Pūtātara is one of the common names used for Māori shell trumpets. As a prefix, pū can be translated as to blow and as pipe, tube or flute. The tātara is the rare New Zealand native shell that occasionally washes up on the beaches of Aotearoa. When they do wash up on the shore, they are seen as a special gift from Tangaroa and are highly valued. Because tātara are rare, the more common pacific trition shell is often used. In this case the taonga is more appropriately called a pūmoana.
Pūtātara are played with an embouchure similar to that of a trumpet, producing a trumpet-like sound that can be manipulated in pitch and volume by moving a hand over the opening of the shell as it is blown. They are most often used as signalling instruments, with different calls having different meanings. They can be used to announce arrivals to a marae or the birth of a child. They can also be used to summon people for formal learning. When played well, pūtātara can produce an unexpected range of sounds, often stirring the emotions of the listeners. Pūtātara can also be played cross blown in a melodic way, producing a soft flute like voice, sometimes referred to as the female voice, the louder trumpet voice being the male.
Māori legend says that when Tāne descended from the heavens carrying Te Kete ō Te Wānanga (the three baskets of knowledge) gifted from his father Ranginui, he left a pūtātara as a koha (gift). This story and several others show how this instrument has become an important foundation of Māori spiritual beliefs and practises. In Māori whakapapa, Tangaroa is the atua (spiritual entity) of the oceans and the fish are his children through his union with Hine Moana. Whakairo translates as carving or the work of Iro. Iro is a sea worm, or a child of Tangaroa that leaves carved patterns in pieces of driftwood. Therefore carving can be seen as a gift from Tangaroa.
The conch trumpet is a common instrument throughout the pacific, but there are few places other than Aotearoa where a wooden mouthpiece is attached to the shell. In the making of a pūtātara, the union of the shell and wood brings together the respective koha (gifts) from Tangaroa and Tānemahuta, the atua of the forest and birds.
Pictured: Pūtātara made by Jeremy Cloake, maire mouthpiece attached to tātara shell with whaletooth pegs, bound with native bird feathers of Aotearoa, length 251mm. Tātara shell courtesy of Dr. Hirini Melbourne and Brian Flintoff.