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Falling into music

Harpist Shellie Hanley will be performing in Masterton this Saturday. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Woman to bring heavenly melodies to Masterton inspired from multiple near-death experiences

David Famularo

Near-death experiences tend to bring trauma and distress for most who have gone through such an ordeal.

However, for harpist Shellie Hanley, two experiences that closely ended her life have ultimately led her to music that you could say has been inspired by the heavens.

Hanley will be performing with her harp “Ohomairangi” at a Tuna Heke Farewell at Wai-Rua Reserve in Masterton this Saturday.

In December 2017, Hanley woke up with severe pain, became unconscious, fell and banged her head on a hard wooden step.

The fall led to Hanley’s short-term memory loss, including access to the language part of her brain. To this day, she struggles to find the words when she communicates.

Early tests showed a cancerous growth was the cause of the original pain, but this had disappeared when the time came to remove it.

Up until the fall, Hanley had been preparing for her first photographic exhibition, but the injury took her in a totally different trajectory.

Just before the fall, Hanley had had strong “impressions” of a harp and a desire to play one.

“After the fall that went up 100 notches and I became obsessed,” she said.

She describes the events that led to her taking up the instrument as her “second awakening”.

Hanley saw a harp for sale online, contacted the New Zealand Harp Society, and talked to Amanda Hume on the phone.

By the end of the conversation, Hume said she would pay for a harp for Hanley and recommended a floor standing, 34-string Paraguayan-type harp from the United States.

This was just before Hanley’s fall, and just as she started her recovery “the harp arrived a month later”.

Hume recommended Hanley take tuition from harp tutor Rod Thomas.

“Because I can’t read music, Rod taught me how to find the notes I was hearing in my head on the harp.”

Learning the basic skills of a harp takes around two years but Hanley gave her first performance just a week after acquiring “Ohomairangi”, which is when the harp received its name.

“A sound healer from Australia asked me to play with her,” Hanley said.

“A kuia in the audience, Te Raina Ferris, stood up and said the name of that harp is Ohomairangi which means ‘the opening portal to the celestial heavens’.”

After the fall, Hanley would wake up at two or three in the morning with the sound of music flooding into her head.

“I would get up and pick out the notes on my harp, record it on my iPhone, then go back to sleep. I was literally doing this most nights for months on end.”

Hanley would also go out into nature, hear bellbirds sing, pick out the notes, and compose a lullaby.

Hanley said her music is inspired by the two near-death experiences she has had in her life.

The other involved hearing “angelic music” when she was six and drowning in the Hutt River.

“My head was underwater and I could hear this choir of angelic voices singing a lullaby to me so I stopped struggling,” she said.

“It was freezing cold water but I felt like I was in a beautiful golden bubble. A voice said to push my hand above my head, and I felt an energy push my tiny body up to the surface.

“Right at that moment an off-duty officer who lived a few doors down the road saw my hand and pulled me out of the river. It was an incredible experience and that angelic music never left me.”

Hanley started playing free concerts in psychiatric wards, dementia units, hospices, and the neo-natal intensive care ward for premature babies at Palmerston North Hospital.

“Intensive care can be a busy and noisy environment with monitors beeping, babies crying, and mothers and staff adapting to the needs and pressures of babies born so early.”

One of the mothers asked if she could record Hanley playing so she could play her music to her baby at other times.

Now Hanley is planning to record her debut album of “angelic lullaby music”.

“My dream is to gift every premature baby in intensive care in New Zealand my album,” Hanley said.

“I am running a BOOSTED campaign till my birthday [March 28], to raise enough money through donations to pay for the cost of producing this album, which includes musicians who will be accompanying me on cello, violin, vocals and Taonga Pūoro.”

Hanley, who is of Nga Puhi and Tainui Maniapoto descent, is looking forward to performing a “whalesong lullaby” she composed at the Tuna Heke Farewell.

The whalesong is based on tapes of humpback whales near Raoul Island in the Kermadec Islands which a marine scientist recorded and sent to Hanley.

“My Maori culture is an integral and spiritual part of me. The tuna have a history of being very powerful kaitiaki [guardians].”

The farewell is to mark the annual migration of a proportion of mature eels out to sea to spawn, starting with shortfin males migrating during February and ending with the longfin females from late April to June.”

The Tuna Heke Farewell will start this Saturday [March 20] with a karakia by Rangitane cultural affairs officer Mike Kawana, followed by thoughts, poems or songs from anyone who would like to share, and then music by Hanley.

  • If you would like to support Shellie’s boosted fundraising campaign, please visit: www.boosted.org.nz/projects/anahera-voice-of-an-angel.

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