The Koauau Player
When Hinemoa swam to Mokoia Island, she was guided through the darkness by a slender thread of sound from Tutanekai's flute. Visitors to the Auckland Museum can see the very koauau he is supposed to have played, and as they peer curiously at it, they must wonder how such a small instrument could make enough sound to carry across the water from Mokoia to the mainland. In any case the story goes that Tutanekai was not himself a skilled player, and that he was forced to send his love message to Hinemoa through a deputy.
Playing the koauau was always difficult, and it is now very nearly a lost art. The only person who can still persuade a melody from the little flute, is Mrs Ben Wi Neera, of Takapuwahia Pa, Porirua.
Paeroa Wi Neera belongs to Ngati Toa, and she was born at Poroutawhao, near Levin. There she grew up, learning to strip the flax and make the kono, to help with the crops and the children, doing everything in the old Maori way. That village was particularly proud of her uncle, Ngaherehere, who was known up and down the coast for his skill on the porutu and the koauau. Over the years many children gathered round Ngaherehere to have their first lessons on koauau made from tutu wood. Most of them gave up very easily, but Paeroa persisted until she was promoted to the matai koauau she plays to-day. When Ngaherehere made it for her about sixty years ago, it was just a smooth piece of matai about five inches long, carefully bored out, and with three holes running into it slantwise. Like all koauau it was left open at both ends. Then, a few years ago, Mrs Wi Neera allowed a pakeha to carve it for her in the traditional fashion.
People often are confused about the koauau through its English translation, ‘nose flute’. When Mrs Wi Neera played it for Lady Alice Fergusson at Government House, the newspapers insisted that she used her nostrils instead of her lips to produce the sound. But although the koauau was occasionally played with the nose, this technique was extremely difficult, and according to Sir Peter Buck, it was more usual to play it as Mrs Wi Neera does, by blowing across the upper end.
I asked her whether she had tried to teach any of her family to play her koauau.
‘It is too difficult,’ she said. ‘They try, but they can't make the right sound. Besides, they have ukeleles and guitars, and they can manage without the koauau.’
We made several attempts to hear it that afternoon. The koauau cannot be played on casual demand, like a mouth-organ. It requires a great deal of breath and concentration. The first tentative sounds woke her daughter's baby; the second attempt attracted several eager little boys inside, and the moment to hear it had gone.
I have since heard some recordings Mrs Wi Neera made several years ago. The clear, full tone convinced me that Hinemoa would certainly have been able to hear Tutanekai's message. But I could tell that the hardest thing is to get started: to control the breath sufficiently with the lips for the melody to flow evenly. The koauau must surely be one of the most difficult wind instruments ever made, and I fully sympathise with all the people who have tried to master it and failed.
Mrs Wi Neera has lived at Takapuwahia for fifty-three years. When she first arrived there, life was very different. There were only a few houses round the water's edge, and the old chapel that still stands by the meeting-house was just being built. It was opened with her wedding to Ben Wi Neera, who is a direct descedant of Te Rauparaha.—Beatrice Ashton.