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LIVING TAONGA: Richard Nunns has had a ‘‘wonderful 30 years’’ associated with ancient Maori musical instruments.
LIVING TAONGA: Richard Nunns has had a ‘‘wonderful 30 years’’ associated with ancient Maori musical instruments.

Richard Nunns is scaling down his public performances after three remarkable decades at the forefront of a Maori music revival. Naomi Arnold reports.

Don't write me off just yet, Richard Nunns says.

One of New Zealand's most remarkable musicians is in an easy chair in his home in The Wood, listening to music playing from a simple, powerful stereo system.

It's a recording of a collaboration he did in Turkey, while he was an invited musician at a Gallipoli commemoration.

Turkey, he says, is one of his favourite places to visit. But he won't be making it back for the Gallipoli centenary.

The celebrated taonga puoro musician, 68, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2005, and after nearly 10 years of living and performing with the degenerative neurological condition, he has decided it's time to change course.

He can no longer rely on his body doing what he wants it to do.

"It's a large shift in thinking," he says. "The health has taken a nosedive and it's compromising me in lots of ways."

Travelling and drawing music from his delicate singing treasures was manageable when he suffered just the tremors and the stiffness of Parkinson's. But these days, Nunns has a new constant companion - unpredictable mini strokes, called transient ischemic attacks or TIAs, that leave him suddenly weak, numb, and partially paralysed.

They happen without warning. Recently he was in Nelson Airport, waiting to board a flight to Wellington for a recording, when one hit.

He struggled to the desk to ask for help, and ended up in hospital.

"I rather think, in a very loose and informal way, they are what your grandmother used to call ‘having a turn'," he says.

When the Nelson Mail visits, he's sporting a round bandage over a puncture mark in his arm where a hospital drip was inserted the day before. He's had three TIAs in the past week.

"You can see I'm patched up already," he says. "They're strange, scary things that descend on you."

He doesn't know if they will ever stop, and what they will do to his brain.

But life goes on. A neighbour stops off to deliver plums. Nunns talks proudly of his wife, poet Rachel Bush.

He recalls surfing at Mount Maunganui as a young man, and the time he nearly drowned when out on Christmas Day after a tropical cyclone blew in.

He mentions an acquaintance, ill now and going downhill quickly.

"All sorts of people are in that bracket. It's terrifying to realise you're in it yourself."

When the Mail last spoke to Nunns in late 2012, he was happy to keep performing as long as his Parkinson's would let him, though the disease made it more difficult to handle the bone flutes and other Maori instruments that have been his life's work for the past 30 years.

Because Nunns is a taonga himself. After retiring from teaching in Nelson, he and Monaco carver Brian Flintoff, as well as the late composer Hirini Melbourne, rescued the ancient music from obsolescence.

They documented evidence from museums and private collections, visited marae to find out more about the sacred instruments and their uses, and together, over 30 years, gathered the scraps of knowledge, bringing the instruments back to life.

Taonga puoro traditionally served important functions in marae life. They were played to encourage crops to grow, wounds to heal, and to ease the passage into death.

Throughout his career, Nunns has worked with about 90 instruments of 40 different kinds, from nose koauau (small flute) to the more recognised puutatara (conch-shell trumpet).

He used them to bring the sounds of early New Zealand to life in countless different musical forms.

He's woven the sounds into a huge variety of music, from classical to free improvisation, and performed with musicians from Iran, Australian Aboriginal, First Nation America, Korea, Bolivia, China, Turkey, Germany, Faroes, Italy, Poland, Finland, and Scotland.

In 2009 he received a Queen's Service Medal, was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame with Dr Melbourne, and became an Arts Laureate of New Zealand.

Now, however, he finds it necessary to announce a graceful exit from performing, though not from playing entirely.

"I am trying to fashion a closure, if you like, without the whole thing closing down on me and nobody ever asking me to work again," he says. "I have every expectation that I will be pottering on. It's going to be interesting to see how I settle into a new way of being, but there's no question that [the] time has come.

"[But] the danger of having it known that you're hanging up your boots is that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy; that people won't request, that they say ‘Oh he's retired and doesn't do stuff now'. I don't want to give that impression or my whole world will shut down."

He is unlikely to do major shows again, but he's interested in exploring mentorships, and will still collaborate on projects that don't demand the rigours of travelling and performing nationally and overseas. He doesn't want to "devolve into nothing".

Indeed, he is working on a major project with internationally-renowned choreographer, Nelson boy Daniel Belton, whose piece is based on the musical treasures of rattle stones formed in Otago's Maerewhenua River.

Nunns is also the subject of an upcoming documentary, and this winter Craig Potton Publishing will publish a book about his life and music.

"I suppose there will be a lot of people saying sit down and shut up, you've been awarded this and given that, be satisfied.

"But it's going to be anguish and sadness when I get some of these wonderful [invitations]. It's certainly been a wonderful 30 years. This has been quite something."