Hawaiian HallMuseum Entrance

'Ohe Hano Ihu: The Hawaiian Bamboo Nose Flute
by Serge Kahili King

The 'ohe hano ihu (pronounced "oh-hay hah-no ee-hoo), often called hano for short, is an ancient Hawaiian musical instrument strongly associated with the spirit of aloha for which the islands are so famous.

'Ohe means "bamboo", hano means "to glorify" and "to breathe strongly", as well as "a nose flute", and ihu means "nose." In ancient times the hano was used to woo a lover, partly because of its sweet sound, partly because of the meaning of the word hano, and partly because the manner of playing was a reminder of the Hawaiian style of kissing. The Hawaiian kiss, called honi, was actually a touching of noses side to side in order to inhale each others' aroma and to share the life force or breath of the other. Because of the association with aloha, the flute was also used to accompany certain chants and used for the purpose of blessing an area or an event.

As the name implies, the nose flute is played with the nose and not with the mouth. The material is ideally made of thin-walled bamboo to enhance the sound. One end is closed and cut close to the node and the other is open. The length of the flute could vary considerably, depending on the distance between nodes and the preference of the maker. According to researcher Peter Buck the length of a flute was traditionally between 10 and 20 inches.

Also according to Buck, except for the nose hole, which was drilled very close to the node, there was no set pattern of placement for the two or three finger holes that were used in ancient times. This means, of course, that there was no set pattern to the notes that were played. Each flute, and its melodies, were unique.

Today, however, in a society that loves standardization, the usual way to make a Hawaiian nose flute is with three finger holes. You start by making one in the exact center of the flute in line with the nose hole. Then you press your thumb next to it on either side, using the far side of the thumb to mark the point for drilling the other two holes. Some people with a musical background prefer to use a mathematical formula for placing the holes in order to produce specific notes. Different flute lengths will still alter the notes.

The traditional way of playing the flute was to hold it with the right thumb and forefinger and use the rest of the fingers of the same hand to play the notes. The left thumb was used to hold the left nostril closed with the left hand cupped over or under the flute.

The most common way to play it today is to hold the flute in the left hand with the thumb underneath and the first three fingers on or near the three holes in the top center. The end of the flute with the nose hole is held lightly against the upper lip with the left nostril near (not right on top of) the blowhole. The right hand supports the closed end of the flute while the right forefinger gently holds the right nostril shut.

The next step is to breathe gently out of your left nostril so that you get a sound out of the flute. Because each flute is handmade and unique, you may have to adjust the position of the flute in order to get a clear tone. You may try rolling the flute slightly from side to side, moving it up or down, or moving it from side to side. The tone comes from your breath moving across the hole, not directly into it.

Some flutes will sound very clear and others will sound whispery, depending on the type of bamboo and its particular configuration. A well-made flute, however, will produce a sound quite easily. Half-tones can be achieved by covering half a tone hole with your finger, but we have no evidence that this was done in ancient times. With many flutes you can get a falling tone effect by gradually reducing your breath at the end of a note. Although there are four main notes (unfingered, one-, two-, and three-fingered), you may get more notes by playing each finger hole separately. And, for the adventurous, you can get a completely different note by closing the end of the flute with your left palm while you blow it. Whether the ancients ever did this is anyone's guess.

One more thing of great importance. If you blow too hard you will get a rather unpleasant howl instead of a sweet, soft note of love. So keep it clear and gentle.

© 1989 by Serge King