Monday, 22 February 2010

Nose flutes? Saints preserve us!

Some children, on getting hold of the latest copy of The Beano, will go straight to the characters they like the best: The Bash Street Kids, Roger the Dodger or whoever. Despite the dangers of confiscation by a teacher, or appropriation by an older child, I would always start at the beginning (Biffo the Bear back then) and work my way through, enjoying the anticipation, until eventually I reached Dennis the Menace on the back page. So when first I opened Polynesian Sound-Producing Instruments by Richard Moyle and discovered there was a section on nose flutes I resisted the temptation to go straight to it, much as it appealed to my inner ten year old.

If you live in north-west Europe the fact that nose flutes never really caught on here will need no explaining. The damp climate creates a perfect host for the common cold and noses are frequently either blocked or running too freely. When I even tell young students about the existence of a flute you play with your nose their lips curl with distaste and they treat the information with the same suspicion as when I tell then how Lady Greensleeves got her name. young children are obsessed with bodily functions and secretions and those that emanate from the nose, being not 'rude' but still disgusting, have been a gift to purveyors of comics and other low humour for generations.

Perhaps this European distaste contributed to the decline of the nose flute in Polynesia. On many of these islands the instrument was used to serenade one's lover - it made the music of love. It steadily lost ground to the ukulele when this arrived with European visitors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ukulele has the advantage that you can croon along as you play.

When the Europeans arrived in the paradise that was the Pacific islands they brought missionaries who set about trying to improve the place. Catholics introduced the concept of original sin (guilt) and Protestants brought the work ethic (more guilt). They frowned on many of the rituals and pastimes practised by the indigenous peoples and many were prohibited. In museums there exist instruments from as recently as the nineteenth century whose music and purpose are lost forever. Moyle, whose book was published in 1990, describes curious instruments called sounding boards used to accompany a particular dance on Tonga and Samoa. (Not to be confused with either the sounding boards of Bellona Island or those used in the manufacture of pianos or other European string instruments.) The 19th century Christian missionaries on the islands regarded the dance as 'heathen' and it was outlawed, never to be seen, or heard, again.

Bellona, part of the Solomon Islands, has a different type of sounding board. Whereas the Tongan and Samoan boards had a hinged slat that rattled when the board was struck, the board from Bellona has no moving parts. It is a crescent shaped piece of hardwood beaten with two sticks. Although I speak of it in the present tense, Moyle writes that the 'heathen dances' are under threat from the Protestant church which is very powerful on the island.

Back to nose-flutes, it would be a pity if the Polynesian type disappeared altogether. There are other nose flutes to be had and a quick search of the web reveals modern, brightly coloured examples in hygienic plastic that can be mail-ordered. I'm sure they are worth a sniff and I shall not be put off by their Christmas-cracker-freebie appearance.

Polynesia is not the only part of the world where cultural diversity is threatened by bland commercially driven homogeneity or prudish evangelism. Whether any attempts to preserve its dances and rituals can be successful, once the culture that gave them meaning has been destroyed or diluted, is uncertain.

Before I finish with nose flutes (Anglo-Saxons: you are allowed one last snigger) I have a question. Answers on a postcard, or in a comment, please: What is the nasal equivalent of an embouchure?