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November 2021 Issue
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A band of birds

Henrieta Tornyai hopes her album will inspire Kiwis to a greater appreciation of New Zealand birdlife. Photo: Matthew Cattin

Auckland musician Henrieta Tornyai has enlisted the help of an unlikely backing band for her next album; New Zealand’s endemic birds. 

It’s a special moment when Henrieta Tornyai pauses her live show to introduce her ‘band’.

Dressed in a glittering homemade cape – inspired by the iridescent plumage of the tūī – she calls out the major players one by one.

First, there’s the “greatest beatboxer of all” – the tūī – on drums, with screeching percussion notes from kākā and kiwi, and snappy hi-hat, courtesy of the cicada. 

The korimako is the “melodic hook machine”, while the mournful organ calls of the kōkako have been stacked to create chords.

“The hardest role to fill was that of the bass,” Tornyai says. “That was until I discovered the mating call of the male kākāpō – they have a special air sac that they use to make this deep booming sound that is perfect for laying down the groove.”

The Auckland musician is a regular of the local music scene and plays in several bands, but her solo project Henika is where her passion takes flight.

Aside from vocals, guitar, double bass and theremin, Tornyai’s upcoming Henika concept album Strange Creatures is almost entirely constructed from endemic bird calls, recorded in the field at predator-free sanctuaries.

It’s a project she has always dreamed of making. 

“I was born in Slovakia and moved here when I was eight. I still vividly remember the first time I heard a tūī; it absolutely blew my mind,” she says.

“It was just the most musical and inventive sound. No human could ever hope to compete.”

Recording the birds was an intensive process for Tornyai, who spent four days on Tiritiri Matangi Island and additional time at Shakespear Regional Park, Tāwharanui and Kawau Island.

“I basically spent the whole time walking around with a boom mic and recorder, pointing it at birds, hoping they would sing,” she says. “I even got up early to record the dawn chorus. It was one of the most incredible experiences I have had in my whole life.”

From there, she categorised the birdsong into the different sounds they resembled – whether percussion or melodic instruments – and imported them into music software to start chopping and slicing them into beats and hooks.

“The birds had the best musical ideas – far better than anything I could come up with,” Tornyai says. “I just added structure and lyrics and filled in the empty spaces.”

As a result, each song on the album has a very different mood and genre; the ruru-inspired track resembling jazz, and the kōkako’s a mournful blues.

Lyrically, Tornyai’s songs take on the perspectives of the species – an attempt to find common ground between humans and birds.

“It’s easy to look at birds as something ornamental, but they are living breathing creatures who feel and struggle for survival just like we do,” she says.

“I also wanted to highlight how our fates are intertwined. If we let them go extinct, what chance do we have of saving ourselves?”

Ultimately, Tornyai hopes her project will move Kiwi listeners out of conservation complacency.

“I think Kiwis often take what’s right under their noses for granted. I want people to stop and listen and appreciate just how lucky we are,” she says. 

“I’m not a scientist or a politician; I don’t have any solutions. It’s my job as an artist to make people care.”