Pūkāea are wooden signalling trumpets made from two pieces of hardwood that have been bound together. There are several differing styles within the pūkāea genre that vary considerably, ranging from approximately half a metre to over two metres in length.
Pūkāea can be used in many contexts. In whatever context they are played, the primary function is to announce spiritual pathways. Ancestral Māori used pūkāea to sound alarms during times of conflict and to announce relay signals to warriors. In this context they were dedicated to Tūmatauenga, the atua (spiritual entity) of war. For this reason pūkāea are sometimes called war trumpets, although this is a limited perspective of the instrument and not entirely correct. Despite this association with conflict, pūkāea were also used during peaceful ceremony as signalling instruments for various occasions of importance. This included important cultural formalities and also agricultural rituals associated with the planting and harvesting of kūmara and other crops. When used in the agricultural context, pūkāea were dedicated to Rongo mā Tāne, the atua (spiritual entity) of the kūmara and cultivated food.
To make a pūkāea is very labour intensive. Firstly, suitable hardwood is selected and shaped into the appropriate form. This form is usually fairly long and slender, starting with a small mouthpiece at one end and slowly tapering out along the long stem of the instrument, then flaring out considerably at the distal end into a shape that resembles a gaping mouth. The wood is then carefully split or cut in half length ways and the internal sound chamber is hollowed out to match the exterior shape. The seams of each half are then glued and bound back together with vine or fibre. Sometimes a section of reed is inserted into the sound chamber several centimetres above the distal end. When the player blows into the pūkāea, this reed vibrates, perhaps to imitate the human throat as it seems conceptually similar to the palatine uvula, the piece of skin that hangs in the human throat that plays a role in the articulation of some sounds of the human voice. It is common for certain types of pūkāea to have teeth-like shapes carved into the distal end.
Typically, longer pūkāea produce a deep sound and shorter instruments produce a higher pitch sound, however skilled players can produce several notes from one instrument. They are played with an embouchure similar to that of a trumpet, producing a loud droning trumpet-like sound that can be heard over long distances. Similar to the pūtorino, passive voice techniques can also be used through the pūkāea, in this case producing a multi-harmonic and captivating trumpet tone.
Today pūkāea are sometimes used to announce the opening and closing stages of Māori ceremony or on other important occasions. In some cases, they are used during pōwhiri to signal the process of welcoming guests onto a marae. Spiritually, pūkāea are played to clear the path and to ensure the well-being of individuals, families and tribal groups. At Te Papa museum in Wellington, several pūkāea were played to welcome in the new millineum. Despite the context, whenever pūkāea are played they send a loud and strong sound that captures the attention of all listeners.