Greetings to all iwi, all languages, all people everywhere. Hirini Melbourne (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu) was a composer (kaitito), singer, university lecturer, professor and revivalist of Māori musical traditions. He was born in the Urewera in 1949, in a completely Māori-speaking community, and was a true native speaker of the Māori language, since infancy.  He became a major figure in the Māori music world, with his melodic originality, and his beautiful songs. 

The following is a rendition in English of AudioCulture’s Hirini Melbourne profile, which was conceived and written in te reo Māori. 

According to language expert Te Wharehuia Milroy (Ngāi Tūhoe), Hirini grew up among his people in the Rūātoki Valley when the language was universally spoken there by all. The Māori language had never intermarried with the English language at that time.

As a child Hirini demonstrated a love of all kinds of birds, other animals, and insects.

His parents were Harry Melbourne, a farmer, and Nawarihi Melbourne (nee Puna). At the time of his birth in 1949, a nurse at the hospital, noting his surname, suggested his mother call the baby Sydney Melbourne, thus he was named. Later he as an adult took the Māori version of Sydney, Hirini, as his name. As a child Hirini demonstrated a love of all kinds of birds, including chickens and ducks, and other animals. He spent a lot of time observing insects, ants and so on. Te Wharehuia describes how Hirini was adopted by an old man for a time, but after his death Hirini returned to his family.

Hirini attended Rūātoki primary school in the valley. Later, he went to Te Aute College and then to the University of Auckland. He shared a story with Henare Kīngi of Te Upoko Radio about the day he enrolled, meeting the renowned professor of linguistics Bruce Biggs, of Ngāti Maniapoto, in his office. Hirini filled out his course application form for the kaumātua. Professor Biggs looked at the form and said, “You are in the wrong office, you have written you want to enrol in the [sic] ‘Moari Department.’”

Hirini indicated he was encouraged by his elders John Rangihau, Tīmoti Kāretu, Te Wharehuia Milroy and others, who said no matter that you are a native Māori speaker, you should stay here and study the language in-depth skills, and fully master skills in writing, speaking and teaching the language.

With his wife Jan and their first of two daughters, after university Hirini moved to Wellington to work as a teacher. Hirini reported he did not enjoy teaching, as the world of the school involved him enforcing rules and punishments created by others. He joined the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education. There, he met David Somerset who, as an author of children's stories himself, took an immediate interest in Hirini’s compositions. He became the producer of Hirini’s music at Radio New Zealand in Wellington. 

An LP record and several cassettes of these songs were produced in these years, and sold through agreement with Hirini via Replay Radio, a division of Radio New Zealand. Among them was Te Aitanga a Tāne: Trees, birds & insects (1984). Hirini took with him his music and his guitar, which his daughter recalled being always played in her childhood. In a Robert Johnson-like episode, Hirini said he acquired his individual style of guitar playing after a couple of days of intense non-stop work, practising until his fingers bled.

In 1982 with Somerset as producer, Hirini shifted genre to write another Māori language album of songs with social concerns, Hinepūkohurangi. It featured songs on issues like the Aramoana smelter, and Māori unemployment. He had belonged to Ngā Tamatoa, the activist group working on Māori rights and justice issues. On this cassette he was joined by Te Rita Papesch, the supremely gifted singer known throughout Te Ao Māori for her sublime voice and vocal skill, who became his co-vocalist on recordings.


Later, Somerset and Hirini travelled back to Rūātoki with a Radio New Zealand recording team, to make an album of the children’s choir at his old school, singing Hirini’s compositions. It was one of the first bilingual schools in New Zealand. Hirini had been involved for some time with a collective trying to create reading and teaching materials in te reo, in fact in the Tūhoe dialect, for this form of education, at this school. Somerset was impressed by the acoustic qualities of the wharenui (meeting house) in which the recordings were made, the coaching skill of the teachers, and the superb singing the tamariki produced. The recordings were released by Replay Radio as Rūātoki children sing songs by Syd Melbourne (1985).

Where did his songs come from? Hirini heard the sound of birds and the sound of the forest, and he sewed these together with the knowledge of his ancestors. The voice of the riroriro (grey warbler) is a message, an awakening, a call to action in the garden. Don’t neglect the food garden! Once you hear the cry of the riroriro, you must go and pull the weeds, break up the soil, scatter the necessary ash and fertiliser, and throw seed potatoes in the ground so the  family will have food. Lest you be like the person in the old proverb: “The fruits of the hard worker are always taken by a lazybones.” 

Hirini told an interviewer a song should ideally be no longer than four lines: “if it cannot be said in four lines, why compose a song?”

Whakarongo ki te riroriro, riroriro, ka mahi kai māhau
Rere riroriro rere rere runga kōhanga
Huri te uru hauraki hauraki 
He tohu kuraraki

Listen to the chattering of the grey warbler, and go and plant your food garden
The grey warbler makes her nest
If the entrance faces to the north wind,  
it is a sign the summer season will be fair and peaceful

(Lyrics, ‘Riroriro’ – ‘grey warbler’ by Hirini Melbourne)

Some of Hirini’s songs were inspired by concern for nature, for the loss of forest, the natural world, and damage to the air above. He offered the following prescient comments (in translation) in a 1991 interview:

“I have just sung several songs. The sentiments in them touch on a wider issue. We know that the Earth mother is in trouble in our time, and when we look at the Sky Father, we see the same damage. Why? They have been damaged by us, by humans, the descendants of the primal parents. So I feel sorrow for this ... When the Māori people looked at the world around them, they saw their bonds, the bond of humans to nature, and of humans to our unborn children, and acted on the basis that we are a single, related entity. But we have become distanced from these concepts, and I am disturbed by it. These are the thoughts behind the compositions.”

He was asked in 1991 to talk about the place of both traditional Māori music with its old forms and the place of modern music of the kind he composed, as Māori make their way in the modern world. He answered (in translation):

“To me those ancient songs still have a major place for us today, because those songs came from the Māori spirit, the Māori mind, the old Māori world. They came from Māori wellsprings in the heart, from the strong emotions of Māori people, their pain, their joy, from the time when they lived in the village together. We still experience suffering, we still experience oppression and marginalisation, therefore, those songs give voice to sadness we still have inside us.

“We must never allow those songs to be lost, even though the composers have gone, their compositions are there to lead us, to instruct us. To me, you find there the models for modern composition. I’m not saying there’s no place for modern styles, the modern songs have come from the styles of the modern world. We can adapt these to leave our own style for future generations to come. They in turn will add their songs to all traditions composed in times past, since the first arrival and settlement of Māori in this country to the present.

“I think always of the great composers, of Kōhine [Pōnika] and others, of Tuini Ngāwai, Ngoi Pēwhairangi in their time, of Dovey [Kātene-Hovarth], and their styles, songs we still hear sung, which we sing now. I look at you, the young people among us, producing compositions for us who are getting older, whose backs are getting stooped. Sing to us, so we can hear your concerns and thoughts in song, whether in haka or song form. The main thing is for the songs to be heard, so the young can let the older generation know their thoughts.”

In 1988 Hirini wrote and performed the music for the Merata Mita film Mauri, at her invitation.

Short songs, known as ruriruri and pao, were significant in the Māori music tradition. 

Hirini said he was a student of the Japanese haiku, or poems with supreme economical form. Similar short songs, known as ruriruri and pao, were also significant in the Māori music tradition; these included short love songs, songs of longing, nostalgic songs, and children’s songs. The early songs he created were for children, about the natural world of the forest in which he grew up, and its birds, trees and moods.

Hirini always had an interest in Māori musical instruments, saying he was “intrigued by those instruments lying silent in museum cases.” He reported going to an instrument makers’ workshop and hearing the sound that some of them made.

From there, he began a collaboration with Richard Nunns, making and playing traditional Māori instruments, such as the kōauau, pūtorino, pūrerehua, karangaweka, poi āwhiowhio, and nguru (the short cross-blown flute, the large flute, the bull-roarer, the weka bird-caller, the whirling gourd, and the semi-closed nose flute, among others). He and Nunns toured and played concerts, and drew many Māori and non-Māori into an appreciation of the sound of traditional instruments. In 1991 they released a seminal album of Māori music, Toiapiapi, featuring traditional instruments. I was present at a wānanga on traditional instruments in Ōtaki in 1992, where Hirini helped me make a beef-bone kōauau (short cross-blown flute), and taught me with great patience how to play it.

In 1990 Hirini was teaching at Waikato University, and invited musician Richard Nunns to study traditional Māori instruments with him. Richard was a lifelong musician, from a musical family, and an incredibly skilled brass and woodwind player. He brought his training, instincts and imagination to their collaboration. A new body of music was born from this friendship, notably the album Te Kū me te Whē which was released in 1994. The words kū and whē are words signifying sound, and appear as primordial elements in the Māori creation cycle near the beginning of the universe.

In her AudioCulture profile of Richard, Kirsten Johnstone described how the album’s success amazed Steve Garden, the owner of Rattle Records:

“I thought it would appeal to ethnomusicologists and a select group of academics. But people took it to heart, and it was hugely influential,” said Garden. 

The album, recorded in a day and a half, was Rattle Records’ first release, in June 1994. It sold around 12,000 copies, was awarded gold status in 2003, and 25 years later continues to be a benchmark for the sound of taonga puoro. Suddenly, the haunting sounds of the instruments were heard widely, on television, on movie soundtracks, in pop music, and on radio.

Hirini travelled widely throughout the country to festivals, and generously attended special events, fulfilling throughout his life the cultural duty to “tautoko” all things, to teach others, and to celebrate things Māori, going far beyond with personal generosity. He excelled in the academic world and ultimately held the post of Professor in the School of Pacific and Māori Studies at Waikato University.

In 2002 Hirini was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Waikato. He also received the Te Waka Toi exemplary award for Services to Māori arts and culture. Hirini became ill with cancer and died in 2003. A month before he died he was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music, language and culture. His tangihanga was held in Rūātoki and attended by hundreds. E te rangatira Hirini, okioki mai rā.



Paul Diamond’s six-part series on Hirini Melbourne, RNZ, 2010

Watch: Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns perform at Te Papa

Hirini Melbourne’s page at Sounz Centre for NZ Music Toi te Arapūoru

Photo of Hirini Melbourne and Tame Iti, Te Papa Rongarewa

Hirini Melbourne talks to Piripi Walker, 17 April 1991, part one

Hirini Melbourne talks to Piripi Walker, 17 April 1991, part two


Piripi Walker, Ngāti Raukawa, is a writer and translator for print, radio and television, and teacher of te reo Māori. Piripi was manager of Te Upoko o Te Ika, Wellington city’s Māori language radio station, from 1987-1991 and in 2021 remains trustee and deputy chair of the station’s Trust Board. He lives with his wife Heather, in Silverstream, Upper Hutt, and is a hands-on koro to his seven mokopuna.