Ancient Hula Hawaiian Style

Nearly a dozen vintage recordings of mele (songs or chants) for ancient hula have been resurrected, remastered and compiled on a new album, Ancient Hula Hawaiian Style, Volume 1: Hula Kuahu.


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Hula master Rosalie Lokalia Lovelle Montgomery (first woman from right) stands with other lei-decked passengers at a ship dock.

Photo: Bishop Museum

It had a long journey,” says Dr. Amy Kuuleialoha Stillman, the producer of Ancient Hula Hawaiian Style, Volume 1: Hula Kuahu, a labor of love that took nearly 12 years to come to fruition. Stillman, an authority on Hawaiian music historiography, worked on the album and wrote the liner notes in her spare time, while teaching American studies, ethnomusicology and hula at the University of Michigan. She also co-produced and co-wrote the Grammy Award-winning album, Ikena, and its Grammy-nominated follow-up, He Nani, both of which were performed by singer Tia Carrere and singer/songwriter and co-producer Daniel Ho. This fall, she returns to Hawaii to assume the role of Dai Ho Chun Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she’ll teach an undergraduate course on Hawaiian music and a graduate-level research seminar focused entirely on Hawaiian music historiography—the first time in the university’s history that it has offered a graduate-level seminar on the subject.

Ancient Hula Hawaiian Style began to take shape in the early 1990s, when Stillman was corresponding with Michael Cord, owner of Cord International/Hana Ola Records. “I said it would be great to have an edition devoted to the chant material,” says Stillman. “[Cord] immediately wrote back and said, ‘Give me a call, let’s talk.’ It was very much on his radar. He simply needed someone who knew the tracks and the performers.”


Dr. Amy Kuuleialoha Stillman is a renowned authority on Hawaiian music historiography and will be teaching at UH this school year.

Photo: Matt Mallams

For 30-plus years, Hana Ola Records has been in the business of producing out-of-print, Territorial-era Hawaiian music recordings. The company’s catalog includes approximately 152 albums of everything from classic Hawaiian slack key guitar to Japanese Big Band albums recorded after World War II. And yet the company had never produced an album of historic chants. “[Hana Ola has] so much hapa-haole material,” says Cord. “I never realized that we had amazing traditional material until Amy brought it to life.”

Many of these chants were sitting, perfectly preserved, in Cord’s record room, a temperature-controlled, vintage-Hawaiian-music time capsule of sorts that contains about 5,000 records. “Despite the extensive catalog [Cord] has and all the things we’ve done over the last 25 years, the material on this album is something we couldn’t address,” says Harry B. Soria Jr., one of Cord’s frequent collaborators and producers and the host of the 31-year-old Territorial Airwaves syndicated radio show. “First of all, I’m not qualified to do hula and chant. Second, we had always wondered about the marketability. Twenty years ago, we may not have considered doing this [album]. But with a generation of formal education in the Hawaiian language, this [type of project] became more of a realization, as traditional Hawaiian recordings are more and more sought after.”

Stillman began by sifting through recordings from 49th State Records (Cord licensed the rights to 49th State’s catalog in 1991), a recording company that opened up shop prior to statehood and produced hundreds of 78 rpm records during its heyday. Stillman identified the tracks she knew to be chants, and then expanded her search to include tracks from the historic Hawaiian Transcription, Bell and Waikiki record companies. “I just happened to have the licensing rights for some of the material, and the rest I got from other labels,” says Cord. In the end, Stillman had enough material to fill two albums—the current volume, Hula Kuahu, and a second, Hula Olapa, which is slated for release in about a year.


A chanter and hula dancers, circa 1880.

Photo: Paradise of the Pacific

Dating back to the early 1800s and recorded between 1930 and 1960, the mele featured in this first volume are known as hula kuahu, or altar hula. “This term, hula kuahu, refers to those hula that were transmitted in the presence of a kuahu (altar), during that era when the kuahu altar rituals were observed,” says Stillman. The mele on the album are divided into four sections: The first group, hula pahu, is one of the oldest, most sacred forms of hula, and is performed with the sharkskin-covered pahu drum. The second, hula alaapapa, is accompanied by the ipu (bottle gourd). “The earlier hula alaapapa and hula pahu consisted of repertoire created under the indigenous (pre-Christian) system surrounded by ritual kapu,” says Stillman. “The later 19th-century hula olapa came into being after the acceptance of Christianity, so the hula olapa was not sacred, from the time of the kuahu, in the same way that hula alaapapa and hula pahu were.”

The third section, mele honoring Pele, is the album’s only deviation from the strict definition of hula kuahu. These Kalakaua-era mele follow the standard, two-line-stanza structure of hula olapa.

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