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While persons in North America may not be familiar with the nose flute, the instrument is very popular in many places around the world, particularly Africa, China, and the Pacific Rim. There are some slight variations of the nose flute from one location to another, although the basic premise remains the same in all instances.
Essentially, the nose flute resembles the mouth flutes many westerners are familiar with. The difference is that expelling air through the nasal passages plays the nose flute. Using a slanted hole design as the point of entry on the nose flute, the design effectively cuts the flow of air into two different streams within the body of the flute. The presence of the two air streams sets up a vibration within the nose flute, resulting in the creation of the sounds emitted by nose flutes.
Often constructed with a body of bamboo, the body is cut with one closed end and one open end, usually the end that is opposite the slanted hole used for administering the flow of air from the nasal passages. A series of holes in the body of the nose flute allow the player to control the pitch and tone of the sounds produced by placing fingers over the different holes.
Nose flutes may vary slightly in where the nose hole is placed. Some versions have the hole on the side of the bamboo flute, while other designs have the nose hole placed on the plugged end of the flute body. Some designs allow for air to pass from both nostrils into the nose flute, while other types require that the player close off one nostril using the thumb. Some nose flutes are designed so that the instrument is played by using the nostril at an angle, while others require the nostril to be pressed firmly against the nose hole on the instrument.
While bamboo is the main medium for nose flutes, some types are constructed of soapstone or the necks of gourds. As is true of many ethnic instruments that develop in several different cultures, the nose flute has several variations, each of them offering a slightly different way of producing musical notes.
The use of nose flutes is very common in many places such as Polynesia and parts of Africa, and includes a long association with the courtship process in several cultures, as well as a way for lovers to communicate with one another through the medium of music. This is especially significant in cultures where breath is equated with spirit, as it implies the giving of one’s self to a loved one, and receiving back a part of that loved one.
When my wife and I went on a vacation to Polynesia, we heard a local orchestra demonstrate their native instruments. One woodwind player held up a bamboo nose flute and some of us snickered. It sounded gross. He laughed and said it was usually played by the same musician for a lifetime.
He played some tribal melodies on the flute, which reminded me of the Native American flute music we hear in this country. It wasn't about playing a melody line for several bars, but more like a burst of notes that sounded like birds chirping or the wind whistling.
A missionary once brought in a maori wooden nose flute as part of a cultural presentation. I asked him if I could try to play it, and he said good luck. I held it up to my nostrils and tried to get a decent tone out of it. All I could manage was one loud squawk and that was it. I was out of air.
The missionary said it took years for a native musician to develop the right breathing technique for playing a nose flute. Westerners are just not accustomed to controlling the air flow from our nostrils.