Drum Traditions that Span the Pacific

By Alan D. McNarie


  The two men who command the room are almost physical opposites. Chuck Grey Wolf is a big, husky man, with the deep, polished voice and presence of a professional actor. Keoni Turalde speaks almost shyly, in rich Pidgen; he is thin, almost emaciated, but with strong, wiry arms that compensate for his crippled legs. But these two very different two men have been brought together tonight by what they have in common: the love of the drum.

  Grey Wolf and Turalde had met only the night before, at a hula performance. That meeting had inspired this joint drum-making class at the "Kea'au Castle," a rambling, plantation-era residence that serves as both a private home and an informal cultural center. A dozen or so guests, mostly white, have gathered to hear the native American and the native Hawaiian discuss their crafts, as well as the deeper world views that those crafts form an integral part of.

  Turalde leads off. He's brought along two examples of his craft. One is huge, carved from the base of a coconut tree. It's a temple drum, designed to be played standing up. Though carved from a single piece of wood, the drum body has two distinct parts: the deep, kettle-drum-like pahu, or resonating chamber, and the hollow base carved in a pattern of sturdy but intricate scallops. "This is a fish scale design, kind of an ancient design--goes back to the 1700s," he tells the audience. "This drum--its name is Kaneloa."

  The second drum is smaller, designed for hula, with its base carved in a traditional triangle-diamond pattern that represents the earth. It's not finished yet. Inside its headless pahu, Turalde has stowed the simple hand tools that he's used to shape it. He pulls them out: chisels, files, and a round wooden mallet made from kauila, an extremely hard native wood.

  Turalde won't actually be building a drum tonight. The shaping of the body, the hand-rolling of the coconut-sennit cords and the stretching of the cowhide or sharkskin drumhead usually take him as much as a week to accomplish.

  But the actual genesis of the drum takes much longer than that. The sennit bindings for the drumhead begin their transformation when coconut husks are placed in burlap bags and immersed in water for a year. Afterward, the finer fibers in the husks are separated from the coarser ones, then hand-rolled into cordage. The lashings for a single drumhead require 40 to 80 feet of sennit cord.

  The coconut log also has to cure for eight months to a year before carving begins. But its history goes back even further: the drum is only the final step in a long story of usefulness to man. Turalde points to small indentations in the wood of the smaller drum, made by climbers after coconuts, possibly in the late 1800s.

  "This tree was about 125 years old," he says. All the kupuna, like 84 or 86, they tell me, 'This tree has been here before me.'"

  Turalde only uses trees that have already been cut or have fallen. Sometimes county crews let him know when a tree is to be removed, so he can claim it. He can get 18 to 20 drums from a single tree. "I take the whole tree. I never leave nothing but the leaves," he says. Such thorough use is only a matter of respect for such a useful companion.

  "It can give you everything, he says. "Food, implements, ladles, dippers, bowls, water catch, your house, canoes..."

  Turalde has to leave early. But before he does, he presents Grey Wolf with gifts: sea salt, and a shell pendant. Grey Wolf presents Turalde with gifts in turn, including sweet grass and aromatic herbs. Then, on impulse, he gives Turalde an even greater gift: a hand drum that Grey Wolf had completed the night before.

  "That drum was just his. I don't know what to say," Grey Wolf says, after Turalde has gone.

  Now it's Grey Wolf's turn. He's going to show workshop participants how to fashion and stretch drumheads on "plains and plateau" style native American drums. He's brought along pre-fashioned cedar hoops to form the bodies of the drums, which resemble Celtic tabors or very large, bangle-less tambourines. A pile of prepared pieces of elk hide lie on the table, waiting to be cut into drumheads and leather thong bindings. But first, GreyWolf has to pray.

  He lights a small pile of aromatic herbs inside an abalone shell, and asks all the participants to face east. Then he goes to each participant and blesses them. For Grey Wolf, as for Turalde, making a drum isn't a mere job; it's a spiritual affirmation.

  "If you want to cry, please cry," he tells his students. "If you want to laugh, please laugh, if you want to say something, please do so, because this is for feelings, this is for the spirit, this is for healing ...You're born with two instruments. The first one is your heart, which is the drum. The second one is your own voice, which is the flute."

  Under Grey Wolf's gentle direction, the participants begin cutting the elk-hide drumheads. The hide is stiff, hard to work, and a little unpredictable. Unlike the uniform materials from craft stores, each piece of hide has its own personality. Some are marbled with dark bands reminiscent of a line of hills or of ocean waves; others almost uniformly bone-white. Some are softer, some more brittle. Some have almost translucent patches--which ironically are often harder than surrounding hide. The cutters have to stay aware of these changes, or the hide that gets cut may be human.

  There are also reminders that these drumheads were once living creatures. One participant asks Grey Wolf why some of the hides had small holes in them.

  "Bullet holes," Grey Wolf replies.

  But while he teaches drum-making, Grey Wolf is also teaching a different attitude toward the sources of that hide. Like Turalde and the coconut trees, Grey Wolf treats the elk with reverence and gratitude. When you kill an elk, he says, you use all of it, and thank the animal: "You thank him for his bones, which will make knives, make needles make buttons--all kind of utensils..."

  When he makes a drum, he says, "I honor the tree, and the elk or deer.... You take the spirit of the animal which has gone on, and the spirit of the tree which has gone on, and with those spirits and your own, you make a voice."

  Both Grey Wolf and Turalde have come to drum-making via rather extraordinary lives. Born to parents of Hopi, Apache and Maya ancestry, Grey Wolf is probably best known as a former regular on the TV series, "Northern Exposure". As his students work, he regales them with a story about emceeing a concert for Bo Diddly, and luring the legendary blues player back on stage for an encore by giving him a beloved 10-gallon hat.

  Turalde had an even harder road. A former professional diver, he nearly died from an attack of the "bends": an excruciating condition caused when bubbles of gas form in the blood during decompression after a deep dive. Some of the bubbles formed in his spine.

  "The bubbles went pop, and too late already," he recalls, in a phone interview after the workshop. "Couldn't do anything else, because once the bubbles went pop, it went damage my nerves ... I was frustrated. I only had my right arm and my head. I was a patient three years in a hospital. But I worked very hard in there. Just mind over matter. Working my mind with the nerve ends, with the muscles, to function. Using different techniques to work out."

  On his second day in Queen's Hospital after the accident, he asked a nurse to help him rig a makeshift exercise machine by looping one end of a shoelace around his ankle, tying the other end to a pencil, and throwing it over the top of the instrument pole on the bed. Using the pencil as a handle Turalde began pulling his leg up and down. "Each time I worked on my leg, my toes, I was using my mind...to grab that nerve, or to just touch a nerve, for some circulation, find some function."

  It took months before he got one toe to move. "I celebrated!" he remembers. "It made me so happy and made me work harder."

  After years of an exercise regimen that included crawling in sand to build up his muscles, Turalde regained the use of both arms, and can now walk, painfully, with two canes. He still goes swimming and diving, and paddles with the Puna Canoe Club.

  But mostly, he builds drums. He started two years after his injury, after having a vision: "The spirit came to me and it touched me and said, hey, do Hawaiian Drums," he recalls matter-of-factly.

  He has created around 300 pahu drums since then. Often he works 16 hours or more a day on his craft. He teaches workshops, but usually gives the completed drums away. That's part of what he teaches. For him, not just the coconut tree or the shark are resources; so are the art and culture of drum-making.

  "The life of all of this resource...it's out there for people that want to continue on, and keep the life in the art living," he says. "People think they have to buy a resource, but its right there, it's free, just ask the gods, because that's what it's there for."

Copyright ©2001 by The Hawaii Tribune Herald

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Updated September 26, 2001