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Vol. 14, no. 5
October/November 2011


The Poet of Waipi'o 

Story by Roland Gilmore

Photos by Boone Morrison  


It was 1904
when Sam Li‘a sat down to do his friend a favor. Li‘a was 23, a charismatic, well-educated young man who had recently returned to his ancestral home in the Big Island’s Waipi‘o Valley after a four-year stint up the coast in Hilo. Now his friend Joe Perez, a former classmate at Lahainaluna School on Maui, needed help. He was about to be married and was having some pilikia (problems) with his future in-laws.


Like Sam, Joe had returned to Waipi‘o not long before; in anticipation of his Christmas wedding, he had fixed up his home—painted it, bought new furniture. But he had done too good a job; the house was so nice that neighbors said he was putting on airs. Some were apparently envious, and it was causing tension in particular with his future brother-in-law. So Joe asked Sam for a song.


Sam was an accomplished musician, particularly on the waiolina—the fiddle— an instrument that was already well established in Hawaiian music of the day. But this would be his first song, and it was a tall order: It had to both heal a rift in the community and honor a union. He began by talking about the place they shared: “Kaulana ku‘u home puni Waipi‘o/me na pe‘a nani o ka ‘aina,” went the first two lines. “Famous is my home at Waipi‘o/and the beautiful borders of the land.”


It was perfect: both a traditional mele pana (place song) and a song of welcome. It celebrates Waipi‘o and invites its residents to celebrate the marriage. It’s at once beautiful and sly, a story in which the speaker first likens himself to King Herod wearing the sun’s rays as his clothing, then deflates this false characterization by calling it the gossip of a “jealous crony” and noting that the speaker—clearly meant to be Joe himself—is just like everyone else, a man of Waipi‘o. Finally it calls for a healing of the breach and closes by welcoming all into Joe’s home.


When Sam and his group performed the song at Joe’s wedding, they got a standing ovation and calls to hana hou. So they played it again, and then again. And Joe’s problem was solved.