The nose flute is found throughout Polynesia. The Bishop Museum, on O`ahu, has flutes from Hawai‘i, the Caroline Islands, Fiji, the Marquesas, Tonga, Niue, Futuna, and Tahiti. The Samoan people played their courting flute using the mouth. In Aotearoa the flutes were made of wood or human bone. In Hawai`i, the nose flute is used in the hula, the traditional dance of Hawai`i, as well as in courting.
As a sweetheart’s instrument, it is not at all loud. Rather, the tone is intended to be soft and sweet. Traditionally, it is not played in concert for a large audience, but played in a quiet place for a someone special.
According to one legend, a god taught a young chief to make the nose flute so that he could court a beautiful girl from the valley below his upland court. The nose flute is found in many Hawaiian legends of courtship and romance.
In the Hawaiian language, the flute is known by a number of names: Hano, “nose flute,” (Pukui and Elbert 1986), by the more specific term ‘ohe hano ihu, “bamboo flute [for] nose,” `ohe hanu ihu, “bamboo [for] nose breath” (Nona Beamer lectures), and the evocative term, “mea ho‘oipoipo” or “thing for lovemaking.”
There are different ways to play the `ohe hano ihu. Two of the more common are to hold it similar to a cigarette, and to hold it similar to a cigar. In the “Cigarette Style,” the flute is held between the index and middle finger, about three or four inches from the node. The thumb is placed gently against the nostril. the flute is angled so breath from the open nostril flows across the breath hole near the node. The other hand stops the tone holes. In the “Cigar Style,” the flute is held between the middle or fourth finger and the thumb. The index finger is used to press the nose.
In either hold, while gently breathing out through the nose, adjust the angle of the flute so that the air passes across the top hole. Move the flute slowly into various positions until you can make a tone. Continue to adjust until the tone is clear and pleasant.
Read more about this unique instrument in Ke Ola Magazine.