Hawaiian folk music is famous for its chants, ritualized dance and expressiveness. An integral part of the islands' musical heritage are its percussion instruments, particularly the pahu drum. If you possess a carpenter's thumb, you can create your own pahu drum by hollowing a tree trunk, carving out holes along its circumference and stretching an animal skin along its surface.
Hawaii's Musical Heritage
Hawaiian folk music is characterized by a combination of chanting, "mele," and music designed for ritualized dance,"hula." For much of its history, Hawaiian music was based on percussive instruments such as drums rather than melodic instruments. This is particularly true of the hula, Hawaii's most ancient and expressive dance form. It was not until Captain Cook discovered Hawaii in the 19th century that Western musical instruments, like the guitar and ukulele, were introduced to the islands.
The Pahu Drum: Hawaii's Drum
The main accompaniment for Hawaiian dance music is the pahu drum. This exquisite percussion instrument is crafted from the partially hollowed trunk of a coconut tree and finished with shark skin over the top. Historically, the pahu drum came in two varieties: the pahu hula, meant to be played by a standing person, and the hula pahu, designed for an individual in kneeling or sitting position.
Making Your Own Pahu Drum
The first step in creating your own pahu drum is to carve out a 1- to 3-foot section of a tree trunk, preferably a coconut tree. Next, locate some cattle hide and fashion it to cover the surface of your drum and extend a few inches along the sides. The Hawaiians traditionally used shark skin, but its scarcity makes it nearly impossible to find. Finally, carve holes along the lower part of the drum's circumference and secure the cowhide skin with durable string.
Visit Hawaii to Get a Firsthand Look
Hawaii is home to many skilled artisans making pahu drums. A drum can take more than two years to assemble from start to finish, with the wood taking up to one year to dry after being hollowed. The Bishop Museum on the island of Oahu is Hawaii's largest museum and features an extensive collection of Hawaiian artifacts, including 20 examples of pahu drums. Between its artisans and exquisite drum specimens, you'll find no shortage of resources to help you create your own pahu drum.
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