Sat, 12 January 2013
The last Hawaiian royals were a most cosmopolitan bunch. Perhaps because of their close relationship with England’s Queen Victoria, King Kalakaua and his family were exceedingly educated, forward-thinking, and heavily influenced by all things British. If the British royals had it, so soon would ‘Iolani Palace. This was not selfish thinking by any means. The Hawaiian royals were all about their people, and bringing the most modern innovations to Hawai’i was well-intentioned and did ultimately benefit all Hawaiians.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone. By 1881, the Central Telephone System was chartered in Hawai’i. And almost immediately Kalakaua requested telephones be installed in his business office in the palace (“The Library”) as well as in his boathouse at Honolulu Harbor. If you could not find the king in “The Library,“ it was likely because the king did most of his entertaining of dignitaries and other visitors at his boathouse where he could now be easily reached by telephone.
Palani Vaughan chronicled the arrival of the telephone - and how the king embraced it - in the 1975 song “Wili! Wili!” This was just one of dozens of songs Palani wrote and recorded during the 1970s for what ultimately became a four album song cycle dedicated to the Hawaiian royal family - a series entitled “Ia ‘Oe E Ka La.” In this collection, Palani not only recorded songs by the four royals (King Kalakaua, Princess - and later Queen - Lili’uokalani, Princess Likelike, and Prince Leleiohoku - collectively known as na lani ‘eha or “the heavenly four”), but he also wrote original works praising the royals and their importance to Hawai’i’s history in moving their traditions forward lest they altogether die. Musically and historically, I personally feel that this is one of the most important works to ever come out of Hawai’i. But as well respected as Palani remains as a cultural expert and historian, much of those four albums remains out of print after nearly 40 years. Some - but not all - of the songs appeared on two “Best Of” collections in the early 1990s. But this was just a handful of the songs, and many of my personal favorites - such as “Wili! Wili!” - were overlooked in that effort. Many of you may be hearing this song for the very first time.
Some important notes - as well as some trivia - on this song:
“Wili! Wili!” might be considered a Hawaiian onomatopoeia - a word that in itself sounds like the sound it is intended to describe (like “ding-dong” describes a bell in English). “Wili! Wili!” here does not refer to the phone ringing but, rather, to the sound of the turning of the crank on the earliest telephone.
Although Palani’s compositions were startlingly fresh at the time (few original songs were being written in the Hawaiian language at the time as this predates the renaissance of the language in Hawai’i schools), the compositions also deliberately mirrored the songwriting style established 100 years before by na lani ‘eha. Among the most refreshing elements of the new style, most notable is the use of several different languages - not just Hawaiian - within the same composition. “Kelepona” is a cognate, of course - a Hawaiian phonetic equivalent of the English “telephone” but using only the Hawaiian alphabet and phonemes. But why “boathouse?” There is surely a Hawaiian equivalent for the English “boathouse” or, at least, one that could be derived through combining forms (such as the Hawaiian for “garage” - “hale ka’a,” or “car house”). But Palani takes the road less traveled and uses the English - an element he repeats in his other compositions, likely because it is what na lani ‘eha would have done. But why did the royals do this? For starters, the royals did not do things the way others did them. They were trendsetters - not followers. But more than this, the royals were exceedingly educated - most of them speaking Hawaiian and English and at least a third language and in some cases a fourth (typically French or Spanish or both). (Prince Leleiohoku’s “Adios Ke Aloha” uses words from all four languages, but that is for another time.) So one might say that they were “showing off” - which was, of course, their privilege as the royal family.
Finally, the song is anchored by a lead ‘ukulele style in which the ‘ukulele is strung with steel - not nylon - and the strings are plucked in rapid succession - not strummed. This is a distinctive style which lovers of the Hawaiian music of today should instantly recognize. This is a very young Bruce Spencer, son of Hawaiian music legend Elaine Ako Spencer and former member of one of today’s most popular groups in Hawai’i - multiple Na Hoku Hanohano-award winning group Maunalua with whom he is heard on their first three albums.
Editor’s Note: This post should be rife with Hawaiian diacritical marks that are most important in elucidating the pronunciation and meaning of Hawaiian words. I continue to struggle with making these diacriticals appear properly in the blog. This post is dedicated to my many friends who are speakers of ka ‘olelo makuahine with my humblest apologies and my commitment to bettering the appearance of your beloved language on this blog.