Brian Flintoff, Master Carver of Maori Musical Instruments

Reviving the traditional Maori music of New Zealand
By Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
November 6, 2019 Updated: November 8, 2019

Until some 40 years ago, traditional Maori music was thought to be all but lost. Then Brian Flintoff, along with a band of other enthusiasts, began a revival of Maori flute and instrument making and playing.

Now a world-renowned master carver, Flintoff overflows with enthusiasm for the traditional Maori musical instruments he makes. Flintoff’s instruments are in private and museum collections around the world, including the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.

Man with flute
Master carver Brian Flintoff outside his workshop in Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island. (Courtesy of Brian Flintoff)
Conch Shell Trumpet
“Pumoana Karoro,” by Brian Flintoff. Shell trumpets have the common name of putatara. In the past, putatara were made from a specific shell. Brian Flintoff calls his shell trumpets pumoana when he uses other shells. (Courtesy of Brian Flintoff)

In New Zealand, in 2010, he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for his art.

Flintoff humbly explains by phone how, as a non-Maori, serendipity guided him to his craft and how the Maori community helped him through their songs, mythology, and storytelling. This is the story of how Maori songs were reunited with their music.

The Epoch Times: How did you get involved in carving?
Brian Flintoff: The first time I saw some bone carvings for sale, something in me said, “I’d like to try that.” The next time, I was on holiday in Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island. I picked up some bone that had washed up on the beach. I went home and with the few tools that I had, I started to play around, so it became a hobby.

I was teaching at the time, and it was something to relax me after the frustrations of working with special education children, who I loved working with, but it was a full-on day.

I had been doing bone carving for quite a while before I read something that said that this may not be appropriate for non-Maori to be doing. It was a big shock to me. It’s a pakeha way (a New Zealander of European heritage) that if you can learn something, then you just learn it.

We had a lot of Maori children in the school. When they saw what I was doing, they encouraged me to do a few pieces for them. Fortunately, a few Maori senior people liked what I was doing, and they started giving me advice too, just gently steering me and advising me in my work.

I guess because I was useful, I obviously loved what I was doing, and I wasn’t trying to make a name for myself that I’ve had wonderful support from the Maori community throughout the country.

When I wanted to extend my bone carving to beyond just making pendants, I made some of the traditional musical instruments. There weren’t many on display in museums at all, so I had to do quite a bit of guesswork at the start. I then got the confidence to approach museums to look at their full collection in storage.

Bone flute
A bone porutu by Brian Flintoff. The porutu has finger holes toward the lower end enabling the musician to jump between two octaves. (Courtesy of Brian Flintoff)

Then, by chance, I met Richard Nunns, who was also a teacher. He was working and teaching himself how to play the instruments, and I was teaching myself how to make the instruments. Once we got together, because we had complementary skills, we started to make progress. Then we were invited by the late Dr. Hirini Melbourne, who really led the revival, to a meeting of Maori writers and artists where they brought together people who had an interest in this.

Hirini was a wonderful musician, composer, linguist, and storyteller. He had all sorts of skills. The Maori language was his only language until he was in his teens, so he had a wonderful knowledge of the mythology and all things that were necessary to drive this.

Even though Hirini was a lecturer at the University of Waikato, he persuaded the university faculty that they should take the revival process out into the marae, the small Maori villages, throughout the country and do workshops. It was a labor of love mostly done on weekends.

In the workshops, we used sheep leg bones, which are about the same size as the traditionally used albatross wing bones. Because of the lightness the albatross has to have in its wing, the wing bone has a unique sound, but the sheep bone was as close as we could get.

Bone flute
“Nguru Whale Tuhoe,” by Brian Flintoff. The soft-sounding nguru is a short flute that has a semi-enclosed bore, which is unusual in the musical world. (Courtesy of Brian Flintoff)

Then we started to extend, where we could, to large bones like deer and emu bones because they were being farmed here. The most important flute to Maori was the human-bone flute, often made from an arm bone of a human; the deer bones are very close to that.

The Epoch Times: Can you please explain about the human-bone flute?
Mr. Flintoff: Well, mostly it would be to honor an ancestor, to make music from his or her bone. And sometimes, if the enemy got the flute, it would be used to mock the ancestor.

The Maori concept of life, a little like the yin-yang we know from the East, is taking the two complementary opposites and finding their balance point to create harmony. They have different words for it, but it’s the same basic concept. That’s why you can understand the flute could be used for those two opposite purposes.

The essential thing in Maori art is the storytelling and the mnemonics, because the arts were really their written language equivalent. The songs were written down and are some of the most accurate histories. And when they did the art, it acted as a mnemonic to remind you of little bits of story.

The Epoch Times: How does your flute making relate to the storytelling?
Mr. Flintoff: There are wonderful concepts about why we have the instruments. The music is made up of tunes and rhythms, and then we add our personal experience—that’s the words. The tunes are called Rangi; Rangi is the sky father. What happens to the tunes after we’ve heard them? They drift off up to the sky father.

The rhythms are seen as the heartbeat: the sound of Papatuanuku, mother earth. Her first partner was the god of the sea and, of course, the rhythm of the stones rolling up and down on the beach as the waves come in—the rhythm of the waves. It was their children and grandchildren who became the ancestors of the different types of instruments.

All the flutes are known from Raukatauri, the goddess of flute music, who loved her flute so much she decided to turn herself into the humble little case moth, which is a little moth that lives in a case. That case was the shape of the little putorino flute.

Wooden flute
Brian Flintoff carved this “Putorino with Moth” to tell the story of Raukatauri, the goddess of flute music. The flute is the shape of her cocoon, and she is seen as the central singing figure. The carving at the top is Pepe, the male moth who has been attracted by Raukatauri’s sweet singing. (Courtesy of Brian Flintoff)

The female doesn’t turn into a flying moth; the male does. When she wants him, she has to sing. You may think, ah, a caterpillar singing—but if enough of them do it, apparently there is an audible sound. After they’ve mated, she lays her eggs in the case and then she dies. When we make the instrument, it has a male voice which is played like a trumpet and a female voice which is played like a flute.

These ideas, especially to young people, they cotton on to them. To me, it was wonderful because my study was in science and math, and so logic was important. But the Maori mythology is still so intact that you can see the logic throughout. I think that’s what really helps children to understand and enjoy it, because of the logic that’s inherent in the mythology.

On most of the instruments, I put a face on the blowing end, which represents the face of the instrument itself. Maori believe that everything is personified, so putting a face on the flute helps people to understand that this is a little flute person. The trees outside are tree people. It’s a wonderful way to look at the world, as well as looking at what we make.

Wooden flute
“Nguru Kokako,” by Brian Flintoff. The nguru is a short flute. This design incorporates a kokako, a bird that according to Maori legend was gifted with the ability to sing like Raukatauri, the goddess of flute music. (Courtesy of Brian Flintoff)

I add a similar face on the other end, but that face has two noses. This is because to play the instrument, you’ve got to bring it up to your lips, which then brings it up to your nose, and in the traditional Maori greeting (called a hongi), you bring your nose to the other person’s nose and share your breath. Therefore, when you play, and your instrument is held up to your nose, you share your breath with the instrument’s breath and the two breaths combine to make music. The face with two noses is the face of the music, showing that the two breaths can make something special.

By putting those two different faces on the end of the flute, then you’re able to keep the basic concepts of what the flute is doing.

One part of the flute is left smooth, and the other part is carved. The carved bit balances the smooth bit. For the carving, I add a kowhaiwhai design (a specific pattern with a particular meaning to embellish the story) based on the painted style that the old Maori used. I carve it instead of paint it on the body of the flute to depict the music going out, making nice shapes in the silence as it drifts up to the sky father.

The Epoch Times: Please tell us about Maori music.
Mr. Flintoff: Maori music is microtonal, and so to the untrained ear it is very boring. It’s like having all the notes that we have in our European scale squashed down into about five notes, so the changes between notes are very subtle. Perhaps that’s why, when European music came along, the Maori people were able to harmonize without even thinking about it, because their ears were so well-trained.

Basically, the flutes were an embellishment for singing because music didn’t exist as just sounds; it was the song and the words that were important.

Fortunately, the songs were not lost. A lot of the songs were sung underground, so to speak, and where Maori communities were strong enough. The songs have become a touchstone for us in reviving things. There were a few ancient wax recordings that were recorded when there were still Maori players using the instruments, which has been a great help.

Within the last 40-odd years that we’ve been doing the revival, we found only one old person who had been taught to play as a boy. He hadn’t used the instrument for some 20 years at that stage. When he heard about what we were doing, he started playing it again, which was wonderful.

There is a bit of trouble in my mind that too many of our young musicians want to use them in the way European instruments are played, just to play their own music. I prefer when it’s played as an embellishment to Maori song.

The Epoch Times: What have the instruments taught you?
Mr. Flintoff: Humility! I used to growl at Richard. He’d come out to have a look at an instrument and make it play, and then he’d take the music away with him. Because as soon as he left, I couldn’t get anything out of it! But also they’ve taught me perseverance, to keep on trying.

There’s so much that the instruments have taught me, because the stories that go with them are stories that improve the way we run our lives. The philosophy that’s in our stories is a philosophy that I think the world is looking for in many places.

This article has been edited for clarity and length.

To find out more about Brian Flintoff and hear some of his musical instruments visit


Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier