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From tree to instrument

The seldom-used ulili will reclaim a role in hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival

By Nina Wu

LAST UPDATED: 4:52 a.m. HST, Apr 26, 2011

This story has been corrected.

In front of Bishop Museum grows a laa­mia tree, with branches that reach toward the sky. Look closer and you will see round, green fruit hanging.

It is from the fruit of the laa­mia tree, also known as the calabash tree, that uliuli — the vibrant-colored feathered gourd rattles used in hula — are made. The same gourds are used for the lesser-known ulili, a spinning gourd instrument.

The ulili, made up of three gourds on a dowel with a cord attached to the middle one, is rarely seen in hula performances these days, but it will be featured by one of the male halau at this week's 48th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.

The end gourds contain alii poe (canna) seeds, and when dancers pull the cord to make the gourds spin, the result is a whirring sound.

The challenge is in finding two matching gourds for the ends that don't wobble, said Mike Kop, a second-generation craftsman who made ulili for the competing male halau this year. (He declined to reveal the group's name to maintain the element of surprise for its performance.)


Schedule: Hoolaulea at 9 a.m. today at the Afook Chinen Civic Auditorium inHilo; arts and crafts fair starts Wednesday; competition begins Thursday at Edith Kanakaole Stadium, with the Miss Aloha Hula contest, followed by group kahiko on Friday and group auana Saturday.


For more coverage, including photo galleries and competition results, visit and throughout the week.

Online resources


Walking into Kop's Hula Supply Center on South King Street, you won't likely find the ulili among the other more common implements, including uliuli, ipu heke ole (single-headed gourd) and puili (bamboo sticks).

"I don't make it that often, but I'm happy to make it," he said.

Kop says he has seen the ulili used only twice in competition in the last three decades.

Kumu hula Maile Beamer Loo, a founder of the Hula Preservation Society, said she was pleased to learn the ulili will be presented on the Merrie Monarch stage during Friday's kahiko (ancient) hula performances.

"In many traditions the use of these implements has been lost or forgotten," she said.

The society has been offering educational programs in the last two years about ulili and its significance in hula, with the mission of reviving lesser-known hula implements. Its youth troupe, Hui Pule­le­hua, is being trained in the ulili and sharing its knowledge with the public.

This summer the ulili is one of three rarer forms of hula implements that will be featured in workshops sponsored by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

"The Hawaiians created hula as a way to tell stories, and the ulili represents one way they carried nature into hula, including the elements and the sounds that it makes," Loo said. "There's no other sound like it in terms of all the other implements in hula."

MAKING ULILI is a long and involved proc­ess requiring patience. First, the fruit of the laa­mia tree is dried and cleaned out. Getting the gourds thoroughly cleaned is critical to maintain quality of sound, said Kop, who learned how to make the ulili from his father's friend as a teenager.

The gourds also must fit on the dowel perfectly so that they can spin properly, he said. Once all the materials are available, putting them together can take at least three hours.

Last year, Kop made eight of the ulili as awards for a keiki hula competition. He hopes more kumu hula will teach the implement so that it does not become endangered.

Many halau add hula implements at competition because of the added element of difficulty and excitement.

Kumu hula Ainsley Hale­manu, who who has been teaching for 37 years, said it is important to teach the basic hula implements to his hau­mana (students) as a way of keeping the traditions alive. He starts his hula students on implements as early as 3 or 4 years old.

At a recent show at the Waikiki hula mound, his three ala­kai (student leaders), Kylie Lokahi Mattos, Loreal Kalei­nani Russell and Chelsey Keo­lani Russell, demonstrated their proficiency with uliuli, puili and ipu heke ole.

Using implements is more challenging for dancers because they require more coordination between the hands and footwork, Hale­manu said. Many younger dancers no longer use them.

In 2006, kumu hula Mapu­ana de Silva's Halau Mohala ‘Ilima used the papa hehi (treadle board) at the Merrie Monarch competition, another lesser-known hula implement that is used together with kalaau (sticks).

De Silva's halau members make most of their own implements. For uliuli, for instance, they sew five rows of feathers, which requires hours of labor, and even stamp a tapa pattern onto the center.

This, too, is part of hula, according to de Silva.

Students in her halau do not necessarily learn all of the implements right away, she said, but must earn the right to learn some of them after demonstrating discipline and accomplishment.

De Silva hopes to also teach the ulili to her students one day, when the time is right.


» The puniu, or knee drum, is played by being struck with a ka, a small braided ti leaf. A photo caption for this article said it can also be struck with fingers.

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