Hawaiian music is often associated with the ‘ukulele, slack-key guitar, and the steel guitar, which became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century following the introduction of foreign musical instruments. Although these instruments play an important role in contemporary Hawaiian music, the indigenous people of Hawai‘i have a musical tradition that predates the influence of Asian and European culture.
The ancient music of Hawai‘i is intimately linked to hula, a dance whose deep meaning connects Hawaiian people to the land, traditional wisdom, family, and the cycles of life and death. Hula was taught only to select students in a highly ritual process, and trained dancers performed to honor the highest chiefs as well as to entertain the commoners. Ho‘opa‘a, who were often older men and women, accompanied dancers called ‘ōlapa with chant and a variety of instruments.
The origins of these instruments vary. Several early forms may have passed into Hawaiian culture through the multiple migrations from the Marquesas, Tahiti, and possibly other areas of the Pacific. Some instruments have been found only in Hawai‘i and are not similar to designs from other cultures, so they are thought to be unique inventions. Regardless of their origin, they are all testament to the artistic and technical skill of their creators.
This tour will explore the traditional instruments of Hawai‘i through a selection of pieces from the Bishop Museum’s collection. We have included text, pictures, sound, and video for you to explore. Hawaiian words are linked to English translations for your convenience. We hope that this tour serves as a worthy introduction to Hawai‘i’s traditional instruments, and a list of references is provided at the end for further study.