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September 1997

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Chants: Mele Of Antiquity
by Betty Fullard-Leo     

Nani Lim playing an ipu heke (gourd drum) and chanting on the Big Island of Hawaii.

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 chants.

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 chant.

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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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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