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Gourds and Ipus

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History and Use of Gourds
Gourds and Ipus
Photo Used With the Permission of Anne Blankenship

Gourds are used throughout the world for utilitarian, musical, and spiritual functions. In Polynesia, where the volcanic and coral land lacks clay for pottery and metal for manufacturing, the uses and artistry of the gourd reached an advanced level. This is seen particularly in Hawaii, where gourds of all shapes and sizes were transformed into serving at least 43 separate functions! Many were decorated with precise geometric patterns. Gourds were so highly valued that special care was taken in their planting, cultivation and harvest.

The gourds that were brought to Hawaii through hundreds of years of Polynesian migration were the same Lagenaria Siceraria gourds that occur throughout the temperate regions of the world. Special cultivation procedures may have produced some specimens uniquely qualified for their intended use, and indeed there were some huge gourds used for the storage of food and cloth.

In Hawai'i, gourd drums were used to accompany chanting during festive as well as spiritual occasions. In ancient Hawaii, as handed down through the Hawaiian oral tradition, and as depicted in early explorers' drawings, the main gourd drum was known as the Ipu Hula or Ipu Heke (pronounced EE-poo-HEH-kay), which was made out of two gourds: a larger, longer bottom gourd called the 'Olo (OH-low); and, joined at the neck, a smaller, far shorter gourd called the Heke, which means "top".

Visitors to Hawaii today, upon seeing this drum, often believe it is a single gourd of a variety unique to Hawaii, until they are shown where the two gourds are joined.

With the introduction of foreign disease pests, particularly the fruit fly, gourds growing in Hawaii began to die out. During this decline as gourds became rarer, the Hawaiian drum was adapted from a double gourd drum to a single gourd drum, known as the Ipu (EE-poo), and the variety used was the bottle shape. Today gourds are no longer grown commercially in Hawaii, and most gourds are imported from California.

Next Page > How to Play the Ipu

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