Thu, 21 August 2014
James Ka`upena Wong is a lifelong student of all things Hawaiian. Born August 21, 1929 into a family rooted in Hawaiian culture – his mother was an accomplished hula dancer and his father was a singer – Wong is considered a leading consultant in Hawaiian language but – more specifically – in the once dying art form of chant. Upon returning from college in 1959, Wong began a 12-year apprenticeship with the foremost Hawaiian cultural expert, Mary Kawena Puku`i through which he learned the Hawaiian language, of course, and used it in the service of becoming a master chanter. (Chant was a primary form of language transmission before it was being actively taught in primary schools in Hawai`i.) More than this, he is also one of the few masters of the ancient instruments – such as the pahu (drum) and the 'ukeke (musical bow) – used to accompany the chant. Along with Professor Barbara Smith, Wong helped establish a program in Hawaiian chant and hula at the University of Hawai`i, the first representation of Hawaiian culture in higher education in the state.
Wong has received countless honors throughout his lifetime. But perhaps most notable is that he and his friend, fellow musician and cultural expert Noelani Mahoe, were invited by Pete Seeger to perform at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. (According to the National Endowment of the Arts, which granted Wong the “National Heritage Fellowship” in 2005 for his contribution to and perpetuation of Hawaiian culture, this performance at Newport is generally acknowledged as the first presentation of Hawaiian chant as an American folk tradition.) In yet another groundbreaking – literally and figuratively – moment, in 1969 Wong performed for the dedication of the statue of King Kamehameha I in the rotunda of Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Because I am not a practitioner of chant, it is Wong’s skills as haku mele (composer) which are of primary interest to this discussion. Although not nearly as prolific as his kumu (teacher/mentor) Kawena Puku`i, Wong’s compositions continue to be cherished and sung to this day – even if the singers may have no idea he composed them. I thought I would share a few of my favorites with you.
One of his first compositions, “Alika Spoehr Hula” honors Alex Spoehr on the occasion of leaving his tenure as director of the Bishop Museum. (This is a time-honored Hawaiian tradition of writing songs in honor of people – the result being known as a mele inoa, or “name song.”) This honoring song is sung here by the rare pairing of Marlene Sai backed by Buddy Fo and The Invitations.
I count among my favorite love songs of all time Ka`upena’s composition “I Whisper Gently To You,” performed here by his longtime friend and musical partner, Noelani Mahoe. This recording is notable as being one of the last – and few – recordings of my dear friend Harold Haku`ole on the steel guitar.
Finally, falsetto favorite Keao Costa sings “Ku’u Lei Pikake.” Although it seems not all that long ago, many of us have already forgotten that before his tenure with Na Palapalai, Keao was a solo artist with a beautiful and successful CD entitled “Whee-Ha!” This beautiful CD is regrettably no longer available, but it gives me great honor to spin it for you again and to honor my friend, Keao.
Ka`upena Wong continues to contribute to Hawai`i and its people to this day as a teacher and mentor.