By PHOEBE FALCONER

Scholar, musician, composer. Died aged 53.

"Of all the threads that make up the warp and weft of the whariki of traditional knowledge, one has been missing - that of the traditions and performance skills of the musical instruments."

The replacement of the missing thread in the fabric of Maori culture was the work of Associate Professor Hirini Sidney Melbourne, dean of the School of Maori and Pacific Development at Waikato University.

Melbourne was born in the Ureweras, a child of Tuhoe and Ngati Kahungunu. When his mother first took him to the hospital for a check-up, the nurse joked that she should call him Sidney Melbourne. His mother didn't get the joke; she had never heard of Sydney and Melbourne in Australia. So he was named.

Melbourne won a scholarship to training college in Auckland and then returned to teach at a secondary school in Whakatane. He didn't like it much.

"As often happens with Maori teachers, you end up being a kind of social welfare officer, enforcing rules you had no hand in shaping."

When the opportunity arose to move to Wellington to edit Maori texts at School Publications, he jumped at it and moved south with his wife and new daughter.

Always musical, he sang the usual nursery rhymes to his daughter, but felt he wanted more than a cow jumping over the moon and mice running up a clock. So he wrote his own songs, using simple rhythms to create little waiata around such natural themes as trees, birds and insects.

A chance meeting on a marae with a Radio New Zealand reporter led to some of his compositions being recorded. His music was seized on by schools and proved to be vastly more effective as a teaching aid than textbooks.

Another chance meeting in 1985 introduced him to the sounds of traditional Maori instruments, some of which had been stored in the Dominion Museum in Wellington for years. These instruments fascinated him. They included flutes such as the nguru or nose-flute, koauau, a larger flute, the poiawhiowhio or whirling gourd, the metre-long pukuea or trumpet and the conch-shell trumpet, putatara.

Serendipity struck once more, in an encounter with instrumentalist and musicologist Richard Nunns. Nunns had already discovered the ancient music and had begun to teach himself to play a koauau created by bone carver Brian Flintoff.

Over the next 10 years, Melbourne and Nunns travelled around the country, recording stories and memories from old people who remembered the sounds from their childhoods. They amassed knowledge of the ritual and ceremonial use of the instruments and created a musical map of New Zealand. Together, they recorded an album, Toiapiapi, featuring the sounds of the rediscovered instruments.

A further recording, the CD Te Ku Te Whe, was criticised for not including traditional waiata tangi or waiata aroha (laments and love songs). Melbourne acknowledged the omission but, as he explained, "the songs are tribally owned, and belong to that tribe, who are the guardians of the music. We would have had to obtain permission to use those songs". He and Nunns circumvented the problem by creating their own "traditional" waiata.

The rediscovery of traditional performance techniques was not without controversy. Some academics claimed that the nguru, a small flute with a snout, could only be played with the mouth. Melbourne argued that the nguru, when played with the nose, produced a sobbing, weeping sound of a person in distress, and that the sound was as valid as the other, louder sound made when played by mouth.

The groundswell started by Melbourne and Nunns spread, with other musicians taking up the cause. The soundtrack of Once Were Warriors uses the keening sound of the koauau to great effect, and the karanga weka (small stone flute) and hue (gourd) feature on Moana and the Moahunters' CD Tahi. Although the music was played electronically on this CD, Melbourne was keen that the instruments themselves should continue to be used.

"The instruments were used for occasions like announcing births and deaths, helping to ease the pain of labour or of being tattooed. As long as they're looked after and treasured, then they should be heard. They shouldn't be lying mute in glass cases.

"So though the old instruments have much to teach us about the past, I believe they can also help us develop future traditions in Maori music-making."

Melbourne participated at every level of cultural life, as well as teaching and travelling around the country sharing his knowledge and love of the traditional music.

He was a board member of the New Zealand Film Commission and the New Zealand Music Industry Commission, and served as an assessor for Te Waka Toi and the Arts Board of Creative New Zealand.

Last year he received the Te Waka Toi Exemplary Award in recognition of his leadership and service to Maori arts and culture. In this year's honours, he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Maori language, music and culture.

Melbourne died after a long battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife Jan, two daughters and two grandchildren.