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Vol. 15, no. 1
February / March 2012


Becoming Word 

Story by Liza Simon

Photos by Monte Costa 


“Oli is so easy! The words can be tongue-twisting, but you just have to have a passion for it,” says oli scholar Edith McKinzie. Oli has always been a fundamental part of Hawaiian culture, and many leaders in the Hawaiian community, including Vicky Holt Takamine (pictured here at La‘ie Point on O‘ahu), are renowned chanters.

Without warning,
Edith Kawelohea McKinzie’s voice flows gently from English conversation into Hawaiian chant while her palm taps out a rocking tempo on the edge of her kitchen table. The 86-year-old cultural practitioner and educator, who is known for her scholarship in oli (as Hawaiian chant is called in its own language), finishes with a burst of laughter that erupts freely from her diaphragm and ignites her face with glee.


“What was that?” I ask. Based on the many books and papers she has authored, all stacked neatly on sunlit shelves in the adjoining room, I anticipate an erudite analysis. Instead, McKinzie gestures hula style, making shapes of blossoms with her hands as she describes the utterance I have just heard as “a lei chant.” It’s an oli of praise for Queen Kapi‘olani that McKinzie finds most endearing for the way it blends Island imagery with an homage to Western fashions (all the rage in King David Kalakaua’s royal court).


“Did you see the beauty of pearl earrings and actually smell the fragrance of the lei?” she asks. Moved by McKinzie’s ardor, I nod yes. “So that’s how oli is,” she declares. “You can use it to tie so many wonderful things together.”