hawaii traditional instrument pahu drum

Hawaii State Traditional Musical Instrument: Pahu (Hula Drum), History & Usage

Hearing the pahu drum is an experience unique to Hawaii. Did you know that the pahu is Hawaii’s official traditional musical instrument? The state’s official modern instrument is the ukulele.

Native Hawaiians have used the hula drum for centuries to express their identity and rich culture and preserve their values from one generation to the next.

I’m going to unravel the history of the pahu, how it has evolved, and look at its usage in Hawaiian society today.

Pahu Drum: Quick Overview

  • The Pahu drum is a type of drum indigenous to Hawai’i and Polynesia.
  • It is made from a hollowed-out log and a sharkskin drumhead.
  • Different types of pahu are used for religious ceremonies and Hula dances.
  • The pahu dates back to stories of La’amaikahiki, the son of the voyaging chief, Moikeha, who brought it to Hawai’i from Tahiti around 1200-1300 A.D.
  • The pahu is considered a sacred instrument and essential in many cultures to signal peace, love, healing, and war and “to call people together.”
  • Niu (coconut) wood is the medium of choice for the Pahu drum as it yields “a better sound.”
  • The Pahu drum is a staple in traditional Hawaiian dance, providing an essential rhythmic accompaniment.
  • The Heiau Pahu, or religious drum, and Hula Pahu, or musical accompaniment drum, are two primary forms of the Pahu drum found in the Hawaiian Islands.
  • People use their bare hands and fingers to play the pahu drum. 

Origins Of The Pahu (Hula Drum)

Well, the pahu’s been around for a long time. It’s from Hawaii, and it’s a drum that folks use in their hula dances. It has some real power to connect us with our past and help us remember who we are.

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The pahu is a drum that dates back to ancient stories of La’amaikahiki, the son of the voyaging chief Moikeha. Legend has it that La’amaikahiki brought this drum to Hawaii from Tahiti sometime between the years 1200 and 1300 A.D. 

People first made it using wood, kapa (bark cloth), shark teeth, or turtle shells for the frame – then animal skin for the head of the drum. 

This drum is an integral part of Hawaiian culture, and its history spans centuries. It has been used in religious ceremonies, storytelling, and even warfare, as it was believed to bring strength and courage to those who heard it. 

Even today, the pahu still plays a vital role in the lives of many Hawaiians, who use it to celebrate and commemorate special occasions. The pahu is essential to the islands’ heritage as a symbol of Hawaii’s past, present, and future.

How The Pahu Is Constructed

People craft pahu drums with care, steeped in tradition – this hula drum symbolizes Hawaiians’ identity and must be appropriately constructed.

The pahu drum is a traditional instrument crafted from hollowed-out coconut wood (Niu), which produces a deep and rich resound within the drum and sounds better than other trees. Craftsmen use sharkskin to construct the drumhead, which gives it a mellow tone that is unique to the hula drum. 

The careful selection of materials and proper construction of the drum gives it the correct pitch, sound, and tone, and it must hold together tightly by traditional stitching techniques.

If you go to Hawaii and are lucky enough to hear someone play pahu, you should take a moment and appreciate the meticulous process of making the instrument. It is truly remarkable: a symbol of the vibrant culture of Hawaii.

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Traditional Uses Of The Pahu

The pahu is a traditional Hawaiian musical instrument, crafted with care and passed down through generations. It’s like an old friend that has been around since time immemorial – its presence echoes the stories of our past. Its construction is as intricate as its purpose: to be used in hula performances and ceremonies for telling tales of Hawaii’s history and culture.

The drum provides a beat for dancers all around Hawaii to express themselves through movement – setting free their emotions as they tell stories with graceful gestures and steps choreographed to perfection. 

Many cultures consider the pahu a sacred instrument and integral to their identity. It symbolizes love, peace, healing, war, and human connections.

While modern techniques allow for mass-produced drums and diverse materials, Hawaiians still mostly handmake the pahu the traditional way. Whether at community gatherings or family functions, the pahu acts not only as an accompaniment but also as a reminder of where we come from – allowing Hawaiians to immerse themselves within the cultural richness of the land while connecting deeply with each other in ways words never could.

Variations Of Pahu

There are several variations of the pahu drum, and the two primary forms are the Heiau and the Hula. Whether solo or in an ensemble, there are many ways to make beautiful music with the pahu.

The Heiau Pahu is a religious drum, while the Hula Pahu is a musical accompaniment drum. These drums are found throughout the Hawaiian Islands, integral to the local culture, and used in several traditional ceremonies and hula dances.

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Preservation Of The Pahu Tradition

Hawaiians are trying to keep the tradition of playing the pahu alive. Musicians have created variations of the original design using different materials, and hula performers have focused on posture and hand gestures to ensure their dances remain traditionally accurate. There remains a shared respect for preserving the cultural significance of this beloved instrument within Hawaii’s identity.