haven’t found in other taonga puoro which I aim for when I build instruments. I share my primary research with other makers and give talks as a way to disseminate my work into communities.

Opening the Score: Alistair chats with co-performer Ariana Tikao about taonga puoro and the 2017 Matariki project:


The Echo of the Stars, 16 & 17 June - find out more here.