Native Intelligence: Kaua‘i

Native Woodwind

Story by Julia Steele. Photo by Mallory Roe.

The kauila tree, endemic to Hawai‘i, is found nowhere else on Earth. The now rare tree is beautiful and grows extremely slowly—just one millimeter in diameter each year. An eighty-foot-tall kauila may be three hundred years old or more, among the oldest living beings in the Islands, its life begun before Captain James Cook first arrived on Island shores. Kauila wood, as a result, is extremely dense, so dense that it sinks in water. Its strength was much prized by the Hawaiians, who used it for weapons and tools.

When J. Scott Janusch heard about kauila wood, he knew he had found what he was looking for. Janusch, the principal oboist for the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, has been playing his instrument in Honolulu for thirty-two years, long enough to be thinking about the legacy that he wanted to leave for a place that he felt had given him so much. He decided to have an oboe made from kauila wood to highlight the vulnerability of the endangered tree, to create something both utilitarian and cultural, to produce an instrument from which he could draw magnificent music for the people of Hawai‘i.

Many supported his quest. In 2016 a woodworker on Kaua‘i named Michael Sussman gave Janusch kauila wood from a tree that had died in Hurricane ‘Iniki. That year Janusch took the wood to Howarth of London, a company that builds some of the finest woodwind instruments on the planet, and a team there spent two years fashioning the kauila into an exquisite oboe replete with twenty-four tone holes and key work triple-plated in eighteen-karat gold. Back in the Islands, local composer Jon Magnussen began work on a symphony in twelve movements for the oboe’s debut. Each of the movements references a legend that is connected to kauila wood, whether the tale involves a kauila war club, a hōlua sled made with kauila runners or a kauila kapa (bark cloth) beater. Early this November the eighty-two players of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra will perform Magnussen’s opus, with Janusch, of course, playing the kauila oboe. “This oboe,” he says, “is carrying forth the life of this ancient tree.”