by Liza Simon
photo by David Boynton
In 2001, when the Hoku Award
for best religious recording of the year went to Na Leo O Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha
, it meant some rare limelight for ‘Ane Kanahele, a musical matriarch from Niihau who led others from the all-Hawaiian island on the recording. Aunty ‘Ane readily shares her mana‘o, or thoughts, about the CD, including, for example, the story of the first track she composed: One night, as she sat stringing shell lei, she thought of her grandson, and a feeling of dismay came over her. A prayer for his health and safety and a melody to set it to flooded her mind rapidly, and she called her nearby granddaughter to set the lyrics down on paper. Only days later did she find out that her grandson had that same day fallen ill—though he soon recovered. "Sometimes I feel that there are as many songs in me as there are stars in the sky," she says, lifting her hands skyward with a hint of graceful hula motions. "But this is the way it is, because the inspiration we have to sing always comes from above."
Today, ukulele in hand, Aunty ‘Ane teaches similar lessons in song and daily reverence at the Hawaiian language immersion school in Kekaha on the westernmost tip of Kauai. Her students, who hail mostly from Niihau, are also featured on the CD, and its proceeds have benefited Aha Punana Leo, the grassroots-inspired movement to revive the Hawaiian language, a language that had been eclipsed by English just about everywhere up and down the Island chain.
Make that everywhere except Niihau, ‘Ane will remind you with evident pride. The Hawaiian language has flourished on the tiny island in true-to-the-roots form, she says, noting the Niihauan speaker’s retention of the "t" sound, a sound not found in any other enclave of native speakers. The CD’s success has, therefore, helped highlight the uniqueness of Hawaiian spoken without years of interruption. But most of all, says ‘Ane, the CD showcases a Niihau tradition: "Back there, we sing every day in school, also in church and also at home. There is always a song to share."