Also:       kala’au      ka la’au      laau      

Title: Mele Inoa: Authentic Hawaiian Chants--‘O Kona Kai ‘Opua; Kaupena Wong and Pele Pukui. Label: Poki Records. Format: LP. Catalogue#: SP 9003. Track: B/2.

Contextual Associations

The kāla’au is a concussion-sticks idiophone used for the accompaniment of Hawaiian hula. Hula kāla’au is a group of traditional chants (mele) meant to be performed with dance (hula) for which both the dancers, standing or in a kneeling position, and the chanters sound hand-held kāla’au. Hula kāla’au date back to pre-European contact Hawaii and are known to have been particularly popular in the early 1800s, prior to the arrival of American missionaries and the dramatic changes to Hawaiian lifeways they initiated. Today hula kāla’au are 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. Kāla’au have also been occasionally used by contemporary Hawaiian music groups because its sound alone can conjure associations with Hawaiian culture.


This pair of kāla’au is constructed from machine turned rods/dowels of hardwood, possibly coffee wood. They are of identical length and diameter and finished with a varnish.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The kāla’au player holds one end of a stick in each hand and strikes the other end of one against the other to produce a dry, indefinite-pitched, and moderately loud sound. The typically straightforward rhythms produced with the kāla’au provide a regular temporal framework within which the dancers’ movements and the chanters’ singing are coordinated.


It is unclear if the kāla’au originated in Hawaii or elsewhere in Polynesia. Prior to around 1870 the kāla’au consisted of an unmatched pair of sticks, one up to three feet in length and the other a little under one foot, that involved a different playing technique. While this kind of kāla’au is still in use, it is more common today to run across the matched pair of short kāla’au, which started to be used around the 1870s. 

Bibliographic Citations

Cabra, Zaneta Ho’oūlu. 1984. “Kālā’au.” NGDMI v.2: 349.

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. “Kāla’au,” in Kanahele, George S. Hawaiian Music and Musicians. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, pp. 199-200.


Instrument Information


Continent: Oceania

Region: Polynesia

Nation: U.S.A.--Hawaii

Formation: Hawaiian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.11 idiophone--concussion sticks or stick clappers: two or more are struck against each other

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: clapping

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: rod

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: clapping

Pitch of sound produced: indefinite pitch

Sound modification: none


9 in. length 0.75 in. diameter

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter