story by Paul Wood
photos by Monte Costa
It was at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua’s annual Celebration of the Arts that I first saw John “Keoni” Aweau Turalde. A handsome, muscular man who looks younger than his 50-ish age, he comes to Maui every year to demonstrate the traditional craft of kalai pahu, drum carving. His displays show photographs of his other work—carving wa‘a (canoes) and running a Hawaiian cultural learning center in Hilo, where he hosts workshops and high school programs.
Carving a pahu drum is hard, hard work, especially the way Keoni goes at it, using the simplest of hand tools—a few chisels and gouges, some sandpaper. A large ceremonial pahu will stand chest-high, worked from a single length of mature coconut tree trunk and perforated in intricate designs. Considering the challenge of the entire process—from first locating and harvesting the coconut trunks to finally making and lashing a suitable sharkskin drumhead—it all looks pretty discouraging even for an able-bodied man, let alone one who lost the ability to stand and walk at age 26.