In 1815, an eyewitness named Chamisso wrote a description of a hula performance:
"poetry, music, and dancing, which, in the South Sea islands appear hand-in-hand
in their original union to adorn human life, deserve to be particularly attended
to. The spectacle of the hura, the festive dances of the Owhyeeans, filled us with
To this day, the hula can still fill all five senses with a flutter of striking
color, whirling skirts, and soft as well as pungent fragrances of rustling foliage.
These are the vivid first impressions of the dancer's costumes and adornments. The
purpose of costuming is to accentuate the dancer's movements and to bring inspiration
with every inhaled breath.
The costumes of the dancer consisted of a lei for the head, a lei for the shoulders,
a pa`u or skirt and kupe`e or anklets and wristlets made of bone, shell, foliage,
or fibers. The pa`u or simple short skirt was the same for both male and female
hula dancers. The pa`u for men was worn over a traditional malo; the pa`u for women
was worn over the ordinary pa`u skirt. The pa`u was originally made of tapa, a barkcloth
fabric, or a close set of fringed ribbons of the hau (hibiscus). Tapa costumes varied
in colors and designs. The pa`u was made of several layers of tapa, each approximately
one yard in width and four yards in length. When worn, the length reached just below
the knees. Thighs were not shown, as this was thought to be impolite or immodest.
The most elaborate and formal styles included delicate tints of color, were printed
with stamped figures, and consisted of much volume.
The instruments also marked rhythm and timing for the dancer.
Many of these instruments were used for informal dancing, but the spirited pahu,
puniu, and ipu were instruments for formal dance events
and thus given traditional reverence.
With the advent of missionary teachings, the hula became forbidden
and these instruments and their manufacture ceased to be prized and valued. Hula,
however, went underground, was practiced in secret, and shared with only a few.
Modern Hawai`i can thank the efforts of monarchs such as Queen Emma (consort of
Kamehameha IV) and King Kalakaua for returning the prestige and contributions of
hula to 19th century Hawai`i. By the 20th century, individuals such
as Fred Malulani Kahea Beckley gave classes in making ancient styled hula
instruments at his Beretania Street studio in Honolulu in the early 1900s. Johnny
Noble, a popular musician, composer, and arranger of traditional hula
songs always tried to use ancient musical accompaniments, such as the ipu,
the `ili`ili, and the pu`ili, in his song compositions.
In 1878, a Portuguese immigrant, J. A. Gonzales, brought to Hawai`i the braga (braguinha),
a four-string prototype of the `ukulele. Among his fellow passengers
were Augusto Diaz, Jose De Espirito Santo, and Manuel Nunes. These young men were
business partners in the old country, making musical instruments. They not only
manufactured the first `ukulele, but performed for the royal court
using the new instrument. Hawaiians at first were reluctant to familiarize themselves
with this instrument. The strumming, chords, and fingering were new and difficult.
King Kalakaua took a liking to the `ukulele and saw its possibilities.
He commanded that singing and playing clubs be formed on all islands for royal functions.
He insisted that `ukulele playing have a leading role in all such
orchestras. Earnest Ka`ai, the first Hawaiian to master the `ukulele,
printed chords for popular sheet music. The rest is, as they say, history. Today's
hula performances will greet audiences with the melodious sounds of both traditional
musical instruments and a musical ensemble of a piano, `ukulele, guitar,
and steel guitar.
by Janice Kahoku Yoneda