Musical Instruments of Hula

Traditional hula music paints the air with powerful voices and beautiful island sounds that kindle the spirit of Hawaii. Take a brief tour of some of the classic instruments heard in Hawaii’s Merrie Monarch Festival, an annual celebration that offers family activities for Hawaii visitors and residents alike.

Important hula instruments:

ipu heke
Percussive instrument made from two joined gourds. The ipu is one of the simplest instruments to craft, but it remains an important rhythm-keeper in Hawaiian music, especially chanting. (Variation: ipu hele ole, a single gourd with a cut above the neck.)

Image of ipu heke during hula performance.

The ipu heke is made of two gourds and provides rhythmic beats during hula performances. Creative Commons image by Forest & Kim Starr.

kala au
Hardwood sticks used to hold rhythm.

pu ili
Popular instrument made from bamboo, musicians strike these split sticks together to create a rustling noise.

uli uli
Iconic Hawaiian rattles made from gourd and adorned with layers of feathers. Filled with canna, or alii poe, seeds.

ili ili
Smooth stones, oval-shaped and usually made from lava rock. Used in pairs to make a clicking sound, and are sometimes known as Hawaiian castanets.

Important Hawaiian words relating to hula & the Merrie Monarch Festival:

Traditional hula, excludes “modern” instrumentation and dance styles. Performers wear traditional costumes and are backed by chants and songs of old Hawaii, usually predating the 1890s.

Contemporary dance that gives performers the opportunity to creatively expand upon the art of hula.

kumu hula
Literally, “hula teacher.”

“Student.” In this case, a person who learns hula from their kumu hula.

halau hula
A hula school. During the Merrie Monarch, group of dancers compete while representing their halau hula.



The Merrie Monarch Festival runs from April 24-30, 2011. Free activities throughout the week offer crafts, arts exhibits and performances. Tickets are available for the hula competitions held from April 28-30.

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