Kōauau are the most common of all the Māori flutes. They are part of the flute family and come to us from the atua (spiritual entity) of flute music Hine Raukatauri. In the past, kōauau were most commonly made from wood, albatross wing bone, the stems of certain plants and sometimes human bone. Kōauau is also the name for a species of hollow kelp, which can also be used to make instruments from. Today kōauau are made from a variety of materials including wood, bone or sometimes stone. Ostrich and beef bone are commonly used today as well as mataī wood.
Most kōauau have 3 wenewene (finger holes) although there are several older examples that have 4 or more. The kaiwhakangāwari is the wenewene closest to the mouth, the kaiwhakahī is the middle wenewene and the kaiwhakakaha is the wenewene closest to the distal end.
The end opening of the kōauau is cross blown, which produces a rich and melodic sound. The sound is manipulated in micro tonal shifts rather than jumping from one note to the next. This subtle shift in sound requires a sensitivity that often takes years of practise to develop well. Most often there is just one end of the kōauau that is played, however there are some older kōauau that appear to have been made to be played from either end. These instruments produce a slightly different scale each way, giving the player more flexibility with the sound.
There are many uses for kōauau. In Māori tradition, birds are sometimes seen as important messengers from the spirit world. Kōauau have a reputation of attracting the native birds of Aotearoa. The birds will often interact with the beautiful melody from the kōauau, giving us a glimpse of the spiritual aspects of the kōauau song. Kōauau are also used to welcome new born children into life and also in to sing a supportive farewell to the spirit as it departs. In the ancestral past, the sound of the kōauau was used together with rongoā (traditional Māori medecine) to help with the healing of broken bones. The melody was also used to help memorise knowledge retained in oral tradition. In other stories, love songs were played on the kōauau that attracted people from far away.
According to some of the legends, the patupaiarehe (fairies) were the experts at playing kōauau. In southern Māori whakapapa, the maeroero people were said to have arrived in Te Waka o Aoraki (the south island) in their canoe te waka huruhuru manu (the bird feather canoe). Maeroero are said to be small fairy type people who live in the mist surrounding Puketapu and other mauka (mountains) north of Ōtepoti (Dunedin). It is said that on some nights you can hear maeroero playing kōauau from within the thick blankets of mist. Pictured: kōauau toroa (kōauau made from albatross wing bone) made by Jeremy Cloake, finished without wenewene, length 97mm.