Story by David Choo
Photos by Jyoti Mau
Inside Kamehameha Schools’ orchestra room, high school senior Kaipo Dudoit is conducting his male classmates as they sing “Waipa.” It’s a song about a verdant ahupua‘a on Kaua‘i’s north shore, a complex composition featuring both solo and choral parts: Two soloists begin a lonely verse, which is answered by a chorus of about two hundred. Voices trade off through the piece, with Dudoit calling out the song’s many changes with short, barely audible grunts, until the singers end seamlessly in unison.
Well, maybe not exactly seamlessly. Les Ceballos, the school’s choral music director and taskmaster, doesn’t look impressed. “OK, that was pretty good for your first time,” he says before yelling, “Again!” After a deep, collective breath, the boys start singing once more.
It’s late January 2012, and at Kamehameha’s sprawling mountainside campus in Honolulu, preparations are underway for the school’s annual song contest, one of the most beautiful high school traditions in the state, if not the country. Over the next two months, the entire student body of the Native Hawaiian high school—1,800 strong—will be practicing in preparation for a choral competition that pits class against class and girls against boys. At stake are six awards—best girls’ class, best boys’ class, best combined class, best musical performance, outstanding director and Hawaiian language award—and a lifetime’s worth of bragging rights. Everyone sings at song contest. If you don’t participate, you don’t graduate.