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KS Cultural Specialist and Kaʻiwakīloumoku carver Kumulaʻau Sing KSK’89 Kumulāʻau Sing and master drum carver ‘Etua Turoa Tahauri dedicate a new pahu at Kahana Valley State Park, where the niu (coconut) wood for the drum originated. Sing worked alongside ‘Etua to create the pahu, named Kahananui, for his wife Haunani Balino-Sing.

Pahu hula: A resounding legacy

May. 11, 2021

  • Hoʻokahua Cultural Vibrancy Group

As we move seasons where hula is a focus of both celebration and competition, we think about the many elements that are important to this artform. In this Kūkahekahe Cultural Conversations story, KS Cultural Specialist and Kaʻiwakīloumoku carver Kumulaʻau Sing KSK’89 reflects on the contributions of master carver ʻEtua Turoa Tahauri, who is renowned for his pahu hula (dance drums).

The voice of a pahu (drum) can resound in a deep boom or light tap from the kumu hula. The pahu is considered by many to be one of the most important in hula, as it both accompanies and guides dancers. According to some traditions, ʻŌpuku and Hāwea were the first drums in Hawaiʻi and were brought here from Tahiti by Laʻamaikahiki. This Tahitian chief also brought new forms of hula which were accompanied by the pahu, both of which spread throughout our islands and into our traditions. 

This ancient connection between Hawaiʻi and Tahiti through pahu is reflected in the life’s work of 78-year old carver Edward Turoa Tahauri. A native Tahitian from the island of Takaroa, Tuamotu, who now lives in Hauʻula, “‘Etua” is a master in the art of making pahu hula.

A humble and soft-spoken man, ‘Etua discovered his love of carving while attending Liahona High School in Tonga. In addition to learning to carve, he learned to lash Polynesian huts and create Polynesian artwork and instruments including coconut ʻukuleles and guitars.

‘Etua came to Hawaiʻi in 1964 to attend Church College Hawaiʻi, known today as Brigham Young University in Lāʻie. He studied art and performed at the Polynesian Cultural Center. One of his teachers was the kumu hula Sally Moanikealaonapuanakamahina Wood Naluai. He spent many hours studying about traditional Hawaiian and Tahitian instruments.

In 1975, ‘Etua opened a shop called Hawaiʻi Polynesian Cultural Supply in Lāʻie, where he sold pahu and other instruments to practitioners. Through this shop and over a period of seventeen years, ‘Etua met kumu hula from across Hawaiʻi, providing pahu to many kumu hula who then used his drums with their hālau; thousands of people have heard and danced to the voices of ‘Etua’s pahu. Indeed, it was renown kumu hula Henry Pa who helped to influence ‘Etua’s pahu-making.

Over the years, ‘Etua has made pahu in Hawaiian and Tahitian styles from our native and island hardwoods like koa, kamani, kou, milo and niu. His prized pahu are now associated with winning hālau and a legacy of achievement that have been heard for more than 35 years on the grand stages of the Merrie Monarch Festival, ʻOnipaʻa Keiki Hula Competition, Iā ʻOe E Ka Lā, E Hula Mau in California, as well as in major hula events around the world, including those in Mexico and Japan.

‘Etua’s pahu are considered to be museum-quality, and his work has spanned five decades, representing hundreds of thousands of hours dedicated to honing his skills. In the book “Nā Mea Makamae: Hawaiian Treasures” (Palapala Press, 1999), ‘Etua is recognized as a master craftsman. Aside from making hula pahu, he is also a master in carving toere (log drums) and Tahitian drums, an expert in Tahitian dance and has served as a judge in many Tahitian competitions.

Spirituality plays an important role in the creation of these sacred drums. For example, ‘Etua received an inspiring dream encouraging his work many years ago from Kamehameha I and has worked to fulfill that vision daily. For ‘Etua, creating pahu has a meaning that goes deeper and beyond the finished piece.

“The pahu is a mouth piece to communicate with the ancestors, past and present....The sounds created when you paʻi the drum resonates like ripples in the water,” he said. ‘Etua likens his drums to a little pebble that is tossed in the ocean; each ripple is a beat, or paʻi of the drum. Each splash of the pebble turns into a ripple; each ripple turns into a growing wave – a message of peace and aloha around the world. 

In 2005, ‘Etua participated in a prestigious ceremonial protocol at Kamehameha Schools,  bridging Hawaiian and Tahitian cultural ties at our very own institution. To mark the occasion, ‘Etua presented a special 55-inch-tall pahu that he carved to resemble Kamehameha I’s temple drum. He named this massive pahu “Ka-Pa-Pono-Ke-Aliʻi” to honor Kamehameha I, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and Kamehameha Schools. This drum is still part of our collections at the Kaʻiwakīloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center.

Although ‘Etua has slowed down his production of pahu, he continues to shape their creation in Hawaiʻi. I have been visiting with ‘Etua over the past 20 years, hoping one day that I would be able to purchase one of his beautiful pahu for my wife, Haunani Balino-Sing.

In November of 2020, I dropped by his house and learned that he had a stump of kumu niu (coconut tree) that was available for this project. This stump was from a tree that was planted and nurtured in 1899 at Kahana by my wife’s great-great grandfather, David Pākē Kāʻanaʻana. Although I had initially hoped to purchase a drum, ‘Etua generously allowed me to learn from him by working alongside him on this pahu.

Under his mentoring, we spent the past three months hewing the pahu, carving the design on the base and preparing the cow rawhide skin. We used ʻaha (coconut sennit) for its lashing. Together, we dedicated the pahu on Friday, April 2, 2021 at Kahana Valley State Park, which was the site of the pahu’s tree origin. The drum is named Kahananui.

Like Laʻamaikahiki, ‘Etua has made indelible contributions in Hawaiʻi by keeping the sacred artforms of pahu-making and the attendant practices alive and well. It is in that same tradition that I hope to continue this important work, and it is now a kuleana of mine to continue making and passing on the tradition of carving pahu hula.

‘Etua at his house in Hauʻula, Oʻahu, with the pahu Kahananui, as well as smaller a pahu being refurbished.

Sing and ‘Etua work on some of the final elements of the pahu.

ho'okahua, kūkahekahe, cultural conversations, tahiti, pahu hula, hawaiian culture

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