Issue 14.5: 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.

 


 

If you know Hawaiian music, you know that song, “Heha Waipi‘o,” if not by name then by melody. From its early public life as an upbeat Royal Hawaiian Band march to The Sunday Manoa’s 1969 slack key version on Guava Jam to Troy Fernandez’ twenty-first-century ‘ukulele rendition (it’s on YouTube), the song has become a familiar thread in the tapestry of Hawaiian musical history even as its origin story grew obscure. Likewise, though Sam Li‘a would go on to become one of the most prolific songwriters of his era, “Heha Waipi‘o” was his only composition recorded during his lifetime. He would, it seems, not have had it any other way.

 

Sam Li‘a Kalainaina Jr. was born in Waipi‘o Valley in 1881 and died not far from there in 1975. Throughout his long life he had a number of different vocations: As a young man he worked as a typesetter for the Hilo Tribune Herald—a skill he’d learned while attending Lahainaluna School, home to one of the first printing presses in the Islands. Like most Waipi‘o residents of the day, he came from a family of kalo farmers, but in his youth he’d also worked construction and as a mule skinner for Parker Ranch, regularly taking the winding trail out of the valley and into Waimea on horseback.

 

Sam was also a multi-instrumental musician and a bandmaster, with his first love being the fiddle, which he began playing at the age of 12. Or earlier, actually: His first waiolina, which he’d made himself several years before, was fashioned out of bamboo. He’d been inspired by a group of roaming troubadours who’d arrived at his family’s home on horseback one day and played music from their saddles. Sam got his first real violin when he was 12 as a gift from his brother-in-law. Later, he himself occasionally rode through Waipi‘o with a band of musicians, stopping to serenade folks in their homes.

 

He wrote countless songs—how many no one knows for sure, because as with “Heha Waipi‘o” he composed them only as gifts or to celebrate his place, Waipi‘o. He wrote songs for everyone from Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole (whom Sam met in 1918) to, it seems, most of his Waipi‘o neighbors. Sam gave them all away to the people for whom he wrote them. Some were eventually recorded after his death, others are known among the hula community, still others remain solely with the families who first received them.

 


 

If you measure fame by the number of strangers who know your name, then Sam Li‘a is not a famous man—in fact, by this measure, Li‘a’s father, Sam Sr., is more famous. The elder Li‘a is credited with having written one of the best-known songs in the Hawaiian musical canon: “Hi‘ilawe,” the ode to Waipi‘o Valley’s twin waterfalls (and to a pair of young lovers) made popular in modern times by Gabby Pahinui’s gravelly rendition. That “Heha Waipi‘o” found its way into the hands of then-Royal Hawaiian Bandmaster Henri Berger wasn’t Sam Jr.’s doing. It was given to the band by one of Joe Perez’ relatives.

 

This is not to say that Sam Jr. wasn’t known—isn’t known—or that his fame was limited to Waipi‘o. But the strands of history are always fragile and never more so than in a land where the most important histories often aren’t written. Not everyone knows these stories, and not everyone is meant to hear them. They aren’t lost, only waiting for the right person to come along and ask the right question. In the case of Sam Li‘a Kalainaina Jr., the right question came from Eddie Kamae.

 

Eddie was living on O‘ahu when he first heard of Sam in the early 1970s. Kamae was a well-known musician, both as a solo artist and with his band, The Sons of Hawai‘i, and was well on his way to earning an official designation as one of Hawai‘i’s Living Cultural Treasures. At the time, he was researching the origins of early Hawaiian music, and cultural historian Mary Kawena Pukui told Eddie to go see Sam. Later the famed hula dancer ‘Iolani Luahini gave Eddie the same advice. So he went to Waipi‘o and found Li‘a sitting at home, literally waiting for him to arrive. (It wasn’t until much later that Eddie learned Pukui had called Sam and told him to expect a visit, but not when.) That first day, though Li‘a was approaching 90 and by then living up on the rim of the valley, they took the winding road into Waipi‘o, touring the landscape that so informed Li‘a’s writing and indeed his entire worldview— Waipi‘o figured in virtually every song he wrote. True to form, following their trip, Li‘a sat down and immediately wrote a song about their tour of the valley, handed it to Eddie and told him to write the music.

 

Li‘a became Eddie’s mentor and teacher. Whenever he could, Eddie would return to Waipi‘o to visit. Li‘a’s fingers had stiffened with age, and he could no longer play the fiddle, but he still wrote songs and Eddie played them. Once when Eddie had found the lyrics to an old song with no melody, Li‘a recognized it and sang it for him— reviving a song that might have otherwise been lost forever.

 

Eddie could not have asked for a better teacher. Pukui had once remarked to Kamae that Li‘a was the “last Hawaiian poet”; he not only wrote in an older form of the language, but was a master of kaona, the hidden meaning that becomes apparent only to those with a deep knowledge of Hawaiian language.

 

It didn’t last long. In 1975 Eddie traveled to Waipi‘o with The Sons of Hawai‘i to present Li‘a with a gift: a song written in his honor by Sons member Dennis Kamakahi. But Li‘a never got to hear “Kanaka Waiolina” (Fiddle Man). He had developed diabetes, and not long before Eddie and the Sons arrived, he had gone into the hospital. His doctors told him they needed to amputate a foot to save his life, but Li‘a decided that he had lived long enough. He refused surgery and died soon after.

 


 

 

Even after his death Li‘a continued to inspire his student; as he entered his mid-40s, Eddie added another line to his résumé: documentary filmmaker. “When he passed away, I decided I wanted to tell his story,” Eddie says, “because he was a kind and gentle man. He was my mentor and my teacher, and he was the best man I ever met. So this is how I got into filmmaking, by just telling my teacher’s story. After that the country folks would just say, ‘Come here, tell my story.’ I was very fortunate to meet those folks.”

 

The reason these stories are preserved is because Eddie Kamae recorded them. Eddie’s first film, Li‘a: The Legacy of a Hawaiian Man, was an act of aloha not only for a teacher but also for an era. Begun shortly after Li‘a’s death and completed in 1988, the film features the voices of both the renowned and the lesser known, from artist Herb Kawainui Kane to Waipi‘o residents Ruth Makaila Kaholoa‘a, Luther Kahekili Makekau and John Purdy. All have since passed, but their words and memories remain thanks to Eddie’s work. Some, like Kaholoa‘a and Makekau, would themselves become the subjects of his later films—nine to date, available via hawaiianlegacy.com. Though Li‘a: The Legacy of a Hawaiian Man had a theatrical release in 1988 and has had selective public showings since, it was released for sale earlier this year, when it was transferred to DVD. Asked about the twenty-plus-year delay, Myrna Kamae, Eddie’s wife and filmmaking partner, simply says, “It was the closest to Eddie’s heart.”

 

To say that “Heha Waipi‘o,” Sam’s first song, was the only one recorded during his lifetime is a slight falsehood. Although Li‘a doesn’t appear in person in Kamae’s film, his voice does. Early in the film, there is a grainy recording of Li‘a performing a “forgiveness chant” as the camera pans across a misty Waipi‘o backdrop. His voice at 90 was strong but also wispy, like the clouds moving across the screen. Midway through the film there is more audio, this time of Li‘a singing the song he used to court Sarah Poepoe Kapela, his wife of nearly forty years—they married when she was 16 and he was 33; she died a quarter-century before he did.

 

And finally, there is “Waipi‘o Valley Song,” the mele pana that he and Eddie wrote on their first meeting, just after they’d toured the valley. It speaks of Paka‘alana, a heiau (temple) of the valley that was destroyed by the great tsunami of 1946, and of the sixteenth-century ali‘i (chief) ‘Umi-a-Liloa, who was born in the valley. The song appears more than once but most hauntingly near the end, when Li‘a’s recorded voice is intertwined with a version sung by The Sons of Hawai‘i, as they backyard jam in Waipi‘o. Written near the end of his life, Li‘a’s mele is a late ode to the place he spent virtually his entire ninety-four years. The song’s last two verses conclude:

 

Huli aku nana i ke kai uli

Ua nalo ka nani ‘o Paka‘alana

 

Turn and gaze at the dark sea

The beauty of Paka‘alana has vanished

 

Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana

Ua ‘ike ku maka ia Waipi‘o

 

Let the refrain be told

The mind has seen Waipi‘o.

 


*****
 
Note: The print edition of this story—published in the October/November 2011 issue of Hana Hou! magazine, and reproduced in its original form on this website—only indirectly cites the film Li’a: The Legacy of a Hawaiian Man, as the author’s primary source of historical information regarding the life of Sam Li’a. This note has been added to the online edition to clarify that fact. Further information on Eddie Kamae’s life and his relationship with Sam Li’a can also be found in Hawaiian Son: The Life and Legacy of Eddie Kamae, which was written by James D. Houston and Eddie Kamae, and published in 2004 by ‘Ai Pohaku Press. Both the film and book are available via hawaiianlegacy.com.