Title: Mele Inoa: Authentic Hawaiian Chants--Pu’uonioni; Kaupena Wong and Pele Pukui. Label: Poki Records. Format: LP. Catalogue#: SP 9003. Track: A/2.

Contextual Associations

The ‘ili’ili is a set of four stones used as a concussion idiophone for the accompaniment of Hawaiian hula. Hula ‘ili’ili is a group of traditional chants (mele) meant to be performed with dance (hula) for which the dancers, typically while in a kneeling position, sound hand-held ‘ili’ili. Hula ‘ili’ili are today typically performed by 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. ‘Ili’ili have also been occasionally used by contemporary Hawaiian music groups because its sound alone can conjure associations with Hawaiian culture.


The roughly flat pebbles in a set of ‘ili'ili are smooth lava stones preferably of the dense pāhoehoe variety that have been naturally-shaped by flowing water to a nearly oval shape and to a size that fits comfortably in the palm of the hand. It is therefore a found instrument rather than a manufactured one. However, sometimes craftsmen will modify the shape of natural pebbles to make them work as a set. The set pictured here is of the natural variety.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Each dancer in a hula ‘ili’ili is outfitted with a set of four pebbles, two for each hand. The end of one of the peddles in each hand is pinched between the lower joints of the thumb and index finger, the other pebble resting over the lower joints of the remaining fingers. When the player flexes her or his hand inwards the motion clashes the two pebbles into one another and results in a dry, indefinite-pitched, and moderately loud sound. The typically straightforward rhythms produced with ‘ili’ili provide a regular temporal framework within which the dancers’ movements and the chanters’ singing are coordinated.


McLean (1999, p. 299) states that instruments equivalent to the ‘ili’ili are not found elsewhere in Polynesia. This would suggest that it is of Hawaiian invention rather than being an object or idea brought to Hawaii by ancient Polynesian settlers.

Bibliographic Citations

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.

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. “’Ili’ili,” in Kanahele, George S. Hawaiian Music and Musicians. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, p. 164.


Instrument Information


Continent: Oceania

Region: Polynesia

Nation: U.S.A.--Hawaii

Formation: Hawaiian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.12 idiophone--concussion plaques or plaque clappers: two or more are struck against each other

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: pinching

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: block - pebble-like

Sound objects per instrument: two sounded collectively

Resonator design: no resonator

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: concussing - direct

Sound exciting agent: colliding sonorous objects

Energy input motion by performer: pinching

Pitch of sound produced: indefinite pitch

Sound modification: none


2.4 in. average length 0.7 in. average thickness

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter