“I’m taking a nose flute class,” I told my friends. “It’s the first workshop at the new Hawaiian Cultural Center of Hāmākua. We get to choose a bamboo flute, sand it, and learn how to play it. Want to come?” They were not inspired to join me.
I have been looking for a way to reconnect with Lanakila Mangauil and friends from the Hawaiian Culture Class I took last year. I miss them. Unfortunately, the classes are always at supper-time, two times a week, and with my youngest daughter still at home, now in her senior year, I want to cook for her. The really cool news is that she wanted to take the nose flute class too!
Thursday we walked over to the Center, and I was happy to see that several friends from the culture class were there, testing out ‘ohe hano ihu, the bamboo flute (for) nose. The Center is in a temporary location they affectionately call “the Closet,” smaller than the original location identified last spring when they launched a Kick-Starter Campaign. It was, in fact, a group from the culture class who pulled the campaign together: Lanakila, Vikki, Kris, Kaneala, Stella, Dee, Iris, Tammie and others.
The challenge seemed so daunting: raise $20,000 to cover start-up expenses and keep the Center open for the first year. But the community rallied and made it happen. The Center also received a county grant.
The Center is a multi-cultural, multi-generational community center where residents can deepen their connection with Hawaiian culture. The center’s symbol is the he‘e (octopus). One arm of the he’e represents classes in hula, the arts, Hawaiian language, history, agriculture and philosophy. Others extend into the community with special events, guest speakers, community service projects, and cultural exchange programs. Visitors can learning about Hawaiian history and culture from docents and practitioners who will gladly share information and talk story.
The center’s permanent location (near “Da Fishing Store” in the Botelho Building) will be available for a January Grand Opening.
Meanwhile, the temporary space is open. Check out the displays, buy a T-shirt, or sign up for a class.
On Friday, Hualalai Keohuloa from Wa‘a Hāmākua offered a workshop on knots and lashings essential to traditional Hawaiian ocean-sailing canoes, and how they are symbolic of the way ancient Hawaiians lived their everyday lives. He recently co-taught one of the Hawaiian Culture Classes with Lanakila.
In January, Brad Bordessa will be teaching ukulele, Lanakila will be offering a Hawaiian language class, and his hula class and Hawaiian Culture Classes will be moving to the facility as well.
This week and on-going, Aunty Genera provides ulana lauhala (lauhala weaving) demonstrations and a little talk story (M–Th, 12-3pm, through 12/24).
But back to the nose flute class. When we arrived, we inspected the range of bamboo flutes that Lanakila had made. This bamboo, native ‘ohe kahiko, is not the usual thick-walled bamboo grown for timbers or fencing. The thin walls of this bamboo produce a beautifully resonant sound. On the Big Island, it is only found in three locations. After sustainably harvesting some, Lanakila cut this special bamboo near the end of each segment, leaving a solid node on one end.
Each bamboo segment contained four holes, the nose hole near the end of the flute and three holes along the body. Nose flutes are played on many Pacific Islands, all typically having this pattern. In the old days, the holes were formed with a burning twig, and later a hot metal poker. Today, Lanakila uses an electric burning tip. Never use a drill, because this thin bamboo will crack.
The long fat bamboo segments make a deep sound, and the little ones produce a higher pitch. We each picked the one that called us.
The sound of each flute is highly individual, because the holes are burned at inexact distances from each other and the nose hole. So you won’t hear a nose flute band. The sound of each flute becomes associated with the player and is why the nose flute is an instrument for lovers and love magic. Centuries ago, a young man wooed his love with melodies from his flute. In that time of kapu, men and women ate separately. But the wahine (women) could hear distant flutes and could identify the song and even the sound of their lover’s flute.
When we settled, Lanakila advised us on sanding, and played for us between instructions.
For flutes with a larger foot like the one I chose, we started with a 50 grit sandpaper to greatly reduce the edge. Others used an 80 grit to smooth the rough end that rested against the face and curve it inward. I actually liked the feel of the larger foot on my upper lip because it seemed to stabilize into proper position easier. So I didn’t sand it completely away. Then to smooth the rest of the flute, we graduated to #100 grit and finally #180, stroking only along the length, never around the circumference.
By now we had put our own mana into the flute by sanding it. Lanakila said we should feel free to name it; in the Hawaiian tradition everything has a name. He told us we can also crush some kukui nuts inside a cloth, releasing their oil to the cloth which can then be used to shine the flute. Be sure to use good kukui nuts. If they float in water, discard them – they will stink when cracked. If they drop, you can use them.
Finally it was time for our lessons. Hold the flute with one hand and use the index finger on that hand to press one nostril shut. Then gently blow out the other nostril across the nose hole. If you blow too hard, the sound will come out loud and an octave higher than intended. So just breathe out, like a normal breath. Roll the flute forward and backward until you find the sweet spot with a consistent sound. The holes are played from the top down, keeping the higher holes plugged as you go down. You can even play a half note by holding your finger halfway over the shaft holes. That’s it.
Of course, what we really wanted to know was – why the nose? Lanakila explained that the nose produces a pure breath (ha). While the mouth can speak with love, it can also curse and speak evil. So to keep the sound of the flute pure, one uses ha from the nose.
The next time Lanakila sets up a flute class, sign up and make one. Then try out your own love magic.
For a taste of Lanakila’s Hawaiian Culture Class, see this series:
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