Skip to main content

Hula Pahu Revisited

Kaha‘i Topolinski

Hula Pahu: Hawaiian Drum Dances, Volume 1: Ha‘a and Hula Pahu: Sacred Moments. By Adrienne L. Kaeppler. Bishop Museum Bulletin in Anthropology, 1993.

Hula Pahu...Volume 1 makes a courageous attempt to trace and describe the origin of the Hawaiian hula drum and the accompanying sounds and movements performed in conjunction with it. "This shroud is especially difficult to penetrate when attempting to sort out the uses of the pahu with its sounds and movements," writes Adrienne Kaeppler in her preface (p. xiv). This revelation leaves the reader with a speculative if not controversial conclusion, undermining the text. Thus the reader is left with the following perplexing questions: (1) Who was this research written for—native or foreign scholars of the dance? (2) What purpose does the book serve? (3) What impact will the contents of this book have for native Hawaiian practitioners of the hula pahu? (4) Does the speculative thesis of this book add to or negate the innate and scholarly viewpoint of the native practitioners of the hula?

To compartmentalize aspects of Hawaiian dance is to relegate it to a western frame of reference or mindset. The idea of packaging and boxing with neat little ribbons best suits the Westerner in his approach to dance academia—whereas the Hawaiian observes it with the flow of mana (spiritual essence), the spirit of emotion and creativity which is realistically the approach of the native perspective. There are many shades of gray in Hawaiian art form that are just that—nebulous and unexplainable by words. It means very little to hula practitioners because they will view it as another interpretation from a source outside the arena of hula.

The author uses non-native informants when discussing Hawaiian religion. The use of these haole scholars is an attempt to give the work credibility in the Western realm of consequence. Neither Marshall Sahlins nor Valerio Valeri possesses the credentials to be an interpreter of Hawaiian religious practices.

How much of Kaeppler’s own biases are woven into this work is based on her own conclusions and accomplishments not born to the hula, language, and Hawaiian cultural rearing—she is still an outsider looking in. The author is not a practitioner of the hula, let alone the pahu. To the Hawaiian, this is suspect because "only he knows the sacred places of his house and can stand from the opening of his house to explain it." In other words, one cannot be a scholar of Hawaiian culture being born in another culture.

Though Kaeppler’s sources and informants are Hawaiian, the conclusion and final outcome of her work fit the justification of the haole intellectual in the dance—hoping to break new ground, squeezing from it some far-out interpretation to elevate academic pursuits.

The variables in Hawaiian hula pahu poetry and dance are legion and cannot be cloistered or shoved into an ultra-narrow form of speculation. The result is misleading, thus adding to the many fallacious theories of the hula pahu.

It is widely known that Hawaiian masters of this art form never give or divest themselves of all their knowledge for it would erode their stewardship.

This volume on hula pahu would have been best served if a native practitioner or several native practitioners of the hula pahu had authored it; at least the speculation, if any, would have been Hawaiian in viewpoint.

Hula Pahu: Hawaiian Drum Dances, Volume II: The Pahu: Sounds of Power. By Elizabeth Tatar. Bishop Museum Bulletin in Anthropology, 1993.

As explained by Dr. Elizabeth Tatar in Volume II, the "Pahu Project" began in August 1979 in response, albeit reluctantly, to Adrienne Kaeppler’s request to include a section on the music of the Hawaiian drum in a publication planned to supplement an exhibition at the Bishop Museum on pahu and pūniu. Like Kaeppler, Tatar concentrated on the hula pahu tradition of three major schools. These schools are connected with credited hula practitioners and pahu traditions that can be traced to the nineteenth century.

The work focuses on Keahi Luahine and Mary Kawena Puku‘i, Pua Ha‘aheo, his student Kau‘i Zuttermeister, Katherine Kanahele, and Eleanor Hiram Hoke. These experts, who were born to the hula, passed the tradition they learned to later generations of hula students.

This project was interrupted in 1981 by a series of other commitments. It resumed in 1984—however, lacking a crescendo of enthusiasm.

Upon examination of traditional literature primarily at the Bishop Museum Library, Tatar recognized the vast importance of this information. "The difficulty of interpreting it within broader cultural terms was even more heroic."

The first draft of the manuscript was completed in 1985, however unsatisfied Tatar was with its accomplishments due to the complexity of the subject. Work was suspended until November 1988, "when Kaeppler called from the Smithsonian Institution." She proposed that a recording of hula pahu be prepared for the 1989 Festival of American Folklife, of which I and my hālau were a part. "I replied that a publication of our work on hula pahu might accompany it. She agreed, and we embarked on completing a manuscript."

The reader will note that the recording of most of the mele hula pahu examined in this volume has been produced by Folkways Records, Smithsonian Institution. The beauty of Volume II rests in the great number of printed mele with translations to assist any practitioner of the hula pahu. It is a how-to book showing and giving explanations of the employment of the hula pahu. Photographs are valuable in that they illustrate visually the traditional use of the pahu with its accompanying beats. "For the actual sounds of the chanting voice and the beating of the drum will, in the end, be the ultimate expression of the tradition of the Hawaiian drum, the pahu."

The concentrated efforts of this book are seen in the areas of context, methods, sources, history, construction, and mele of the pahu. Indeed, these areas of study are the strong and obvious sources of the author. It is geared to inform, help, and instruct the younger generations of hula pahu practitioners in their quest for excellence.

Tatar takes no outstanding liberties by forming inappropriate interpretations in speculative jargon of the pahu, its use, and the mele associated with it. She treats it in an honest and straightforward approach to her thesis, which best serves the readers’ understanding and clarity on the subject. Native practitioners of the pahu will especially benefit from this research, as was the author's intention. In short, the native practitioner of the pahu, along with future generations, could easily circumvent the first volume of Hula Pahu and feel confident that their practice will be secure owing to the fullness of Tatar’s research. Much cultural information on Hawai‘i has been put to press by many non-natives which lack the native Hawaiians’ own true, in-depth justifications and interpretations. To this the Hawaiian historian Kepelino adds this timely statement:

Ahu kupanaha ‘ia Hawai‘i ‘imi loa! E noi‘i wale mai nō ka haole-ā ‘a‘ole e pau nā hana a Hawai‘i ‘imi loa. He wahi mea ‘ano a‘e kā! ho‘i ia, he wahi mea ‘ano a‘e kā! ho‘i ia! Ahu ka hepa iā Hawai‘i moku nui.

Many are the strange things to be learned about Hawai‘i. However diligently the foreigner seeks, he cannot find out all. [He misinterprets and reinterprets the facts to suit his own thinking.] He gets a fragment here and there and goes home. [Eager to impress others with his pseudo-intellectual accomplishments] a heap of absurdities is all he has to show from greater Hawai‘i.

We should remember this and be encouraged by Tatar’s research, which esoterically invites the native Hawaiian scholar to challenge other viewpoints from the Hawaiian perspective.

Kaha‘i Topolinski

Kumu Hula

This review was initially published in the Hawaiian Journal of History, Volume 29, 1995, 196–199. It is republished here with the reviewer’s permission.