Issue 10.6: December 2006/January 2007

Healing Drum

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.


There were two of these tall drums standing in the back of Keoni’s white Tacoma pickup, right next to his folded-up wheelchair, when I stopped by his Lihikai Hawaiian Cultural Learning Center in Hilo to visit. Partially wrapped in cardboard padding, the drums bore scalloped fish-scale patterns carved into honey-warm coconut wood naturally speckled with black spots. The property the center sits on, leafy and warm, is just inland from Onekahakaha Beach Park in Hilo. When I arrived, the air was full of the roar of Keoni’s Cat excavator—he’d rented it for just a week, and he was using it every day from dawn ’til 9 at night. When he saw me and shut down the machine, climbing out of the cab with the aid of two canes, silence filled the air. There was almost no one else around.

We sat at a picnic table in the shade. He talked about how he’d managed to lease this 5-plus acres from the county through sheer persistence. (“I was a pain in the ‘okole.”) The County Council looked at him—a man in a wheelchair—and asked if he was sure he could handle the property. “I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m a person that can both talk and do.’” The next day he began clearing the land and removing piles of trash. In five years, he has built two huge, open-air pavilions (his goal is to have four) and has planted the place with native flora.

He pointed to a fishpond adjacent. “I was raised like this, in Ka‘alaea in Ko‘olau Poko, O‘ahu. My grandfather had choke land, ocean to mountain, given in Mahele days. He lost it to pay taxes.

“We’re a fishing family. Aweau and Kukahiko. My great-great-grandparents named Pakele. My grandparents had twenty-six kids. The ocean was our icebox from baby time. Our main meat was turtle, one a week, the only meat we had those days. As we got older, we stick to the ocean no matter where we go.”

In his youth he was an award-winning paddler and a commercial diver; later, of necessity, he got into what he calls “crafts.” But I can tell by the way he talks that this land, and the work being done here, means more to him than anything else.

“No electric involved. It’s a very spiritual thing going on here—making something Hawaiian. You can’t revive the culture unless you work with your hands.”


The pahu drum provides the pulse of Hawaiian culture. Its beat plugs the modern imagination into the soundscape of the pre-contact Islands. Built in the old way, it is hewn with persistence and simple tools, gouged with motifs such as fish-scale, hammerhead shark, octopus, breadfruit, and then topped with the skin of a shark.

“I’ll tell you how I started making drums,” Keoni said. After he got into doing crafts, he moved to Hilo and started setting up stations in the beach parks, making different artifacts. “One year, under a hala tree, only me alone working in back of a truck, a spirit came talk to me. A wahine. She touch me here, I felt this.” He put his hand against his own chest, then fell back, as though his own fingertips had given him a punch. “She said, ‘Make Hawaiian drums, boy. You one Hawaiian!’ I looked around. Woah! I saw nobody.

So I said, ‘Can I just finish this project here first?’” He laughed.

“Next day, I was on it. I went bought one chisel, and I found guava for a mallet.”

He drove all over the Big Island, from Hilo to Ka‘u, looking for dead coconut trees that had been curing a long time. He asked landowners’ permission, then returned with his friends and a chain saw and cut the trunks into lengths.

“Coconut trees have to dry six months to a year before I can start work. Take skin, shave ’em. Start from the top, go that deep, then widen them up.” He learned from hard experience. “I make sure the wood is 30 years old at least, so the fibers are mature. If 20, the inside just breaks up, turns to mush. If too much spike marks [from tree-trimmers’ gear], I no like.”

Each of the drums in Keoni’s truck has a Hawaiian name, an identity he discovered while carving. These big “temple drums” would have been used traditionally for heiau ceremonies. Most of the drums Keoni makes are shorter—a foot-and-a-half to 2 feet tall—and are commissioned by hula halau for use in dance performances; the ho‘opa‘a, or chanter, sits at the drum and strikes the skin with fingers and palms, establishing the heartbeat tempo for kahiko, or ancient-style hula.

What distinguishes a Hawaiian drum from all others and makes it more difficult to carve is that each includes an inner bowl or seal that forms a resonating chamber under the skin. “Everybody else digs them right through,” said Keoni. “Only the Hawaiians have a chamber.” After the carving, he has to prepare a skin and then lash it properly to the drum. Lashing alone can take several days. As I rub my fingers over the thick, golden wood shaped into fish-scale waves, I marvel at the ancient Hawaiians who accomplished this work with nothing but chipped stones and blocks of coral. Then I look at Keoni, whose files and chisels are only slightly more efficient, and marvel at the sheer tenacity of a man who pulled himself back from a hellish case of “the bends.”

Getting bent is like taking a bullet—one blow that changes your life. The bends, a.k.a. decompression sickness, occurs when the pressure on your body shifts too swiftly; it’s like popping open a soda. Carbon dioxide collects into bubbles that travel through the bloodstream, killing nerves. If you exert yourself strenuously while going through a change of pressure, that’s like shaking the soda can before you pop it. More bubbles.

Keoni was 26 and gung-ho that day, got up early to play six games of racquetball, then accepted an invitation to go diving for lobster off Rabbit Island at the southwest tip of O‘ahu. He caught a lot of lobster that day, 200 pounds, in three drops at a depth of 180 feet. After surfacing, he had to tread water for half an hour. “That’s how I got it, treading water on the surface. By the time they got to me, I gave them my spear, my tank, and I felt my body lost energy. Got on boat, drank a lot of water. My whole body started to cave in, come tight. Couldn’t breathe. My whole body on fire, like needles scratching my bones. My right leg came paralyzed. Oh no. Lying down. My mind: Let it go, let everything go, just breathe, whatever, can breathe. Then I started to barf.”

It took hours to get him into a decompression chamber at Kewalo Basin. Then, as they brought him back to surface pressure after six hours in the chamber, he felt a bubble pop in his spine, and he lost control of everything but his left arm and hand.

“For fifteen seconds, I was bum out. Then I told myself, you know what? It happened. I’m going to fight my way back. Akua [God], with your power and my mind—and my left hand. It’s gonna take everything I got.”

He spent a month in an oxygen tank at Queen’s Hospital, then began a long process of rehabilitation. Right from the start, he invented a physical therapy regime for himself, using a racquetball can and shoelaces as a pulley device so that he could use his good arm to raise and lower his unresponsive body parts. “Each leg, each toe, using my mind to wake up my muscles, every fifteen minutes, days and nights. The nurse used to say, ‘Sleep, John!’ but I kept going. For three months in Queen’s, did this every day until finally my big toe could move. I said, ‘Party!’ Then the next toe went down.” The day he was released from rehab, his buddies took him to Waimanalo Beach. “I crawled on the sand. Crawled half a mile, like a turtle.”

Today he paddles canoe, dives and swims competitively. He has recovered enough leg-power to operate vehicles. He has fathered three sons and is now a granddad. “My attitude has always been, ‘Just move forward; there are things to do, things to take care of’—and that’s what I did.”

I mua! HH