Ka`upena Wong Chants

When writing about James Ka`upena Wong yesterday, I promised myself that – despite that Wong is among the great living practitioners of Hawaiian chant – I would not write about chant because I know too little about it to be informative to the reader. At the same time, since my last post I have been listening to the few extant recordings of Wong’s chants over and over again, and I realize that this art form – in the hands and mouth of a master – is so compelling that it transcends language. Which is no doubt why Wong has been chosen time and again to represent Hawai`i and this art form across the nation and around the world. So, contradicting myself (not the first time I have done so, and certainly it won’t be the last), I want to share with you here two short pieces of chant performed by Wong – especially for those unindoctrinated in the art form. The two pieces are somewhat different in form – providing a launching pad for an on-going discussion on Hawaiian chant. For this reason, I offer up these pieces in reverse chronological order of that in which they were performed and recorded. And I will rely upon some experts along the way to give these chants and differing chant styles the appropriate context. 

For more than 25 years, one of my most invaluable resources has been Nathaniel B. Emerson’s Unwritten Literature of Hawaii. (I first located this volume in 1989 at the Bucknell University library, already long out of print. Fortunately it is back in print and – because of its age and entry into the public domain – is also available electronically free of charge courtesy of Project Gutenberg.) Emerson describes oli as follows: 

In its most familiar form the Hawaiians--many of whom possessed the gift of improvisation in a remarkable degree--used the oli not only for the songful expression of joy and affection, but as the vehicle of humorous or sarcastic narrative in the entertainment of their comrades. The traveler, as he trudged along under his swaying burden, or as he rested by the wayside, would solace himself and his companions with a pensive improvisation in the form of an oli. Or, sitting about the camp-fire of an evening, without the consolation of the social pipe or bowl, the people of the olden time would keep warm the fire of good-fellowship and cheer by the sing-song chanting of the oli, in which the extemporaneous bard recounted the events of the day and won the laughter and applause of his audience by witty, oft times exaggerated, allusions to many a humorous incident that had marked the journey. If a traveler, not knowing the language of the country, noticed his Hawaiian guide and baggage-carriers indulging in mirth while listening to an oli by one of their number, he would probably be right in suspecting himself to be the innocent butt of their merriment. 

The lover poured into the ears of his mistress his gentle fancies: the mother stilled her child with some bizarre allegory as she rocked it in her arms; the bard favored by royalty--the poet laureate--amused the idle moments of his chief with some witty improvisation; the alii himself, gifted with the poetic fire, would air his humor or his didactic comments in rhythmic shape--all in the form of the oli. 

Simply put, before the introduction of a formal system of writing, the Hawaiians depended on the oli as the primary medium for preserving oral histories and traditions such as genealogy, special places, important events, and prayers. 

With regard to the oli style, Jonah La‘akapu Lenchanko writes at Kūlia I Ka Nu`u (the Kamehameha Schools webs resource for Hawaiian language and cultural competencies): 

The beauty of the world of oli is that it is a very individualized effort. Each chanter has his or her own different voice quality and technique. Even the way a chant is chanted can differ depending on each individual’s past training and genealogy in chanting. It is said that chanting is a very "lonely" art. It is usually done as a solo performance by a chanter without any kōkua (help) from others. As such, the performance of an oli may sometimes be done differently by the chanter at each occasion. 

In the section on “Chant” written for the original edition of Hawaiian Music and Musicians, ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Tatar formally describes some of the essential elements of oli: 

- The oli is typically performed by a soloist without any instrumental or percussive accompaniment.

- The range of pitches is small (on average, a minor third, a major second, or a fourth).

- The number of different pitches that can be distinctly heard are few (perhaps two or three).

- Rhythmically the oli lacks a regular pulse and meter. 

There are other features of the oli, but it is this last that those new to the art form will immediately recognize distinguish the style. There is melody but not a defined meter, and so oli straddles a line between speech and song. You can hear this feature in this selection from the 1970s National Geographic compilation album The Music of Hawaii (no longer available). Rather than create a compilation LP of previously released material, National Geographic funded an entirely new recording by artists carefully selected to represent the finest in “Hawaiian folk music.” For the occasion, Ka`upena Wong was chosen to record an emotional oli entitled “Eia Hawai`i” which speaks of the arrival in Hawai`i of the Polynesian voyagers who had sailed for weeks across a previously uncharted Pacific Ocean from their home in Tahiti. The oli begins… 

Here is Hawai`i, an island, a man

Hawai`i is a man

A man is Hawai`i

A child of Tahiti 

Contrasting with the mele oli¸ the second selection is a mele hula. It differs from the oli in a number of ways that again will be immediately recognizable to the listener, but the most important features which contrast the mele hula from the oli are: 

- The mele hula is intended for the hula and, therefore, typically has (at least) rhythmic accompaniment such as the pahu (drum) or ipu heke (gourd).

- Because it is intended for the hula, the mele hula will typically have a regular pulse and meter. 

Just as there are many types of mele oli, there are indeed many types of mele hula. The one heard here is a mele ma`i, genital or procreative chants which – according to Kihei de Silva – “were traditionally composed at the birth of a child -- especially the first born -- in order to celebrate and encourage the perpetuation of that child’s family line.” Ka`upena Wong here performs “Talala A Hipa,” or “The Bleat of the Ram,” which describes the rambunctious behavior of a ram – a reference to the subject of the mele, Kamehameha V. This recording was made in performance at Punahou School in 1964 shortly before Wong left to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. Taken from a long out of print LP, the Hawaiian music world should be grateful for the efforts of ethnomusicologist and kumu hula Dr. Amy Ku`uleialoha Stillman who – with the assistance of Michael Cord and Hana Ola Records – compiled this and nearly two dozen other forgotten chant recordings into digital form for the 2010 release Ancient Hula Hawaiian Style – Volume I: Hula Kuahu. The selections are translated and annotated by Stillman with her usual meticulous attention to detail – making this an invaluable entry in any Hawaiian music collection and an excellent primer for those previously unindoctrinated in the art of chant until reading this blog.  

There is still one more entire volume of chant by Ka`upena Wong – the 1974 LP Mele Inoa – Authentic Hawaiian Chants, which has not yet been made available in digital form. This is a pity since – as you have now heard – Wong is the master of the art form of chant and – as Stillman so succinctly states – “undisputedly the most renowned chanter of his generation.”

Direct download: Kaupena_Wong_Chants.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:17am EDT