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 pūoro, or Māori musical instruments.
Richard Nunns is an authority on ngā taonga pūoro. 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!
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.
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.
For more info on taonga pūoro check out the book Taonga Pūoro, Singing Treasures by Brian Flintoff.