Around Matariki and Puaka, I often get asked to talk about taonga pūoro so I thought I would share a little bit about flutes from here in the south. The flute most often heard these days is the kōauau, a short tube with (usually) three finger holes and played in a cross blown way across the open end. This method gives the player a great range of sliding scale very similar to whistling. Therefore it can actually be played quite well without the need to use the finger holes once the skill has been mastered. As most of the chants of old had a range of only three or four notes, three finger holes were ample.

These flutes are often described as nose flutes, however they are very difficult to play that way. There are however two types of flute that are far easier to play with the nose –the nguru and the kōauau ponga ihu. The nguru is similar to a kōauau but open only at the blowing end and the last finger hole slightly larger. The kōauau ponga ihu is made from the body of a small hue (gourd), also open only at the top with two finger holes on the side. Indeed the word ihu (nose) tells you that this instrument is played by and only really responds to being played by the breath of the nose. Both of the latter instruments are not really found here in the south and the koauau is not as common here as it is in the north.

The main flute in Te Waipounamu seems to be the pōrutu, a longer version of the kōauau but with anywhere between three to six finger holes placed furthest from the blowing end. Great care was taken in choosing the correct length of the instrument to the bore size because when just right an overblown second octave can be achieved, doubling the range and giving the player the ability to “yodel” between notes. The materials for pōrutu were albatross wing bone and branches of woods like poroporo or tuturākau (both of which have a soft pith, easily removed, to make suitable tubes). Kōauau were made from the same materials but also some hardwoods, kelp stems and dog and human bone.

The famous bugle/flute called the pūtōrino does not seem to have been down here in the south although the name was commonly used locally to describe a mid-sized instrument cross between a pōrutu and kōauau. There was an instrument found locally that today we call a rehu. It is almost identical to a pōrutu but has a hole on the side for blowing just like a European flute. Its sound is also like a merger of the two and it seems that it may be a style of Māori flute fashioned after the piccolo and fife of the early sealers and whalers.

I have heard many times from kaumātua that, as children they used to play the bubu shells at the beach. I never understood this until I mastered playing the kōauau and found that by blowing into the open end of a bubu (pūpū) in the same way they are very easy to play and have quite a range of scale with practice. Also of interest are the flutes made of toitoi shells. These had the ends knocked off just like shell trumpets but were played as flutes. Anyway, I hope you found this small piece of interest. Nā Tony Smith.

Kōauau, pōrutu and kōauau ponga Ihu.

Kōauau, pōrutu and kōauau ponga Ihu.