A new songbook and CD celebrate and elevate the culture, places, and stories of West Maui
We always hear that ancient Hawaiians did not have a written history but I think that’s a bit misleading. Hawaiian ancestors may not have recorded words on paper, but they knew their history and passed it down through generations in oral traditions. One of the ways they documented was through oli and mele (chant and song). It’s wonderful to see this custom carrying on today with the newly-released songbook Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani: Songs of West Maui and companion CD, compiled in part by brothers Zachary and Nicholas Lum.
“It was serendipity that we got involved,” says Zachary. “One of the representatives from the funders just reached out to my brother. They realized that we not only had the capacity not only to do mele, but to actually transcribe them into musical notation. That was the thing they were struggling on. When they figured out that we could fulfill that, we have more projects now. This Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani project, even though it’s big, is one of many that we are doing.”
When Zachary and Nicholas Lum were commissioned to collect, capture, and create mele for the songbook of West Maui they jumped at the chance. Uniquely positioned for the job, they are two thirds of the band Keauhou, and Zach can speak Hawaiian, write music, and record music. But they had to go on the hunt to find those songs that have also defined the area of West Maui.
“When we first started we were anticipating hundreds and hundreds of mele, which was not the case,” says Zach. “When we set the parameters on what kind of mele we were looking for – mele in the Hawaiian language, referring to specific places, sometimes specific people – that narrowed us down to around 70, including songs written right before the project. What we did was reach out to certain people, like Hokulani Holt-Padilla, Kimo Alama Keaulana, Hailama Farden, Cody Pueo Pata. Those people were resources to say this mele is from this person. The book introduction is really specific in saying that the book doesn’t claim to be the end all resource; the book acknowledges that the resource of the kumu or who you learned it from is actually more valuable than what you can learn from a book. So the goal is to make the book obsolete and allow everyone to learn these songs so you don’t need the book anymore.”
Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani: Songs of West Maui includes mele from all the way around the West Maui mountains, including the Na Wai Eha area.
“That was really important to us as well,” says Zach. “Even though we might not consider it West Maui, Na Wai Eha, all of this area, is important to include. They share the same water, they share the same mountain – why not. This would be our time to put them together. That is a huge corpus of mele. Some areas have a lot of songs, and some areas that still don’t have any. The idea was to see what we can do to acknowledge what we can about the places. Whether that was encapsulating the people, or the stories, or the feel of that place, the goal was to document it.”
For some places that meant that Zach had to research from the ground up, and write the mele.
“I was given the assignment of writing about Kaua‘ula,” says Zach. “At the time the Kapu’s were going through their case about that water diversion up at the top for Piilani Auwai. They took me in a truck out to their compound and then past that all the way to the water diversion. He told me the stories, about everything. The cool thing about being able to write the mele it is not just telling the surface level ‘this place has this name and this place has this name.’ In the mele itself my goal was to say the names of their geneology that shows how they have claim to that particular parcel of land that has the diversion sitting on it now. In one of the literary techniques, the first and the last word of each verse are the names. So you just follow that and you get from Apa’a all the way to Ke’eamoku Kapu. You have that in the mele, and that is how we want to capture these stories.”
Lum believes this is one of the ways to elevate and celebrate culture now, in a proactive manner.
“We are not waiting for something to be in danger in order to care. We are saying, ‘care now.’ Now that you care, decision making becomes a lot clearer about what to do about this or that. It sets us up for the future, as opposed to looking back at what we should have done. We cannot ‘should have’ any more. I think that is what Maunakea is teaching us. “
The words of mele and act of singing shed light on the tradition of passing down knowledge among Hawaiian people. Lum explains why it is so important to spread knowledge this particular way and how it works better in the Hawaiian language.
“When you read a book Western academia is going to teach us to be as specific, as accurate as possible,” says Zach. “This is the knowledge I have, I am going to write it so that when you read it you understand exactly what it is. Mele is the exact opposite of that, in a way that affords us more knowledge. If I write this one line, ‘lei nahonoapi’ilani ka hanohano’, I am not just saying Na Honoapi’ilani is wreathed in honor, I am saying all these other things, because of the way that words work in the Hawaiian language. There is a surface meaning and depending on the context you can have levels and levels and levels of meaning. From our Western perspective we are thinking which one is correct? But that is the point. You don’t look at that. You look at the fact that you have all of these meanings. Which one works for this context? They are all correct depending on when you ask, where you ask, and how you ask.”
The singing of songs is also a superior method for memorization.
“This how we have the Kumulipo and the ancient texts because they are mele. How are people going to memorize thousands of lines of mele? It’s because they are sung. It’s that action of singing them that is actually the thing that’s keeping them together and solidifying them in our minds.”
This is a technology that the Hawaiians tapped into, and now they are tapping into that to perpetuate the knowledge of West Maui.
“When we are able to re-sing them we are re-teaching ourselves an innovation that is very old,” says Zach. “I tell my students, what is the last book you have memorized? They don’t know. But when I ask what is the last song you memorized, they know that. If that song happens to be in the Hawaiian language and expertly crafted, you have memorized this whole corpus of knowledge in eight lines of song, or however long it was. The knowledge acquisition capability of mele surpasses what we do now. The more we understand that, the more we are going to realize that we have to keep our mele. If it were not for mele, were not for the mo‘olelo which are mele, we wouldn’t have much besides the new papers. It’s about taking it off the paper and onto our tongues. Once we can say and sing those things, the knowledge lives with us. As opposed to lives on the computer beside us. We become expressions of that knowledge.
The best part about this history lesson is that it sounds amazing. The Castle Theatre will explode in mele on November 3 when this legendary project’s performance is planned.
“The cool part about it is that you can enjoy it,” says Zach. “You can sit down in the air conditioned auditorium and enjoy these songs and they are nice. But there is something to dig. The better your shovel to dig the more you are going to find. So we have to equip our lahui with shovels. Not only our lahui, but everyone who lives in Hawaiʻi needs these shovels so that they can understand.”
The show will feature many of the artists on the CD singing songs from the book. Performances from Josh Tatofi, Nāpua Greig-Nakasone, Kamaka Kukona, ʻIliahi and Haunani Paredes, Uluwehi Guerrero, Cody Pueo Pata, Ikaika Blackburn, Trustee Hulu Lindsey, Mihana Souza, The keiki of Hālau Kekuaokalāʻauʻalaʻiliahi, Hālau Nā Lei Kaumaka o Uka, Hālau o Ka Hanu Lehua, Hālau Hula Kauluokalā, and special guests. The festivities will also be hosted by Alakaʻi Paleka, with the world premiere of Project Kuleana: Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani.
“The culmination of this project is the concert on November 3,” says Zach. “We have four halau that are only going to feature their keiki, with over 100 keiki performing. The Kalama School ‘ukulele band will also be performing with over 100 keiki playing ‘ukulele. The idea at the end of the program is to sing the namesake song – which is Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani. It is a song written by Mima Apo. It was written for a group which turned into a civic club, and that was their anthem. Which is very intentionally written to the tune of Hawai’i Aloha. The idea is that here is your specific anthem for West Maui. This is where you guys can really shine as your own place.”
Each concert ticket also serves as a discount coupon for the purchase of the songbook and the first of two accompanying CDs, featuring the West Maui songs and artists in concert. Proceeds of this project will benefit Nā Leo Kālele, West Maui’s Hawaiian immersion program. For more information on the show or to purchase tickets go to Mauiarts.org.
images courtesy of Lei Nāhonoapiʻilani: Songs of West Maui