by Betty Fullard-Leo
Nani Lim playing an ipu
heke (gourd drum) and chanting on the Big Island
At the time that turned the heat of the earth,
At the time when the heavens turned and changed,
At the time when the light of the sun was subdued
To cause night to break forth,
At the time of the night of Makali'i (winter)
Then began the slime which established the earth.
The source of deepest darkness.
Of the depth of darkness, of the depth of darkness,
Of the darkness of the sun, in the depth of night,
It is night,
So was night born.
(From the Kumulipo)
In 1897, the dethroned Queen Liliu'okalani translated
the Kumulipo, an ancient Hawaiian creation chant, from
a Hawaiian text published by her brother King Kalakaua
in 1889. The preface to her slim volume, written by
Kimo Campbell, considers ulterior motives the two monarchs
might have had for their interest in the Kumulipo. King
Kalakaua was elected to his office and may have wanted
to provide a more substantial and dignified presence
by using this genealogy chant to establish himself as
a descendant of the ancient chiefs of Hawai'i.
Liliu'okalani, the author postulates, published the
manuscript both for her personal satisfaction and to
refute a popular pro-annexation argument that Hawaiians
were ignorant savages who had no culture prior to the
arrival of Captain Cook.
The complexity of the chants of ancient Hawai'i reveals
a race of quick-witted people, poetic and finely attuned
to nature in their imagery, themes and kaona (hidden
or double meanings). The Kumulipo, a genealogy chant,
is only one of many kinds of lyrical chants composed
by the ancients.
Chants fall into two broad categories, mele oli and
mele hula. In pre-contact Hawai'i, mele was the word
for "poetic language;" it has since evolved
to mean song. In early Hawai'i, there was no melodic
singing such as Westerners were accustomed to. Special
bards, or haku mele, spent years learning to compose,
recite and teach others to perform the ancient chants.
Chanters began training as children. One popular training
competition involved two youngsters lying chest down
facing the sun beside a placid pool of water. Each inhaled,
the slowly whispered, "na'u-u-u-u," while
a third judged who could sustain the hum the longest
by watching the rippling water. Breath control came
from the chest, and training sessions could go on for
hours with a student imitating the sound of breaking
waves or the roar of a waterfall.
Mele oli are chants unaccompanied by any instrument
that are generally performed by one individual; while
mele hula are chants accompanied by dance or by dance
and musical instruments. Mele hula are often performed
by more than one person.
University of Hawai'i
associate professor, Doctor Kalena Silva, pictured
above, gives Hawaiian chanting workshops at the
Mauna Kea beach hotel on the Kohala Coast.
According to Big Island chanter and University of Hawai'i
associate professor Doctor Kalena Silva, "Within
these categories are dozens of kinds of chants, formal
and informal for specific occasions: mele pule or prayer
chants; mele inoa, an individual's name chant; mele
koihonua, which recounts a person's genealogy; mele
he'e nalu, a surfing chant. There were chants of angst,
chants to grumble or praise, chants of affection, chants
to make a request of someone..."
Rules governed the styles of performance and are still
matched to the purpose and meaning of various chants
today. Says Doctor Silva, "The kepakepa style was
commonly heard. It sounds like speech-rapid, rhythmic
recitation-and can be used for anything from game chants
to prayer chants." Love chants are suited to ho'aeae
phrases, which are soft and short with drawn-out vowels.
Wailing or lamenting chants called ho'ouweuwe are rendered
in a heavier voice with the vowels protracted. A koihonua
style with words pronounced distinctly suits genealogical
The power (mana) of a chant, lies in its hidden meanings,
or kaona. Hidden meanings, such as rain as a metaphor
for love, could make a chant both a recounting of an
actual event within a family's history, or it could
tell of the love and passion that one person might feel
for another, depending on who heard and understood the
As the missionary influence became stronger in the
Islands and the use of the Hawaiian language was forbidden
in public schools in 1896, the art of chanting diminished.
Fortunately, in the last decade, a renaissance of pride
in the Hawaiian culture and the rebirth of the Hawaiian
language through immersion classes for youngsters have
brought about a revival of chanting. Unfortunately,
many of the old chants have already been lost forever.
Doctor Silva has given introductory chanting workshops
at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel for the annual ho'olaulea (celebration)
staged during the Memorial Day weekend and for other
special events, and he teaches the art to students enrolled
in the Hawaiian studies program at UH-Hilo, where he
serves as chairman of the department. For dedicated
students, teachers are at last coming forward, and as
language skills improve, people are once again appreciative
of this higher form of the Hawaiian language.
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