Gal in Hawaii: The Pied Piper of Puna: David Hannauer, Ocarina Maker and Meister

This story originally appeared on the Bike Friday website (now on the Internet Archive)


UDPATE Dec 2006: See this interview on ... YouTube - click on the movie below.

“I MAKE an instrument for the future, but alas, in the present,” laments David Hannauer, pulling various egg-shaped pieces of clay from their protective socks.

Laid out before me is a small ensemble of his vast ocarina collection, “small egg-shaped wind instruments with a mouthpiece and holes for the fingers”, according to my laptop dictionary. All but two are the careful handiwork of David himself, who dreams of the day he can get enough people interested in this quirky, glorified whistle to form an ocarina “choir”.

David hails from a family of musicians – he was a child cellist, his mother is a volinist, his sister plays with the Brooklyn Philharmonic orchestra and his dad sings. Happy birthdays and Grace at the Hannauer house were always rendered in pitch-perfect six part harmony. Born to zag when everyone else is zigging, David spurned traditional instruments and abandoned his bamboo flute making hobby 15 years ago. He's been making ocarinas in his tarp home in the jungle village of Kao'e, on the Puna region of Hawaii's Big Island, ever since.

“It is the closest instrument to a human voice; a single note that's stretched by opening and closing the various holes,” he explains. Similar to a policeman's whistle and the familiar primary school instrument, the recorder, the ocarina uses a small, precision-carved hole called a fipple that slices the column of air symetrically. Flutes and other wind instruments, in contrast, involve a vibrating piece called a reed, and resemble playing a shorter and shorter tube; each tube having a note value of its own. The ocarina is akin to blowing across the neck of a bottle, sans fipple.

“An Ocarina has no moving parts”, says David, “the beauty is its simplicity. It's easier to play than conventional wind instruments, and its size make it the perfect travel instrument.” He points to the shell-like version that around his neck; most would fit into a child's palm.

A selection of David's handmade ocarinas.

The word 'ocarina' (from the Italian 'oca' meaning 'goose') was coined by Budrio composer Guiseppe Donati in 1850 and was the first attempt to make an ocarina that imitated the Western scale, using a 'linear fingering' like a flute. David showed me a torpedo-shaped ocarina from that era. The instrument actually harks back to pre-Columbian times, where the Meso-Americans used a cross-fingered technique. In the late 1960's an Englishman, John Taylor, revived this cross-fingering to accommodate the Western scale. Early ocarinas had a range of just an octave; Taylor's ocarina extended it to 9 notes, the standard ocarina. 'Sweet potato choirs', as the instrument was also known, sprang up in the 30's and 40's in Europe.

Ocarina authority Darren Steinberg noted on his seminal site, stating that “[Hannauer] brought the modern English cross-fingering to a whole new level.” (David actually taught Steinberg how to play and manufacture ocarinas). By taking Taylor's cross-fingering and matching it to the range of Donati's 150-year old design, David came up with an instrument with 11 notes, which can play 'almost anything written for a voice'.

“An extra note doubles or triples your playlist!” enthuses David, showing me his extended playlist.

Voice? Just listen to his effortlest jazzy improvizations of classics like 'Girl from Ipanema', 'My Favorite Things' (the John Coltrane jazz rendition), A Little Night Music by Mozart (two movements) and your preconceptions of the ocarina as a kid's whistle soon evaporate.

He whipped out a double ocarina which mimics two voices singing together – a duet.

“It's like two limited ocarinas played in unison – one does an octave and the other goes to the ninth.”

The material, shape, thickness, and even positioning of the holes is unimportant (except for ergonomic reasons); what is important are size of the holes and the precision alignment of the fipple. If the holes aren't the right size the instrument is out of pitch. The fipple isn't right, it won't have the range. David makes two basic shapes from clay: a round bulb and a banana-shape, depending on individual ergonomic preferences. He engraves them with a fingernail-etched initial or the stamp of a casurina seed pressed into the clay before firing.

David is available for ocarina tuition, performances and custom making worldwide. Contact him on, phone (080) 936-2963, or write to him at RR2 3354 Pahoa, Hawaii, 96778.


You'll need Quicktime (free player)

1. Interview and demo (7.1 Mb) | Sound only (300 KB)

2. My Favorite Things (jazz improv, 1.7 Mb) Sound only

3. Girl from Ipanema (Sound only 180 Kb)

4. Double Ocarina (1.8 Mb) | Sound only

Copyright 2005, Lynette Chiang,


Popular posts from this blog

Baring my fake Loubs: How to spot a pair of counterfeit Christian Louboutin shoes

Product Review: The Rinsten Spring Shock Absorber for bicycles

Still rolling after 45 years: the Kosta Boda snowball