Also:       ipu heke      ipu hula      pā-ipu      ipu wai      hue wai      

Title: Mele Inoa: Authentic Hawaiian Chants--Aia O Pele I Hawai’i; Kaupena Wong and Pele Pukui. Label: Poki Records. Format: LP. Catalogue#: SP 9003. Track: A/3.

Contextual Associations

The ipu is a stamped (and also struck) vessel idiophone used for the accompaniment of Hawaiian hula and comes in single- and double-gourd varieties; the double-gourd ipu pictured and described here (gallery #1) is most accurately called an ipu heke (the gallery #2 image shows a single gourd ipu, or ipu heke ‘ole). A large repertoire of traditional chants (mele) is performed with ipu accompaniment and dance (hula). Hula ipu date back to pre-European contact Hawaii (pre-1770s) and were of great cultural importance in the early 1800s, prior to the arrival of American missionaries and the dramatic changes to Hawaiian lifeways they initiated. Today hula ipu are typically performed by members of hālau hula, traditional dance schools under the guidance of respected carriers of the Hawaiian chant and hula tradition. Such groups perform in competitions and festivals celebrating Hawaiian identity. The ipu has also been used by contemporary Hawaiian music groups because its sound alone can conjure associations with Hawaiian culture.


This ipu heke is made from two gourds (Langenaria siceraria) of different sizes. The larger gourd has an elongated pear-shaped body and a narrow neck that can’t be seen in the photo because the second, smaller gourd, which has had its neck totally removed leaving an approximately 3.5 inch hole, has been inverted and slid over it. The joining of the two gourds is made secure with breadfruit gum, which turns solid when it dries. The top of the large gourd’s neck is cut off so that there is an open channel between the two resonating chambers. A 3-inch hole cut in the bottom of the inverted smaller gourd constitutes a soundhole (see detail #1, taken from the top end of the ipu and showing its soundhole, the enclosed terminus of the bottom gourd, and the pool of breadfruit gum that binds the two gourds together). A braided rope is wrapped around the instrument’s collar.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The ipu player kneels on the ground, passes their right hand through a noose tied in the rope, and grabs the collar of the ipu with their open right hand. Two basic sounds are produced with the instrument: the first, a resonant base tone of indefinite pitch, by stamping the bottom of the ipu against the ground; the second, a crisp, higher indefinite-pitched sound, by slapping with the open palm and/or individual fingers of the left hand the side of the larger gourd. All the strikes are timed so that the rhythms produced on the ipu provide a regular temporal framework for the performers’ movements and for the chanting. Two varieties of hula ipu exist, and which performers play the ipu is different in each. For hula kuolo (seated hulas) the dancers kneel on the floor, play the ipu, and chant. For hula 'ala'apapa (standing hulas) the dancers perform in a standing position while separate performers chant and play the ipu (see detail #3).


Stamping vessels are not found elsewhere in Oceania. This would suggest that the ipu is of Hawaiian invention rather than being an object or idea brought to Hawaii by ancient Polynesian settlers.

Bibliographic Citations

Cambra, Zaneta Ho’oūlu. 1984. “Ipu hula.” NGDMI v.2: 314.

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.

Kanahele, George S. 1979. Hawaiian Music and Musicians. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

McLean, Mervyn. 1999. Weavers of Song: Polynesian Music and Dance. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

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

Tatar, Elizabeth. 1979. “Ipu,” in Kanahele, George S. Hawaiian Music and Musicians. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, pp. 173-176.


Instrument Information


Continent: Oceania

Region: Polynesia

Nation: U.S.A.--Hawaii

Formation: Hawaiian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.246 idiophone--percussion pot: a sonorous hollow pot-like object, with a soundhole

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: stamping

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: hollow spheroid vessel - with opening/s

Sound objects per instrument: one

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: stamping/pounding

Sound exciting agent: collision with non-sonorous object

Energy input motion by performer: stamping

Pitch of sound produced: indefinite pitch

Sound modification: none


19.5 in. length 9 in. greatest width 3 in. diameter (of sound hole)

Primary Materials

adhesive - natural
rope - braided

Entry Author

Roger Vetter