Issue 15.1: 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.”


“Hawaiian culture is based on communication,” says kumu hula Snowbird Puananiopaoakalani Bento (pictured in Nu‘uanu Valley Park with her student Puanani Reis-Moniz), “and the voice is our instrument. If we don’t control it, we won’t get results.”

Oli is the means by which Hawaiians of antiquity, who had no written language, passed down culture through the generations. Hawaiians danced hula to express their stories, but to give their tales precision and purpose, they chanted. Whether it was an outpouring of adoration for a deity, the utterance of praise for a ruler, advice about farming and fishing or the memory of a love affair, they chanted. Oli is rooted in eons of Polynesian culture; it is a repository of wisdom, knowledge, history, prayer and, yes, plenty of daily gossip. Among the canon of chants stored in the memory banks of practitioners: the great creation story the Kumulipo, sacred chants to the deities Pele and Hi‘iaka, and dynastic chants composed by commoners and monarchs alike. It has two main forms: mele oli (purely a cappella) and hula oli (which accompanies hula).


The best-known stage for oli is the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. Viewed by millions of fans via the Internet or a live four-night telecast and judged by the ranking authorities of Hawaiian cultural arts, Merrie Monarch’s spectacular hula performances are billed as “the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”


Kumu hula Snowbird Puananiopaoakalani Bento grew up gazing at the spectacle on TV, but what stuck was the sound of certain kumu (teachers). “Their voices would stay in my head. I could hear them there,” she recalls, describing how she listened and learned to cultivate a repertoire of timbres, tonalities and techniques, pulling a low rumble from the na‘au (belly) or emitting birdlike chirps from the nasal cavities. In 2001 she mastered the meta-language of oli to win first runner-up in the Miss Aloha Hula contest. For her kahiko performance, she chanted the story of Queen Emma. Even though her hula was noho (seated), her rich voice fused seamlessly with her generous arm and torso movements to create an illusion of the monarch’s long, flowing hair drifting infinitely into space—a perfect aural and visual metaphor for Emma’s famed generosity. “I didn’t even hear the applause afterwards,” remembers Bento of the audience response to her showstopper. “I don’t chant just to chant,” she continues, noting that Hawaiians used chant to give a lift to everyday life and express the spiritual dimensions of mundane tasks: “Like the person who plants kalo [taro], he olis to honor the sanctity of what he does, so he isn’t just breaking his back in the fields.”


Bento teaches six hula classes weekly and has more than 300 students. At Merrie Monarch in 2011 her student Puanani Reis-Moniz followed in the path of her kumu and herself won the Miss Aloha Contest. Resplendent in a haku lei of thickly bound ti leaves, Reis-Moniz made a captivating appearance as Hi‘iaka caught in a coy confrontation with the amorous Kanahau in the mountains of Windward O‘ahu; the tale is one of hundreds in the Pele cycle. In the chant Reis-Moniz, with a melodious use of ho‘ae‘ae (sighs of contentment) and precisely placed ‘i‘i (trilling vibrato), exudes the flirtatiousness and hesitancy of a young person newly in love.


“I realized that Hi‘iaka is a young woman at the crossroads, and by the end of the story she is confident enough that she can flourish and grow,” Reis-Moniz says of her character. She confesses that when she began hula studies as a child, she and her friends would take silly liberties with chant. “We felt shy or shame, but we really wanted to do it,” she laughs. She credits her kumu for helping her search every oli with maka walu, or “eight eyes”; she prepped for her winning performance by going into the mountains associated with Hi‘iaka and her suitor. It is common for hula dancers to research their chants in such great depth. “The voice is our instrument in Hawaiian culture, and if we don’t control it, we won’t get results,” says Bento. Among those results, she names “the power to bring people together in joy and sadness.”


Professor Kalena Silva chants for a hula ‘auana class at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. He describes oli as an art form marked by an unusually complex grammar of prescribed vocal qualities and techniques; zealous work, he says, has preserved the chants’ inherent beauty and wisdom. Silva, who holds a doctorate in ethnomusicology, points to the call-and-response chants of African drummers and the morning-and-evening meditation chants of monks, noting that there are numerous forms of chant described as “the language of the gods.”
“Oli has to be done correctly,” he says, “so that the gods will listen.”
In the beginning was the word. … Such was very much the case in Hawai‘i. “‘Olelo, or word, was far more than a means of communicating,” wrote revered scholar Mary Kawena Pukui in her 1962 book Nana i ke Kumu (Look to the Source). “To the Hawaiian, the spoken word did more than set into motion forces of destruction, death, forgiveness and healing. The word was itself a force.”


Edith McKinzie came of age during the time of the Territory of Hawai‘i, when disarray and confusion reigned in kanaka (native) families in the wake of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the growth of Western ways and the English language. McKinzie, however, lived among Hawaiian-speaking elders. She says an aunt, who had danced hula for the royal court of Kalakaua, advised her father, “Get your kids involved in all this, so they will know some important information! It’s all in the oli!” With rigorous study, McKinzie became a master of both hula and oli and eventually authored two key books of genealogical chants, unraveling the twists and turns of thousands of bloodlines back as many as forty generations. Her work offered a lens on the past—not necessarily a guide to repeat the old ways, but rather to understand and take pride in them. She became a champion of the art form. “Oli is so easy!” she exclaims. “The words can be tongue-twisting, but you just have to have a passion for it.”


McKinzie and legions of other tenacious word warriors have formed the generation-to-generation chain of transmission for oli. But many linguistic gems have also been preserved in print thanks to quirky turns of history. In the nineteenth century, missionaries and monarchs turned the Islands into a highly literate kingdom by translating the Hawaiian language from oral to written. The Hawaiian translation of the Bible, or Baibala Hemolele, was the first book to be run off newly imported printing presses; thereafter Hawaiians entered the publishing business in droves and established a profusion of newspapers in their own language. Tens of thousands of oli were printed in those newspapers, and letters to the editor commented on nuances of chant style and meaning; debates on these finer points could continue for months. Hawaiians also transcribed and stored oli in books, pamphlets and, as soon as the phonograph came along, on wax cylinder recordings.


The state and university library archives and the Bishop Museum might have been the final resting places for this wealth of words without the emergence of the Hawaiian Renaissance. The resurgence of kanaka identity some thirty years ago went hand in hand with a language revitalization. Esteemed chanter Kalena Silva, who is director of the College of Hawaiian Language, or Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani, at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, says zealous work on oli has preserved the chants’ inherent beauty and wisdom, and language and chant have been revived together. “Every chant is like a finely wrought diamond,” he says. “Each time you look at it, you see new facets.”


Much of oli’s seductive power lies in kaona, which is often translated as “hidden meaning” but is more evocative of “riches,” says celebrated chanter and composer Kalani Akana. “A good chanter is able to unravel and rework the intricate connections, like you would with a lei, and then re-gift them to others,” he says. Kaona can cushion an insult with satire or convert lust into the sweetness of whispered nothings. Sometimes the poetic cover is just a good strategy to conceal meaning when the situation calls for being discreet. As an example of the latter, Silva mentions an instance where the Hawaiian monarchy’s Princess Ruth Ke‘elikolani cleverly delivered a political message to her supporters within the kaona of an oli: When she spoke of a rock that could withstand the spray of the ocean, her supporters recognized that she was in fact telling them about a specific relative of hers on O‘ahu and assuring them that he could be relied on.


Chanters chant for any number of reasons: to educate, to empower, to remember, to rouse the community, to forge identity, to be one with nature — the list is long. A good chanter, says Hawaiian cultural authority Manu Boyd (seen here at the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa), blends with the environment and never distracts from it. “Hawaiian chant is inseparable from the sounds of nature,” he says. “And there is always room for nuance.”

The Hawaiian language
is not easy to learn, let alone plumb for deeper meaning. Yet Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike are going for it. Today I hear a chorus of keiki voices raised in chant every morning when I park my car in front of a preschool in urban Honolulu. From business conferences to backyard family parties, I’ve come to expect a chanter to step forward to signal the start of the occasion. When this doesn’t happen, it seems somehow inauspicious, and I often overhear the grumbling that something special has been skipped. As a fan of contemporary Hawaiian music, I’ve heard mesmerizing chants seep into recordings by favorite artists. I’ve heard kumu hula, who identify themselves mainly as teachers, make CDs as chanters. If I want to learn to chant, I can choose a hula halau (hula school) or drop into an enrichment program at the university. If I want to delve even deeper into an understanding of oli, I can look, for example, to the words of celebrated nineteenth-century historian Samuel Kamakau; his description of oli appeared in the Dec. 21, 1867 edition of the Hawaiian-language newspaper Ka Nupepa Kuokoa and was translated in modern times by Kalena Silva. In chanting, Kamakau wrote, “the voice sounds gentle with a strong vibrato [‘i‘i] in the throat, the voice sounds nasal [nonolo] at the innermost part of the ear, the sound gurgles [‘ola‘ola] at the base of the uvula, breathing is comfortable in the chest, [the voice] moves up and down, the flow of air [makani] passes steadily over the surface of the tongue, the rows of teeth well apart, and the mouth opens nicely without the [neck] veins bulging out [kakauha]. This is how a skilled person chanted in ancient times.”


Eminent Hawaiian cultural authority Manu Boyd is an imposing figure with a majestic voice to match his stature. When we meet in his air-conditioned Honolulu office, he lets loose a few thundering lines of oli, then rewinds and croons the same lines through velvety soft peaks and dips into glissandos that would rivet the ears of an opera fan. I listen intently. Boyd explains the point of his varied deliveries: “Hawaiian chant is inseparable from the sounds of nature. You chant and the sound becomes the ocean. You chant and the voice becomes the crackling fire. Your voice becomes the wind or the bird. And there is always room for nuance.”


Over the next hour, Boyd launches into demo after demo of the various styles of oli, like ho‘oueue, which, with its halting release, cannot be mistaken for anything other than a tearful lament. For every occasion, it seems, there is a form of chant. As for the style, there are also hundreds of variations: The quick-paced kepakepa might not seem appropriate for a lament, but as Boyd points out, if you are honoring the memory of an ali‘i with a genealogy going back forty generations, the jaunty approach might apply. “Just know your stuff and don’t leave anyone out,” he says firmly before letting his voice glide into yet another oli.


Boyd, who came of age during the Hawaiian Renaissance, didn’t so much learn chant as absorb it through osmosis in the hula halau of kumu Robert Cazimero. He listened to the oli of Ho‘oulu Cambra, who in turn had learned oli from Maiki Aiu Lake, who taught a firm, elegant style of hula and chant reflective of its origins on verdant Kaua‘i. In addition, Boyd was deeply influenced by renowned chanter Ka‘upena Wong. Like the true Hawaiian Renaissance man he is, he also cultivates a melodious voice that has great commercial appeal: He is the founder of popular contemporary Hawaiian music group Ho‘okena.


So why chant a story in compressed tonality if you can sing it in a fully developed melody? Kalena Silva, who originally had ambitions to become an opera singer, explains why many with a gift for song choose to do just that. In college, he says, he vacillated between Puccini and Pele, “until one day I realized there are plenty of singers in the world and so few chanters— and I wanted to be a chanter.”


Kekuhi Kanaka‘ole (seen here at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation in Hilo) is the granddaughter of Edith Kanaka‘ole, one of the greatest chanters of the twentieth century. Kekuhi and her son Kaumakaiwa are renowned chanters themselves; they are driven by the understanding that the word is, as Mary Kawena Pukui put it, “itself a force.” “Oli,” says Kaumakaiwa, “is the bridge between everything. After you acknowledge the forms in your words, you must know how they are in one big web. Through oli, you make the connection.”

The collective power
of chant was abundantly clear at the State Capitol in Honolulu in 1997. At issue was a legislative bill that would have restricted Native Hawaiian gathering rights. Kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine had done her civic duty by testifying against the bill at a hearing, but she and others wanted to show that their unified stance had a profound source. Cultural practitioners and political activists had always seemed to live in different worlds—one artistic, the other ideological—but Holt Takamine changed that by forging the ‘Ilio‘ulaokalani Coalition to give kumu voice. When hundreds of kumu, along with their families, students and friends, encircled the government district and chanted, drummed and danced for twenty-four hours straight, the adrenaline was as palpable as the wind whipping through the Capitol Rotunda. It was a political demonstration of uncommon grace as the strains of “E Ho Mai,” a prayer for “the light of wisdom and knowledge,” wafted up to lawmakers’ offices. It was not long before a state senator heeded the call, arrived on scene, delivered the news that the unpopular bill had been killed and ceremoniously ripped a copy of it in half. Since that monumental day, kumu have continued to come together to chant in support of native rights.


"E Ho Mai” was composed by Edith Kanaka‘ole, one of the most revered chanters in Hawaiian history. Edith was the matriarch of the Kanaka‘ole ‘ohana, a family that lives and practices the arts of hula and oli on Hawai‘i Island through a world-famous eponymous foundation. Like many so-called fire people of Hawai‘i Island’s Ka‘u district, their chant is inspired by the volcano deity Pele. How great it would be, I think, to meet near a massive caldera surrounded by giant ferns and ropey pahoehoe lava. But this evocative setup is not to be. To be a Kanaka‘ole is to be in demand everywhere these days. One member is off in Japan and then Australia; another is readying for a trip to Europe.


 Finally I rendezvous with the mother-son duo of Kekuhi and Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole in the decidedly non-evocative setting of an Ala Moana-area parking lot in front of a recording studio; the two are in town to record a new CD, and I arrive just in time to hear them lay down an original chant composition. Kekuhi and Kaumakaiwa—granddaughter and great-grandson of Edith—are a force. Between them they have a discography of six recordings, have lectured at Stanford University, performed at globalFEST and appeared at Carnegie Hall. They are each powerfully committed to oli.


 I am curious to hear what it was like to grow up in the Kanaka‘ole compound under the sway of the matriarch. Both say oli was simply ingrained in daily life. “I can tell you stories about my grandma,” says Kekuhi, “and she is going to the forest and she is talking to the forest people. And then you go with her to the beach and gather ‘ohua [young fish] for eating, and she just sounds to me as if she is mumbling. Oli was just this conversation, never this big exhibition.”


After wryly cautioning me that I am about to hear a few “Kanaka‘oleisms,” as he calls them, Kaumakaiwa says, “We channel energy with our voice, and oli is the bridge between everything. It is what allows us to become co-creators of our world.” The Kanaka‘oles are simultaneously seen to be conduits of chant’s deepest essence and bona fide innovators. They shrug off any labels, simply saying that chant has always reflected its circumstances, and theirs are that they write oli in the twenty-first century.


Kekuhi points to the new chant I have just heard the pair recording. To create it, Kaumakaiwa says modestly, he simply “wrote down a few things in the Hi‘iaka tradition and found the catchy rhythm.” That catchy rhythm is irresistibly upbeat, and when the duo shares the translation, I know why. Kekuhi explains that as she goes through the chant, “I am saying ‘hi’ to the man, the baby, the woman, the mountain, the wind, the land and ocean, the lava formations and the honua, or the core, that makes the lava.” The hope, she says, is that by recognizing all of them, listeners will begin to understand that they are connected to all of them. “We hope the relationships make sense. That is our intention,” Kekuhi says firmly. “I’ve always wanted to do a song that invites kids and adults to begin to talk to the landscape as if it were another person, because everyone has this ability.


“When you chant, the rainbow comes. When you chant the sun sets. When you chant you get cloud cover and the rain comes in. People have those experiences. You chant to the mountain, the mountain becomes you. And that reciprocity is the very foundation of Hawaiian culture.”