The mere evocation of the islands of Tahiti is likely to inspire fantasies or revive some souvenirs. The warmth of the sun, the taste of spume, the fragrance of the tiare or the beats of the tō’ere are just a few moments forever etched in our memory. Yet, if there is one sound that shall conjure up the glorious past of yesteryear, it is definitely that of the vivo.
Not as popular as the percussions, this tiny nose flute is however to be found all around the Polynesian triangle. Better known as kuihu in Hawaii, it is called koauau in New Zealand whereas people like to call it pu ihu in the Marquesas archipelago.
If we can hardly determine when it was first conceived, we know for sure that it was part of the objects collected by the great explorers like James Cook or Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, in the eighteenth century. Besides, even if we now carve it out of bamboo, in older days, the flute used to be sculpted out of human bones, those of defeated enemies during clan wars.
Even though we now let aside the keen shell and sharpened aito pieces and prefer to use both saw and power drill, the aspect of the vivo has remained the same over the centuries. If it featured solely two to three holes before, it is now more common to make seven or eight of them to offer more possibilities to the musician. The quality of the bamboo is essential, so is the size: the shorter the flute, the shriller the sound.
If you are not really into music, note that it remains a gorgeous piece of art, a must-have for whoever would like to add a Polynesian touch to a room.
Unlike ordinary flutes, the mouthpiece of the vivo is placed by the nostril. The musician holds its instrument with both hands and blocks the opposite nostril with either thumb or index finger. The handling requires a lot of breath and composure. Like any traditional wind instrument, one must plug the holes successively to obtain different notes. The position of the fingers evolves according to the archipelago you are coming from.
In olden days, the nose flute used to be part of the seduction phase, it was used as a tool during passionate serenades. Surrounded by an ill-concealed magical aura, it then played a leading role during incantations and sacred ceremonies. The air exhaled through the nostrils was sort of mystical and expected to have supernatural powers such as that of invoking gods and spirits.
Nowadays, the vivo melody is often used as a musical background during ‘ōrero, it guides the dancers during the great annual cultural representations. Just like the pu (marine conch), it became really popular at the end of the 1980s.
If it encounters a tremendous success, it is mainly because it embodies an ideal, the golden age of the islands of Tahiti. Its melancholic tones are particularly suitable for stage performances and historical reconstructions. The vivo is a symbol of sharing, the transmission of the breath of life.