The haunting, breathy melodies of the nguru, or nose flute, were said to summon the voice of the mysterious Hineraukatauri, the goddess of music and dance, and mystery abounds even today around its form and function.
In colonial times, many artefacts were snapped up as curiosities, sent to museums around the world, or deliberately hidden to prevent either fate. Others fell by the wayside as Maori instrumental music was quashed by colonial ideals of what music should be.
To Maori, the intricate carvings on the surface of the instrument were archives of traditional knowledge and records of tribal affairs, locked away until a learned carver could explain them. In the case of nguru, lack of access over the past 130 years has prevented this knowledge being handed down, rendering the carvings as obscure design.
Incredibly, there is also some doubt as to how they were played—by mouth, nose or both? With no historical accounts, and only paintings of colonial scenes to go from, debate raged throughout the 1990s. Mervyn Maclean, author of Maori Music; Music Ethnography wrote that it’s far from certain that these instruments were ever played by the nose. He believes that this widely held belief throughout museums was merely accepted as fact after ethnographer Elsdon Best’s account of Maori tradition, and that “nguru”, to murmur, had been confused with “ngoro”, to snort.
Determined to counter Maclean’s assertion came ethnomusicologists Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns, who had dusted off some nose flutes from the Dominion Museum in Wellington and had been studying them avidly since the 1980s. Recreating the instruments with carver Brian Flintoff, they toured the nation, questioning elders, particularly in the Far North, and gathering information to unravel the mysteries of these lost traditions. As well as finding support in Maori protocol for nose-playing, Nunns mastered the nasal cross-blowing of the flutes to produce a rich, moving tune, and even released several albums.
“It does play well with the mouth, but it is also spectacular with the nose,” he said. However, it’s a difficult instrument to master; the two holes allow only three notes, so technique is vital to provide a diversity of sound. The nguru musical tradition had also been lost, so Nunn’s tunes are based on idiomatic forms, extracted from the waiata (songs) of Ngati Porou and Tuhoe in particular, which remain largely unchanged from ancient times.
Another conundrum: why the odd shape? The long flute “koauau” is easier to fashion and has a larger range of notes. But while wood and bone have been used to make nguru, there are two possible sources of the original short, squat form which may have evolved in parallel; the first being whale’s tooth, which was sacred and often worn strung around the necks of tohunga, and the second the rounded stem-end of a gourd.
University of Auckland researcher Joan Maingay found a flattened gourd drilled with finger holes while investigating an archaeological site at Kauri Point Swamp near Tauranga in 1984. Lending further support to this idea, wenewene, the Maori word for a gourd, is also the name of the holes in a flute.
Efforts by scholars have breathed new life into the neglected Maori musical tradition but the biggest clues are offered by the instruments, as a new generation seeks to rekindle the music of old.