In the modern day, the conch is a commercial symbol of Hawaii and is featured in various pop culture scenes, such as the children’s show “Spongebob SquarePants.” However, this whimsical shell holds both historical and religious significance to Native Hawaiians and continues to represent a vital aspect of the continuation of their traditions.
The history of the pu dates back to prehistoric times and was shrouded in supernatural glory. It is believed that a group of biologically small native Hawaiians known as the Menehune of Waolani in the beautiful Nu’uanu Valley right here in O’ahu were controlled by Chief Kiha using his mighty conch. The royal conch was stolen from the Chief and legend goes that the Menehune blew the conch so insistently at night that a thief from the chiefdom stole the shell back, but chipped it on his way back.
The conch was initially used to signify the beginning of the new year known as Makahiki in which a royal entity known as Ali’i or ‘royalty’ arrived on Earth. The ceremony dictated that the shell must be blown in the four cardinal directions, North, South, East, and West to represent the coagulation of the powers of the na Akua or gods. But further than this, the pu represented practical communication uses. When blown correctly, a conch may be heard from miles away and was useful for those in the sea to communicate with their brothers and sisters on land.
Technique is very important when using a pu or conch. Volume and pitch are controlled mostly by the user’s lips and hands rather than the force with which he or she blows. Traditional technique suggests holding your lips slightly apart while humming to create a “raspberry”-like sound. The hand can then be used to affect pitch and volume in the opening of the shell.
Today, the shell is used for many of the same ceremonies you may play traditional music for, such as weddings, baptisms, or funerals. There are many festivals around O’ahu today that emphasize the conch and its importance to Hawaiian culture. Be sure to visit the websites below to find a local O’ahu event to see the modern day pu in use.