Story: Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro

Page 2. Melodic instruments – the family of Rangi

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The flute family of Raukatauri

Raukatauri, the goddess of flute music, loved her flute so much that she changed herself into a case moth so she would never be parted from it. She is said to live inside her flute.

The family of flutes, which vary from 7 to more than 700 millimetres in length, is the largest group of taonga puoro.

An ability to play the flute was highly regarded in traditional Māori society. Many stories confirm that skilled flute-playing made the performer sexually irresistible. The exquisite music produced by the young Te Arawa chief Tūtānekai is said to have lured Hinemoa to swim across Lake Rotorua to join him on Mokoia Island. However, Arawa elders say that in fact Tūtānekai could barely play the flute and someone else – perhaps his slave, Tiki – was the real virtuoso, crouching in the bushes behind him.

Flute expert

One of the last traditional authorities on playing the kōauau and pūtōrino was Paeroa Wineera (of Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Toa). In about 1895, at the age of 12, she was taught to play by her uncle, who was the last person in the district able to play traditional instruments. In the 1960s, aged over 80, Wineera was recorded playing her kōauau. She recalled that music was not specially composed for this instrument, but that it was used mainly to accompany waiata singing, and played the tune in unison with the singers. 


The pūtōrino is a flute unique to New Zealand. It is torpedo-shaped (tapering at each end), like the cocoon of the case moth into which Raukatauri changed herself. It has a mouthpiece at one end, and a larger hole in the middle. Played as a cross-blown flute, the pūtōrino has Raukatauri’s voice, but played as a trumpet it has a male voice. A third voice, played through the central opening, is thought to be that of Raukatauri’s mysterious daughter Wheke, who, though she is never seen, is responsible for the inarticulate sounds heard in the forest.


Kōauau are the most common type of Māori flute, and traditionally were made from various woods, kelp, albatross wing bones, human bones and probably moa bones. They range in length from about 100 millimetres to 385 millimetres and most commonly have three finger-holes, known as wenewene. The sounds are further manipulated with slight movements of tongue and lips. Kōauau are used in entertainment, but also for healing and grieving and to ease pain. The music of kōauau always had words and an expert player could make these heard through the instrument.

Pōrutu, whio and rehu

Pōrutu and whio are longer than kōauau, with finger-holes toward the far end. They were possibly more common among South Island Māori and are noted for the sound jumping between low and high overtones.

Rehu are similar to pōrutu but less common. Their playing end is stopped up and a side-blown aperture is used, as with a European flute.


Nguru (which are unique to New Zealand) are short semi-enclosed flutes with an upturned end, made from stone, wood or a whale tooth. Some can be played with the nose, which gives extra prestige, because that breath is more sacred.


No examples of the pūmotomoto appear to have survived, and it is known only from collected traditions. This flute had the special function of being played over infants in the womb, then after birth until the fontanelle closed over, implanting traditions and knowledge. In the 2000s some contemporary practitioners have made pūmotomoto, based on oral traditions.

The family of Hinepūtehue – gourd instruments

The first recorded use of musical instruments in Māori mythology occurs in the creation myth concerning separation of the primal parents Rangi and Papa. Their descendants argued furiously about this separation. One of them, Hinepūtehue, a daughter of Tāne Mahuta, the god of the forests, took their anger inside herself and sang soothing songs which calmed the situation. She became the goddess of the hue (gourd) instruments.

Small hue are made into kōauau ponga ihu, delicate nose flutes with three finger holes which produce delicate, almost magical, sounds.

Medium-sized hue can be made into poi a whiowhio, used for bird calling and other purposes. With a string attached and two holes in the side, they are twirled to create a twittering song. Other hue, with their seeds loosened or replaced with pebbles, become rhythmic shakers known as hue puruwai or hue rarā.

The largest gourds, hue puruhau, had the tops cut off and seeds removed. By blowing over the opening, deep resonant booming sounds, like the mating call of a kākāpō, are created.

The family of Tangaroa – shell and other instruments

The next recorded use of musical instruments was when two pūtātara (conch-shell trumpets) were sounded to announce the successful return from the heavens of the god Tāne with ngā kete mātauranga, the baskets of knowledge given by the Supreme God. The materials of the pūtātara combine the conch shell of Tangaroa, the sea god, with a mouthpiece of wood from the forest god Tāne.


To create a signalling trumpet called a pūtātara or pūmoana, the narrow end of a conch shell was cut off and a wooden mouthpiece added. The pūtātara produced a loud, clear note that carried a great distance. The materials of the pūtātara combine the conch shell of Tangaroa, the sea god, with a mouthpiece of wood from the forest god Tāne Mahuta, joining the families of these gods in peace. Some examples in museums have a poi added to muffle the sound, like the mute used with a modern trumpet. Sometimes, pūtātara are cross-blown like flutes to create the crying sound of Hinemokemoke, giving them both male and female voices.


Several different materials have been used to make trumpet-like instruments. The tetere was made by splitting a blade of flax in half and winding it into a cone shape. It was a temporary instrument, used only while the leaf remained green. Tetere were used to announce the arrival of important visitors, to warn of an attack and to signal warriors in the manner of a military bugle.


The pūkāea was a wooden trumpet, up to 2.5 metres long. It was made by splitting a length of mataī, hollowing out each half, then binding them together, often with the aerial roots of the kiekie vine. The narrow end had a carved wooden mouthpiece and the other was flared out. Sometimes the flared end had wooden pegs added to make it resemble the human throat. The pūkāea was traditionally a war trumpet, sounded by watchmen to signal the approach of an enemy or to show that the troops were on alert. It was also used for making announcements or opening events, and this use continues in modern times.

How to cite this page:

Brian Flintoff, 'Māori musical instruments – taonga puoro - Melodic instruments – the family of Rangi', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by Brian Flintoff, published 22 Oct 2014