Natividad, Anthony (on ‘ohe hano ihu, Hawaiian nose flutes)
In ancient times, the creators of the ʻohe hano ihu were often sought by couples in love. The instrument provided sweet-sounding accompaniment to mele hoʻoipoipo, wooing and love-making chants. Anthony Natividad is a modern day ʻohe hano ihu maker. It was a calling ever since he was a young kid, but he never really listened until he got much older. A window tinter by trade, Natividad has a passion for the ʻohe hano ihu and sharing Hawaiian stories to those willing to listen. I was one of those people. The following interview was conducted at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama’s Midkiff Learning Center as Natividad tinted the windows.
Camille: When did you become interested in the Hawaiian nose flute?
Anthony: I guess it was in 5th grade, in 1975. Remember going to Camp Erdman?
Anthony: You went Camp Erdman? Well, in ’75 there was this guy. His name was Uncle John. Somebody said that it was Uncle John Velasco, but I’m not sure. It’s not the John Velasco who was the football coach at Radford or Roosevelt, but somebody told me his name was Uncle John Velasco. Remember the song "Going on da Buta Hunt" and stuff like that?
Anthony: That was when Camp Erdman was run by Hawaiians. Now they’re all mainland transplants. My brother-in-law said he went to Camp Erdman, ’cause he’s a teacher, he said ‘Oh, Anthony, get all Haoles over there and we have to correct them with the stories they tell.’
Camille: Oh no!
Anthony: Yeah, yeah! So we were real lucky. I was in 5th grade when I went. Uncle he passed out bamboo. He had short, curly, white hair and he was shaped like a pear. He was a big man; well in 5th grade everybody’s big. His voice was like this [begins speaking with a nasal voice], he said, ‘Okay you guys. My name is Uncle John. You see dis bamboo you guys get? You see da pukas? That’s cause this one nose flute. The bamboo you guys get? That’s yours. You can make your bamboo look like mine. Here’s some sandpaper. You can make ’um whateva, but that’s your responsibility.’ When he showed us how to play it, all he said was, ‘Okay, this is how you play the nose flute. Watch!’ So he put it up to his face and he started playing. He stopped and he said, ‘You guys watched yeah? Okay, now you try.’ So, we’re sitting down raising our hands and he said, ‘No, no ask questions. Just try now.’ So, we’re looking at each other with blank stares on our face, looking at the guy thinking this guy sucks as a teacher. We try and this is what we do [blows into flute and only the sound of air can be heard], no noise right? So we started blowing harder. Some of us was going eww, grossing out. He was watching us laughing, laughing, laughing, then he said, ʻOkay you guys, I’m going to show you one more time. Watch, but this time, watch good.’ So he started playing again. [plays the flute] He stopped and he says, ‘Okay, you get half hour. You guys can practice and then we are going to the buta hunt. Don’t ask me questions. When I come around, I going help you out.’ So he walked around and again all of us same problem. We were watching closely, but we couldn’t get it. For two years I had my nose flute on my dresser at home. Every once in a while I would pick it up and I would try. It got me frustrated because I couldn’t get the sound and I’m thinking it must be broken. After about two years I entered the 7th grade. I lost the flute and I was on to bigger and better things, so to speak. Back in 1992, my wife went to Mexico and she brought back a clay whistle. An ocadega, you seen this before?
Anthony: When I first blew in it, it had such a beautiful sound. It plays the scale. After that I fell in love with the flute. I was carrying it with me all over, tinting windows, and playing the ocadega. I would play for people and these people would eventually start introducing me to the sounds of different flutes. In the meantime my wife meets a South American guy. His name is Wahshan. I think he is an Inca medicine man. The youngest of 9 kids. He was chosen by his mother to be a storyteller, musician, and he was chosen by his father to be an herbal medicine man. After much coaxing my wife had me meet this guy. This is about six months after she met him. One day she tells me, ‘You know he’s going to have a concert at the ʻIlikai and you’re going to take me. You better take that Sunday off. You better not work.’ So, I go with her and I watch him play. He’s playing the ocadega, the South American ocarina and the pan pipe. Then he busts out a nose flute and he starts playing. I was amazed. Just the first pitch that he played and I was enthralled. When he got to the nose flute I had a full on flash back to Camp Erdman. I waited after the concert and I started talking to him. He had nose flutes that were in C minor. He played it and I asked if I could try. This time I was watching and what I noticed was that he placed the hole in front of his nostril. I played it and I ended up buying it from him. That cost me $100. When I showed my friends they were like, $100 bucks for a nose flute; you’re crazy. You can go down to the hula supply store and buy one for $15. I think of it as a $100 for my teacher. I looked at that nose flute and I began to figure out how to make nose flutes. That’s my teacher, so $100 bucks for an education is nothing. Now, when I sell the flutes, they range anywhere from $40 to $200.
Camille: You make flutes?
Anthony: Yeah! I have some in Bishop Museum. It’s hard to find pitched nose flutes.
Camille: What do you mean when you say pitched nose flutes?
Anthony: You can pick them up and play them with a guitar or piano. It’s pitched to key. That is very difficult to find. If you look at these nose flutes the holes are different sizes. The size and placement of the hole will give it a specific pitch. These are pitched to the pentatonic scale. That’s all music theory. The pentatonic scale is like the black keys of the piano. Have you ever played piano?
Anthony: The black keys have no wrong notes. Any notes that you play, in any order, makes it sound like you one pro already. Any multiples of notes with the black keys at the same time; it sounds like a chord. A lot of the chants as well as a lot of native cultures are played in a pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale sounds very pleasant. [plays flute] Most flutes that you see have either three holes or two holes. Washan’s flute had four.
Camille: What is a traditional Hawaiian style flute?
Anthony: The three holes were for the kāne and the two holes were for wāhine. Both men and women played the nose flute. Back to the pentatonic scale, "Amazing Grace" is on a pentatonic scale. It’s pretty easy. That’s how the nose flutes I make play. I had to do that so I could play them with other instruments. I play harmonica too. When I listen to the radio, I pick up the harmonica and I play along. I wanted to do that with the flutes, but I couldn’t find flutes that would play in the right key and I never had plenty money to spend. I did have tools and I could find bamboo, so I started making them. My accomplishments for making flutes have been making and playing for ʻUlalena, I’m making nose flutes for Tihati; they’re all keyed the same. It’s something different. I want to show you something. The one flute sounds nice but two sound trippy. [plays with two nose flutes]
Camille: Very cool.
Anthony: Trippy yeah!
Camille: Try three.
Anthony: I can, okay. [plays three] Oh cannot, too hard. I show others who play with this and they trip out. They wonder how I get so many notes. I saw Kealiʻi Reichel at the airport one time so I played the two nose flutes for him and I started talking story with him. He said he never saw a nose flute that had such range. Which means, plays so much notes. I’m pretty sure that he’s going to start experimenting a little bit more. Most of these nose flute makers who have been making nose flutes for a long time went with the theory of wherever you place the holes, that’s how you play it.
Camille: How is this important to you in terms of perpetuating Hawaiian culture? Does it have anything to do with that?
Anthony: Inadvertently it became that. I play for nā kūpuna. If no one is here in this library, I’m still playing because a lot of our kūpuna are watching. They are happy because you guys are perpetuating the culture and giving the education to the Hawaiian children. My job is to play for them. A lot of people tell me that I’m unlike most people because I play at that caliber. My responsibility is to play it for the kūpuna. To make people aware of how the nose flutes were used as well as the potential it can be used for when you play for a spirit. I have played for events ranging from before birth all the way to death and after death. I’ve played in very sacred ceremonies including Hawaiian protocol.
Camille: What is the cultural significance of the Hawaiian nose flute?
Anthony: There’s plenty. The first one is that this is an instrument of sincerity because your mouth can say words. Words have the potential of being hurtful and deceitful. The stuff coming out from your mouth is kind of sketchy. Your nose cannot say anything. That’s why you honi. You exchange the breath from your nose because it’s very sincere. I cannot lie to you and there is nothing I can hide when I greet you that way. The nose flute is the same. It sounds very sweet because nothing harsh can come from your nose and you cannot lie. When the man singled out a woman and played for her, the missionaries thought that he was casting a magical spell of love over the woman, and they bannned the nose flute.
Camille: I didn’t know that they banned the nose flute because of that.
Anthony: Actually what he was doing was expressing his love for her. You know guys, no matter what generation or culture you are from, men will not truly show who they are at any time except to that special person. The concept of love is very different in the Hawaiian culture when you compare it with the Western culture. Western culture is pretty twisted. In the Hawaiian culture, love is so much different. The uses of the flute were of course as a profession of love, but this was also the Hawaiian telephone. Say you and I got together, but we lived across the village from each other. I can’t just yell across the valley to you. You would have a nose flute and I would have a nose flute, and I would make a song specifically for you so that anytime I played it you would know that I was thinking about you. You, in turn, would make up a song for me. So I would go outside and I would start playing. I would wait and I would listen. In the meantime you hear me playing, and during the pause you would pick up your nose flute and you would play your song for me.
Camille: Do you have a wahine flute here with you?
Anthony: No, but you could just put tape on these holes and now you have the wahine one.
Camille: Why would men get two holes and the woman would get three?
Anthony: You know Uncle John told us that a long time ago. Being in the fifth grade we didn’t ask him why because he looked big and scary. Aunty Mahealani Poipoi, she’s lāʻau lapaʻau on Maui. You known her?
Camille: I don’t know her but I have heard of her.
Anthony: She’s pretty cool. Like I mentioned earlier, I performed with ʻUlalena and after the show, I would come out and talk story with the audience. I was sharing manaʻo about the nose flute and she was there listening. She said, ‘Young man, do you know why the man played the three hole and the woman played the two hole?’ I said, ʻNo aunty. I was too scared to ask. I don’t know.’ She said the number of holes represented how close to God you were. The fewer holes you had, the closer to God you were. The women were closer to God because each hole represented the woman, and the woman’s potential to have children. Women can give birth. That’s the power of creation. For men, if we were really close to God we would have only one hole representing ourselves. The men, however, need the woman, who has the potential to have a child. Three holes remind us that we always have to pray. That’s how she explained it to me. No one else has ever explained it to me. She grew up being Hawaiian. That kind of information is not shared lightly. Before the instrument was banned, I was told that it was also used like a recording device. People making chants would go to the nose flute maker and would say, ʻI just made an oli. This is what it sounds like.’ The nose flute maker would have a whole bunch of wood and figure out the highest and the lowest note in the oli. Once he got the lowest note he would make the pukas and give it to the person. That would be the nose flute that the person would use to play, and teach that oli.