Creator of double-gourd drums for ancient hula at Merrie Monarch’s craft fair
April 10, 2023, 10:41 AM HST
Sitting on a riding lawn mower, Kalim Smith shows his wife where to tie gourd vines on a red trellis that stands in the middle of their lush green six-acre farm in North Konaʻs Keauhou.
Eventually, the vines will overtake the top of structure, creating a sea of green. As the gourds (ipu) start growing, they will hang down from the top of the trellis, enabling Smith — who is paralyzed from the waist down — to pluck them when they’re ready.
Smith uses the ipu grown at his farm to create ipu heke, double-gourd drums, and ipu heke ‘ole, single-gourd drums. They are traditional instruments used in ancient hula (kahiko).
This week, he and his wife Kahelelani will be at the Merrie Monarch Arts & Crafts Fair behind the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, located on Manono Street, under the tents.
It’s his 15th time. He will demonstrate how to make ipu heke; and he will sell a limited number, about two dozen.
“I’m not trying to mass produce,” Kalim Smith said. “I’m just trying to make connections and just do what I love doing. It’s more of a passion. It’s just me making them too so that’s part of the magic of it. People want something that I made.”
Kalim Smith began building gourd instruments when he was young, starting with rattles used in Native American ceremonies while living in California. As he got older and met his Hawaiian family, he was asked about making ipu heke. He has several properties on the Big and California where he grows ipu.
Since 2017, he’s been living with his wife and 2-year-old daughter at the Keauhou farm, where he also maintains the property.
Kalim Smith said his passion for working with gourds has been passed down or shared with him in various ways through his Native American and Hawaiian families: “In Hawaiian they say it’s more of a kuleana, a responsibility.”
After a spinal cord injury in 2011 left him paralyzed from the waist down, Kalim Smith said he had to figure out a way he could continue to grow gourds without the use of his legs.
“I’m doing the same thing here but I’m wheeling up the mountain instead of running,” he said. “Every day it’s a decision you make. Just getting up, it may be painful but I like having things I need to do.”
Kalim Smith tends to the ipu patch and maintains about 4 to 5 acres of the farm and its crops: kalo, or taro, bananas, avocado, sugar cane, bread fruit and much more. The fruits and vegetables grown on the farm feed his family as well as the families that come to hula.
His wife is a kumu hula (hula teacher) for Hālau Ka‘eaikahelelani. The farm also is a place for hula to be nurtured.
“Hula being here and the ipu being here is a good thing because they go right together,” Kalim Smith said.
The rhythm of the ipu heke provides the beats used to direct dancers in their oli, or chant. Through ancient hula, the genealogy of the Hawaiian people and history is passed down through chant and dance.
“These instruments were used hundreds and hundreds of years ago and we’re using them today,” Kahelelani Smith said. “The sounds I hear, my kūpuna heard. And the reasons they’re using it is for the same reasons I’m using it today. It really is the key to keeping the mana alive for us as kumu hula today.”
Kalim Smith said he usually plants the ipu by the moons.
“Natural cycles motivate me,” he said. “I value things done a certain way and it motivates me to get up in the morning.”
In his wheelchair, Kalim Smith can access the top part of the farm. Since he is unable to use heavy machinery, he cuts things down with a machete and pulls a lot of weeds by hand.
“It takes me a lot longer but I get stuff done,” he said.
He accesses the ipu patch on his riding lawn mower and his wheelchair.
It takes nine months to grow ipu. Once picked off the vine, it is another three months for drying. Within the next couple weeks, Kalim Smith said the vines will start producing gourds. He usually uses rain water to wash the gourds because he lives in the mountains.
“If I grow 20, only a few are really good,” he said.
He grows the Keauhou ipu, the only variety native to the farm. He also has planted other Hawaiian varieties.
To learn how to make the double-gourd drums, Smith began by studying ipu in museums to see what a drum should look like. Now, he uses his “feeling” to select the bottom and top pieces that belong together.
“With the Keauhou gord every ipu is perfect, almost,” Kalim Smith said. “So the idea is to maybe cross pollinate a Keauhou gourd to another native Hawaiian gourd to try and bring in more resistance and resilience to what I’m doing to make a more consistent, solid ipu.”
To create the drum, the inside of the ipu has to be cleaned out, “like opening a pumpkin.” The inside of the gourd is used to mulch the garden. Nothing goes to waste.
“My ipu have a signature look,” he said, pointing toward the opening of the drum where the rim showed a design of small triangles that wrapped the rim of the opening. “It represents the volcanic nature of the land. It’s the jagged lava.”
After the ipu is put together, Kalim will condition it with Kukui nut oil. The oil brings out the darker tones of the gourd.
With no online store, he primarily creates ipu heke specific to the person requesting one. He makes custom ipu drums for kumu hula and musicians. The Merrie Monarch craft fair is the only time he showcases a variety of drums for sale. The cost of the ipu heke can range in price. Sometimes, Smith said, he’ll trade a drum for something like fish.
“It’s not about the money but the mana,” he explained.
Smith tries to follow the story of his different ipu heke: “When someone appreciates it that much, it’s a good feeling to know the ipu is in good hands.”
For many years, Kahelelani Smith participated in the Merrie Monarch as a dancer. The craft fair was never something she thought about.
“As a dancer, our whole focus is what you’re there to present,” she said. “It’s very intense, it’s very spiritual and it’s very guarded and sacred. So everything that happens outside of that, we really don’t even think about.”
It wasn’t until she started helping her husband with the ipu that she got to experience the craft fair, and now understands why it’s so “magical” and brings people together, and it brings artists like her husband out into the public.
“This is really the only time you can see someone like Kalim with his craft and his art,” she said.
“He takes it like a child from its birth all the way to seeing some of them on the Merrie Monarch stage, and that’s really magical,” Kahelelani Smith said.
She loves watching people stop by their booth and get to know the drums they’ve made.
“I get to see that ipu and that person connect,” she said. “To watch people connect with the ipu and have it come alive in their hands is so beautiful.”
Kalim Smith has made ipu for many hālau or provided workshops into how to make an ipu. His ipu are on every island, even Ni‘ihau, the privately-owned Hawaiian island that is a cultural preservation site for native Hawaiians.
The ipu can become an heirloom over time. Drums that are 200 years old are in museums.
“The ipu can live on beyond us,” Kalim Smith said. “So they end up telling our story.”