Celebrate: Song, Dance, and Story!

Musical Instruments

Musical instruments are an important part of the cultures represented in this learning center.  Although the instruments vary from one culture to the next and are made from vastly different materials, it is evident that in all of these cultures instruments play a significant role in the accompaniment of singing, dancing, and storytelling. Read the following information, review the pictures and videos, and follow links to learn more about instruments from these cultures.

Instruments from the Choctaw People

     One of the oldest traditional instruments that the Choctaw still use is the drum, which today is used primarily at stickball games. The drum which is now used by the Choctaw is modeled after the military drums used by British and American troops in the late eighteenth / nineteenth centuries, and the design has changed very little.

     The body of the drum is wood or sometimes metal. The wood used for this is usually sourwood, black gum or Tupelo gum. These trees are often hollow by the time they reach a suitable size for drums.

     When a likely tree is found, a section of approximately the size of the finished drum is cut from the trunk. The interior of the drum blank is cut to the desired size first, using chisels. Then the outside of the drum body is shaped using chisels and a draw-knife. When the desired thickness for the wall of the drum body is reached (less than 1/2 inch), the drum body is set aside to allow the wood to dry. Often at this stage the drum body will warp out of shape and will have to be discarded. If it survives the drying process, then the rims, head and rope laces are put on the new drum.

     The rims of the drum are made of strips of hickory which are bent into a hoop which will just fit around the drum body. A raw deer hide whose edges are wrapped around a second hickory hoop which is held tight by the rim of the drum forms the head of the drum. The rope laced around the sides of the drum is threaded through holes along the rim and is used to keep the head of the drum tight for playing.

     The final touch in making a drum is to attach the snares which are formed using small pieces of lead attached to a string which is fitted along the bottom of the drum. This gives the Choctaw drum its distinctive sound.

     A steady beat of the drum is heard through the hills announcing a time to assemble for the Choctaw people. Dancers may be gathering, stickball teams competing for community pride or someone may be getting married. The community knows the beat of the drum as the heart of the Choctaw people.

     Another instrument used by the Mississippi Choctaw to accompany their songs is a pair of striking sticks. The sticks traditionally, are not round but slightly flattened on two sides, affording suitable surfaces for striking together. Dance chanters use them to keep time as they sing. In 1933, ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore visited Philadelphia to record the songs of Choctaw chanters. She noted that striking sticks were used by most of the men who sang for her.

     The violin, or fiddle, has also found its way into Choctaw musical traditions. Like many rural southerners, Choctaws turned to the fiddle for entertainment in their isolated homes and communities. Fiddlers playing for house dances are usually accompanied by guitar players who provide a percussive rhythm. Years ago when no guitarist was available, the rhythm was supplied  by someone “beating straws” on the neck of the fiddle as it was being played.

     Aero-phones had become uncommon in the Southeast by the twentieth century, but cane and bone flutes appeared in eighteenth century sources (Swanton 1946:628). A few scholars in the 1900s described flutes, flageolets, and whistles used by Southeast Indians as solo instruments in ritual and social contexts.

     Mississippi Choctaw Medicine Men played vertical cane flutes on the night before a Ball Game and during the game to bring success to the home team players; these flutes, about 12 inches long with a sound hole and two finger

Compliments of the Cultural Affairs Program P.O. BOX 6010 Choctaw MS. 39350 www.choctaw.org

Instruments from the Portuguese People



     The reco-reco is an instrument used to offer rhythm to a music ensemble.   It is made from 3" diameter hollow wood (bamboo or sugar cane) and is usually between 18" and 24" long. It is notched laterally on the outer surface and is scraped by another piece of wood, bamboo or metal to offer a raspy "reco" sound.

     This instrument is used for traditional Portuguese music, since its construction is fairly rudimentary.  If a reco-reco is not available the sound can be copied by playing a washboard, a plastic water bottle or anything else with a corrugated outer surface. The reco-reco used in the Performing Arts Festival is a well-constructed, artistically crafted instrument.

     The reco-reco is based on an instrument first created in Angola, which was a Portuguese colony until 1975.  It is also used in Brazilian music and dance festivals.


Compliments of José Manuel Vinagre and  the New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, MA  

Instruments of the Wampanoag


Water drum


     Instruments of the Wampanoag have varied over time.  Long ago, sticks were used to beat a folded flap of deerskin.  These were some of the first percussion instruments beyond two sticks struck against one another or a rock. The flap of deerskin evolved into the water drums used today by many of the Eastern Woodland tribes.  The water drum can be made in a variety of ways in modern times.  Traditionally, the drum began as a small tree with a base about 4”-6” in diameter.  The tree would be cut into a small block about 6” tall.  The small piece of tree trunk was typically burned out to hollow the inside.  Wet deerskin would be stretched over the top and attached by a ring that would fit firmly around the skin and the circumference of the opening in the top of the hollowed piece of wood.  A small hole would be made in the side of the drum to insert a peg.  The peg could be easily removed once the entire drum was assembled to allow water to be added or taken out. The amount of water, along with the tightness of the deerskin, would offer different pitches and sounds to be achieved for fine-tuning the instrument. 


Compliments of Annawon Weeden and the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA   

Rattles (Wampanoag)


     The Wampanoag sing many songs accompanied by rattles.  Rattles come in many forms.  Some of the most artistic are made from turtle carapaces. Placing a turtle carcass on an ant hill would allow the entire body to be hollowed out. Once the meat was eaten from the carcass, the legs were sewn shut and the neck would be stretched out with a piece of wood embracing the inside.  The carcass was filled with pebbles, pieces of shell and other objects to allow the sound to be made when shaken. 


     Gourds cut open, filled with corn kernels and plugged with corn cobs would also be used as rattles, as would folded pieces of tree bark with various sound making objects inside (pebbles, etc.).  Other rattles are made from the lower portion of a deer leg.  The leg bone is used for a handle. Deer toe bones, and toe nails (hooves) were then attached to the end along with beads and other ornamentation.


Compliments of Annawon Weeden and the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA  


Video: Choctaw, Portuguese, and Wampanoag Instruments

This video highlights intruments used by the Choctaw, Portuguese, and Wampanoag. Information provided in the video addresses culture, construction, and usage.

Instruments from the Hawaiian People


‘Ili‘ili, Ipu, Pu‘ili

     The Hawaiian people are well known for the hula. The traditional dance style is called hula kahiko, hula or dance from ancient times. Hula awana is the hula known by most people.  Hula (native dancing) is often a significant part of Hawaiian celebrations. Oli, Hawaiian chants, are the songs that accompany the hula kahiko. Mele, or songs in general, are accompanied by ancient Hawaiian instruments as well as modern instruments such as the ‘ukulele and guitar. Traditional instruments were made from natural resources found in their environment. ‘Ili‘ili (stone castanets), Ipu (gourd drum), Pu‘ili (split bamboo stick) are some of the instruments used in hula. Following is a description of these Hawaiian instruments:

Hula Instruments



‘ili‘ili- stone castanets (‘ili‘ili—pebble).  Two water-worn pebbles of close grained lava are held in each hand and clicked together to mark the time in a sitting or standing hula. The stones may be found in wet or dry stream beds and along beaches. Very smooth, bubble-free stones that fit the dancer’s hands are preferred.


From Mitchell, Donald D. Kilolani.  Resource Units in Hawaiian Culture.  Rev. ed. Honolulu:  Kamehameha Schools Press.  1992.  Original ed. 1969, p. 48.


Compliments of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii



Hula Instruments, continued




Ipu - gourd hula drum (also ipu hula, ipu heke, pā ipu).  This ipu is sounded by striking it (pa‘i) with the fingers and the palm of the right hand and by thumping (kū) the bottom against the matted floor or a folded piece of kapa.  The ipu [is] one of the most important instruments in marking time and emphasizing rhythm of the chant and the hula.

From Mitchell, Donald D. Kilolani.  Resource Units in Hawaiian Culture.  Rev. ed. Honolulu:  Kamehameha Schools Press.  1992.  Original ed. 1969, pp. 46-47.


Compliments of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii

Hula Instruments, continued



pū‘ili - split bamboo rattle (pū—to sound, ‘ili—bark or skin).  A piece of bamboo some 20 inches long and one and one-half to two inches in diameter is split into narrow strips or strands except for a section of about five inches at one end which serves as a handle.  Bamboo is cut away to leave spaces between the strands.  The player or dancer produces a rustling sound when he taps the pū‘ili against his or his partner’s body, the floor mat, or another pū‘ili.


From Mitchell, Donald D. Kilolani.  Resource Units in Hawaiian Culture.  Rev. ed. 

Honolulu:  Kamehameha Schools Press.  1992.  Original ed. 1969, p. 48.


Compliments of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii 

Instruments from the Iñupiaq People


Qilaun: The Iñupiaq Drum

     Iñupiaq people have danced and drummed for centuries. Early missionaries came to the land of the Iñupiaq and tried to ban “Eskimo” dancing, but the Iñupiaq people kept dancing alive and strong. Even today, the dancing and drumming continues, and is said to be getting stronger. The drumming has been referred to as the heartbeat of the Iñupiaq people.


     Traditional drum frames and sticks are made of drift wood. The covering of the drum can be made of either liver membrane of the bowhead whale or the stomach membrane of a walrus or even the hide of a young caribou. These types of drum coverings are extremely delicate. As the membranes dry, they tighten. Drummers must constantly wet their drums in order to keep them from ripping during a performance. The handle of the drum can be made of walrus tusk ivory, caribou antlers, or a piece of wood.


     Today, the Iñupiaq people also use modern materials to make traditional drums. These materials include light hardwood or hickory to make the drum frame and stick. Even the covering can be made with modern materials such as parachute fabric. Some dance groups still use the traditional liver membrane of the bowhead whale or the hide of a young caribou to cover their drums.


     The drum is beat from the bottom. The stick actually hits the rim of the drum frame. In the first part of the song, the drummer lightly taps the drum frame with his stick. During the second part of the song, the drummer vigorously beats the bottom of the drum causing the stick to bow and hit not only the frame but also the bottom of the drum head. It is struck with such force that it actually makes a sound similar to that of a gun.


     Traditionally, the men sat in a line, many of them being drummers. The lead singer is seated in the middle of this line. Women, whose voices sing in accompaniment with the drumming, sit behind the male drummers. Occasionally, women take over drumming which gives the men a chance to get up and dance.


     Singing, dancing, and drumming bring joy to the Iñupiaq people across the North Slope of Alaska. No matter which village you travel to, you surely can be welcomed with the Iñupiaq drum.


Compliments of the North Slope Borough, Barrow, Alaska

Instruments from the Yup’ik People


Cauyaq: The Yup’ik Drum


     The cauyaq (drum) is an instrument which is traditionally used to make music in the Yup’ik culture. It is a large hoop which is covered traditionally with walrus or seal membrane (gut). Today, many drum coverings are made from ceconite (polyester airplane fabric) and other modern materials, although some communities still use sea mammal membrane.


     The drum is struck on the topside with a small wooden rod. The drumbeats of Yup’ik music are regular and steady, often in a 2/4 meter. There may be one or more drummers at any given time. Drummers will most often sit in a straight line behind the dancers. The lead drummer is usually placed in the middle. This individual is often the song leader as well.


   The drumming is accompanied by singing, performed by both drummers and others sitting alongside and/or behind the drummers. The song leader will usually call out the verses during a performance, and during some songs, actually sings a short verse in solo before the entire group sings. The singing is performed in unison.


Compliments of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage, Alaska  

Video: Hawaiian, Iñupiaq, and Yup'ik Instruments

This video highlights instruments used by the  Hawaiian, Iñupiaq, and Yup'ik. Information provided in the video addresses culture, construction, and usage.