Nguru – flutes from sperm whale teeth

Nguru – flutes from sperm whale teeth

When a sperm whale strands it’s a major event. For Māori it is sometimes seen as a tohu, or sign of something significant.

Strandings are always sad, but they can provide rare opportunities for iwi to obtain the jaw bones and the beautifully curved sperm whale teeth.

A traditional use for these valuable materials is carving the bone or teeth to make taonga puoro, or Māori musical instruments.

Richard Nunns is an authority on ngā taonga puoro. His collection of instruments includes several very special sperm whale tooth nguru, or flutes. These small flutes usually have three finger holes. Nguru are often called ‘nose flutes’ but they are most commonly played with the mouth – by blowing across the top opening.  Experts like Richard play nguru with both the mouth and the nose!

Richard Nunns with sperm whale tooth nguru

The voice of a whalebone nguru is a distinctive, delicate, watery sound. Here you can listen to Richard Nunns playing a nguru [media no longer available] (with the mouth) made from the tooth of a sperm whale that stranded at Paekakariki in 1996. This taonga was named “Wai puhake o Ruatau” by Tungia Baker – Ruatau being the name given to the stranded whale by the iwi.

Richard Nunns playing a sperm whale tooth nguru

There are several sperm whale tooth nguru in Te Papa’s collection. This taonga featured in Mauri Ora, an exhibition of treasures from Te Papa’s collection that toured to the Tokyo National Museum in 2007.

nguru ME023146

Nguru (flute), iwi unknown, from Northland region, late Te Puawaitanga or early Te Huringa 1, 1500-1900. Made of sperm whale tooth. Te Papa (ME023146)

Nguru (flutes) in Collections Online

For more info on taonga puoro check out the book Taonga Pūoro, Singing Treasures by Brian Flintoff.

1 Comment

  1. That flute looks really amazing. To think, it came from a sperm-whale tooth. I can imagine how strong their teeth were, with the flute.

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