Tararua: Bird Like Men

May 25, 2022

Harmonic Legacies

Listening Post 346. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy flaunted New Zealand’s spectacular landscapes, but over the past generation there has also been, as one critic recently described it, a quiet revolution on the nation’s soundscape. Turn on a news report in 2022 and you’re likely to hear English-speaking commentators sprinkling their speech with Maori words and expressions. The language of the nation’s indigenous population is increasingly seen as common national heritage by Maori and non-Maori Kiwis alike. And Maori lyrics and custom have become mainstream features on the music scene. So Tararua (the name means “two peaks”) and the ensemble’s debut album Bird Like Men reflect not only the collaboration of four gifted artists but also an accelerating cultural rapprochement—not to mention a stunning musical achievement. Blending cello and bass with taonga pūoro (traditional Maori instruments, often imitating sounds of nature), singing in the country’s two official languages, fusing ancient practice with classical, folk and jazz tones, leavening new lyrics with legends, lore and a family manuscript, they explore their homeland’s spiritual and physical realms. The album’s compositional settings spin from brooding to buoyant, compact to spacious, pre-historic to post-modern. Birds, celestial beauty and a fabled battle flow through the spare lyrics of the mystical Tūtūmaiao (video 1), while Pikipiki echoes a legendary quest for “the basket of knowledge” (video 2). Women’s agency is at the center of Pū Harakeke—which band member Ariana Tikao originally wrote for a homebirth conference—using the protective leaves of the flax plant as a metaphor for a strong family (video 3). Just as darkness gives way to light, deep-timbre strings precede sweet vocals in Puaka, a tribute to the star at the center of the Maori New Year (video 4). Between those cinematic landscapes and the harmonization of distinct legacies, Tararua’s majestic sound rings true. (Oro Records)

Tararua: Bird Like Men
Ruby Solly: Vocals, cello, taonga pūoro
Ariana Tikao: Vocals, taonga pūoro
Phil Boniface: Double bass
Alistair Fraser: Taonga pūoro


The song features lyrics by band members Ariana Tikao and Ruby Solly and grew out of a composition course sponsored by Creative New Zealand (officially The Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa). The title is the name of an ancient battle and also the Maori name for the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis). The core narrative is from a legend likening the Maori people to tītī birds, who migrate and travel around the world, but always come back Te Waipounamu (South Island), their spiritual homeland. In addition to other influences, Solly included a klezmer vibe about midway through the song.

(Sung in English and Maori)
Worry not ye bird like men
for we are like the tītī bird
coming back home again

Worry not ye bird like men
for we are not the kererū
who choose not to roam


Pikipiki / Climb, Climb
This song is inspired by a mythical figured called Tawhaki and his ascent to retrieve the baskets of knowledge

(From the Maori lyrics)
Climb, climb
Climb the parent vine
Climb, climb
So you may arrive diligently at Rākiatea


Pū Harakeke / Flax Family
Women’s power pervades Bird Like Men, especially this waita (song), initially written by Ariana Tikao for a homebirth conference. It talks of the importance of a strong family unit, using the harakeke (flax) plant—which has parent and grandparent outer leaves that protect the inner leaf, or children—as a metaphor. It also talks about the need to care for our mothers.

(From the Maori lyrics)
The rito (inner leaf of the harakeke) is the heart of the whānau (family)
The whānau is like the harakeke cluster 

The father
Protect and embrace the rito (baby) 

The mother is the house of the people
The generations yet to come
Protect the rope of humanity (whakapapa) 

The whānau is like the harakeke cluster 

Protect the rito
Nourish the rito
So it will flourish and bloom


Puaka is the Kāi Tahu dialect form of Puanga, the star also known as Rigel, an important signifier of the Māori New Year. The lyrics of Puaka are written by Ruby Solly, and the string parts were written by Phil Boniface.

(Sung in Maori and English)
Puaka and kā, team of stars of the year
Flashing slender star signals are on the rocks

Dawn riser, our survivor, take my hand up to the hills
piki mauka piki ora (fig tree, fig life), scattered eyes shine from the black
From the night to the light

The Great Battle of the Night
“Piri mai” (Come on), she says to her daughters six,
each one of us are tasked with a realm to hold in my hands, in their hands,
water flowing through Waitī, waitā (water song)

North Shore Pōhutukawa Matariki

Go winter with your sweetheart
these long cold nights are held by you
these long cold nights where memories swim
call their names to Pōhutukawa (chief of trees in Maori culture)
cry their names to the black wind
‘Til they light up the night
Burning through the black


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