A Large Seashell Played Like a Trumpet
Pu, a Hawaiian conch shell, is a large seashell played like a ceremonial fanfare trumpet. Made of two kinds of large shells, Triton or Cassis cornuta, it is capable of emitting a loud sound carrying as far as two miles. The volume depends on the style of blowing rather than breath volume capacity.
In ancient times, the pu was sometimes used to accompany chants, and most often used to announce the beginning of a ceremony. There is a story of a group of Menehune, a legendary race of small Hawaiian people, who lived in Waolani in Nuuanu Valley on Oahu. Chief Kiha used a conch shell to control the little gods, as the Menehune were often referred to. The Menehune took the conch shell from him and blew it so much at night that residents began to complain. A thief retrieved the shell for Chief Kiha but chipped it on the way back. This very shell is now on display at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
In 1998, a pu was recovered from King Kamehameha II’s sunken royal yacht in Hanalei on the North Shore of Kauai. The long lost treasure was believed to have been used to herald the arrival of King Liholiho and his royal yacht Haaheo O Hawaii (Pride of Hawaii). The shell had been buried in the sands of Hanalei Bay for 164 years before it was recovered. The pu along with the other recovered artifacts have been conserved by the archaeological team from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku was honored with a conch selling blowing ceremony for his 112th birthday. The Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hawaii Loa arrived at Duke Kahanamoku Beach accompanied by a fleet of 112 surfers and canoes to honor Kahanamoku. As the group came through the channel, the pu announced their arrival, while another pu on-shore responded with a callout to the North, South, East, and West, signifying the gathering of all powers.
Today the pu is used to announce the opening of the Hawaii State Legislature, presentation of the royal court at hula festivals and for traditional ceremonies. The pu is also a popular commencement tool at weddings and luaus, and also have been used to honor royalty and famous people.
The next time you’re waiting for a ceremony or luau to begin, just listen for the call.