Also:       ‘uli’uli      

Title: Mele Inoa: Authentic Hawaiian Chants--Wahine Holo Lio; Kaupena Wong and Pele Pukui. Label: Poki Records. Format: LP. Catalogue#: SP 9003. Track: A/6.

Contextual Associations

The ‘ulī’ulī is vessel-rattle idiophone used for the accompaniment of Hawaiian hula. Hula ‘ulī’ulī is a group of traditional chants (mele) meant to be performed with dance (hula) for which the dancers, who also chant, each sound a single hand-held ‘ulī’ulī. Hula ‘ulī’ulī date back to pre-European contact Hawaii prior to the arrival of American missionaries and the dramatic changes to Hawaiian lifeways they initiated. Today hula ‘ulī’ulī 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. A modern style of hula using a pair of ‘ulī’ulī is often encountered in commercial settings such as luaus presented at hotels or for tourist shows.


Each of the ‘ulī’ulī in the image on this page is made from a variety of materials, some of which are also seen in the image in their natural state. A calabash fruit shell is used for the vessel (gourd and coconut shell can also be used) and has four holes drilled around where the stem was attached. The natural contents of the calabash must be removed through these holes and replaced with several ali'ipoe (canna, a tropical plant) seeds. Rattan lacing is threaded through the holes in the calabash and wound around a stem probably made of wood and which is topped off with a disc about 4.5 inches in diameter. To this disc is attached the quills of hundreds of rooster feathers. The bottom of the disc is covered with pleated cotton cloth and its top with a circular patch of bark cloth (tapa).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

For traditional hula ‘ulī’ulī one or more kneeling dancers each hold a single ‘ulī’ulī by its handle in their right hand. Each dancer shakes the rattle or strikes it against their left palm or some other part of the body to produce a characteristic sizzling sound of indefinite pitch. All the strikes and shakes are timed so that the sound of the ‘ulī’ulī provides a regular temporal framework for the performers’ movements and chanting. In a modern form of hula ‘ulī’ulī dating from the 20th century the dancers stand and hold an ‘ulī’ulī in each hand.


Vessel rattles are not found elsewhere in Oceania. This would suggest that the ‘ulī’ulī 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. “Ūlī’ulī.” NGDMI v.3: 697-698.

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. “‘Ūlī’ulī,” in Kanahele, George S. Hawaiian Music and Musicians. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, p. 408.


Instrument Information


Continent: Oceania

Region: Polynesia

Nation: U.S.A.--Hawaii

Formation: Hawaiian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

112.13 idiophone--vessel rattles: rattling objects enclosed in a vessel strike against each other or against the walls of the vessel, or usually against both

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: stamping and shaking

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

Sound objects per instrument: one

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - indirect

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - pellet/s, seed/s, bead/s inside closed vessel/s

Energy input motion by performer: stamping and shaking

Pitch of sound produced: indefinite pitch

Sound modification: none


8.7 in. length

Primary Materials

shell - calabash

Entry Author

Roger Vetter