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Title: Hawaiian Drum Dance Chants; Sounds of Power in Time--Kau ka hali’a I ka Manawa; Noenoe Lewis, drums and vocal. Label: Smithsonian/Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD SF 40015. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

The pūniu is a single-headed membranophone of the Hawaiian people. It is typically played in combination with either the much larger pahu (a hand-beaten drum the shell of which is made from the trunk of a coconut tree [not included in the Grinnell collection]) or the ipu hula to accompany the hula. It is, occasionally, worn and sounded by the hula dancer him- or herself. In pre-European contact times it was used as an accompanying instrument for hula performed by dancers associated with royalty-sponsored dance schools (hālau hula), but these institutions and their practices succumbed to the profound changes brought to Hawaii in the 19th century by missionaries and other Westerners. Today the pūniu is heard primarily in the context of performances by contemporary hālau hula, which are no longer under royal patronage but may be seen as a vital element in the renaissance of interest in Hawaiian culture over the past several decades.


The body of the pūniu is made from a coconut shell the stem-end of which is lopped off above the widest diameter of the shell. The liquid and meat contents of the shell are removed and the new rim is made smooth and level before being covered by a circular kala (Acanthurus unicornis) fish-skin head. Numerous holes are punched just inside the edge of the head through which is threaded a length of braided cord that serves as a hoop. Another length of braided cord, serving as tension lacing, runs back-and forth between the exposed segments of the hoop cord and a counter-hoop (called poaha) in the form of a ring made of twisted tapa cloth (probably with a core of some stiffer material) located around the bottom of the coconut shell. A third length of braided cord is wrapped around the lacing just above the counter-hoop to increase the tension on the head. Two final lengths of braided cord are tied on opposite sides of the shell to the tension lacing, these serving as a means of tying the pūniu to the performers leg (see below).  The beater for this drum (not shown) would be a braided plant-fiber thong or a flexible stick.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The drum is laced to the player's right thigh just above the knee with two lengths of cord so that, when the performer is in a kneeling position, the drumhead is facing upwards and is struck with a beater held in the player’s right hand. This arrangement leaves the left hand free to perform either the pahu or ipu hula. The pūniu will always have a relatively higher pitch than that of the instrument with which it is paired (on the sound clip found on this page the higher-pitched sound is produced on the pūniu, the lower on the pahu drum). The strokes of the pūniu typically are heard between the main beats sounded on the pahu. The chanter usually plays both the pūniu and the pahu/ipu hula while chanting.


The pūniu is not found elsewhere in Polynesia and is therefore believed to be of Hawaiian invention.

Bibliographic Citations

Cambra, Zaneta Ho’oūlu. 1984. “Pūniu.” NGDMI v.3: 159.

Emerson, Nathaniel B. 1909. Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Hiroa, Te Rangi (Peter H. Buck). 1964. Arts and Crafts of Hawaii--IX: Musical Instruments. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press.

Roberts, Helen H. 1967. Ancient Hawaiian Music. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Tatar, Elizabeth. 1979. “Pūniu,” in Kanahele, George S. Hawaiian Music and Musicians. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, pp. 316-317.


Instrument Information


Continent: Oceania

Region: Polynesia

Nation: U.S.A.--Hawaii

Formation: Hawaiian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.11 membranophone--separate vessel drum, the single playing head encloses a body in the form of a vessel that is curvilinear or rectilinear in profile

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: vessel with opening

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with pliant rope hoop

Membrane attachment: framed membrane hoop connected, by lacing or tension rods, to counterhoop encircling shell

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking with one handheld beater

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


4.7 in. height 4 in. width of rim 5 in. greatest width of shell

Primary Materials

shell - coconut
membrane - fish skin
bark cloth

Entry Author

Roger Vetter