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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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Renowned chanter and songwriter James Kaupena Wong at the Bishop Museum.

Photo: Bishop Museum

“From a purely technical standpoint, all three of these Pele dances are in the format of hula olapa, and should have been held over for volume two,” explains Stillman. “But the two volumes would have been unbalanced.” Stillman also notes that while these mele are indeed dedicated to Pele, they are not to be confused with hula Pele, the sacred dances in honor of Pele. “I believe that these are not technically hula Pele because they are all late 19th-century and early 20th-century compositions,” she says. “The mele that are marked as hula Pele in the Bishop Museum and other sources are mele whose texts were incorporated into the epic saga of HiiakaikapolioPele … so I did not want to dishonor the hula Pele by calling those four tracks hula Pele, because they are not.” The fourth and final segment, mele mai, or genital chants, are reproductive chants that were dedicated to the genitalia of the ancient alii. While they predate the mele honoring Pele, they were placed at the end of the album because they are traditionally used at the closing of hula programs.

Kumu hula George Nā‘ope, seated with an ipu (bottle gourd) drum.

Photo: Steve Brinkman

One detail that’s sure to set this project apart is Stillman’s decision to group the chants together, rather than taking the more traditional approach of organizing them by artist. Doing so, she says, “privileges the chant over the chanter,” and gives listeners the opportunity to hear the subtle distinctions between the chanters’ performances. “One thing you would never see on a ‘normal’ album is the same song by different artists right next to each other,” says Maile Loo-Ching, the executive director of the nonprofit Hula Preservation Society.

“However, in this context, it is extremely educational as it is another reminder of aole pau ka ike i ka halau hookahi, or ‘not all knowledge rests in one hālau.’ To hear so readily the different ways the same chant is presented, depending on the hula line (and the island and teachers associated with it) reminds us to honor all hula traditions, even if they are not our own or they do things differently than us, and to be open-minded to the various ways and styles of chanting our sacred stories.”

One of the goals, and challenges, of making this album, says Stillman, was to include the most accurate textual interpretations of these mele, the understanding of which have evolved over the years. “With a project like this, I try to find or develop the best reference version of a mele,” says Stillman. “There are several instances where I ended up with text that doesn’t entirely jive with the performance. That’s not to say that those chanters got it wrong. We have access now to resources … that the performers 50 or 70 years ago did not have access to. It’s very much a statement about the state of knowledge about mele at any given time.”

One example of how interpretations can change over time is the mele mai “Punana Ka Manu,” performed by George Naope. In the album’s liner notes, Stillman mentions that Mary Kawena Pukui, a noted Hawaiian scholar, wrote in the 1936 lecture, “Ancient Hulas of Kauai,” that the recitation of vowels at the end of "Punana Ka Manu" represented the excitement felt by Hawaiians learning to read. However, Stillman also highlights a modern interpretation written by Kihei de Silva, a Hawaiian culture and language expert and songwriter, that alludes to the fact that the mele has a more tongue-in-cheek political subtext. The mele, de Silva writes, “concludes with a humorous poke at the very Westerners who tried to shame the genre out of existence. In the hands of this mele mai, the innocent, missionary-style, classroom recitation of vowels becomes an increasingly passionate recitation of sighs, beginning with a very interested ‘ah’ and ending with a thoroughly satisfied ‘ooh.’”

“I really think it’s important to get people away from thinking, ‘Who is wrong and who is right?’ That’s not the question that needs to be asked,” says Stillman. “The question that needs to be asked is, ‘What did these people know about these mele at the time they worked with them?’ It’s another way of saying I hope that people will be able to appreciate hearing those voices, regardless of whether those voices achieved the level of authoritativeness as it is defined in the present.”

Indeed, the voices of these “teachers of teachers,” as Stillman puts it, are the centerpieces of this album. Among the tracks, “Hole Waimea,” a mele that dates back to the 1820s, and is performed by the late hula master, Lokalia Montgomery, is a highlight. “Lokalia had a very intricate style of doing the ornamentation when she played the ipu,” says Stillman. “It’s incredibly beautiful, and so clear.” Another outstanding performance is George Naope’s rendition of “Kaulilua i ke anu Waialeale,” an ancient hula pahu that has become a foundation of modern hula practice. “These recordings represent another dimension of someone who is so well known,” says Stillman. “They’re a part of him that had almost gotten lost.”

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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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