Ke Kali Nei Au and the Hawaiian Opera

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Having just entered into the sacred union of marriage I decided to commit some time into researching the history of one of the finest Hawaiian songs ever composed, the insurmountable “Ke Kali Nei Au” also known as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song”. It was hard to dig up too much information other than this very interesting aspect of this song’s history. Mainly that according to this very informative article published in Hana Hou! magazine it was originally written by Charles King for a Hawaiian operetta titled “The Prince of Hawai`i”. This article got me thinking about the opera in Hawai`i and based on the fine history of singers in Hawai`i if anyone from here has gone out to perform on the operatic stage.

Well as you can read if you go to the above link to the article is that yes, there is certainly a pretty big history of opera in Hawai`i and opera singers from Hawai `i. Digging further I came across this very informative paper published in the Hawai`i Journal of History. I strongly suggest you read both as they are full of information and historical antidotes. One tidbit I found really interesting was the discovery of Tandy MacKenzie who is considered the greatest opera singer to come out of Hawai`i. The story goes that as a member of a glee club in Massachusetts where he was studying pre-med, he was heard by famous Irish tenor John McCormack who made the suggestion to MacKenzie that he pursue singing as a professional vocation.

Another interesting anecdote found in the Hana Hou! article concerned Kamehameha IV working as a stage manager in Verdi’s Il Trovatore with Queen Emma singing in the chorus. Or the royal princesses Likelike and Pauahi Bishop singing in Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. All of these performances took place at the little Irwin Music Hall across from `Iolani palace whose picture is found at the beginning of this post. You can read more about this opera house’s history by clicking on this link.

All very fascinating and under documented historical incidences. But when you look at history and the context that Hawaiian music plays in the cultural context of the Hawaiian, a historical relationship with opera it makes sense. As famed musician and Director of the Royal Hawaiian Band Aaron Mahi says “In Hawaiian music, the most important aspect is the mele [text]. The mythology of Hawaii lends itself to storytelling, and the folklore is full of deep, dramatic settings. That’s very much a part of opera.”

But just to bring it all back to Hawaiian music, there are recordings of the fine opera singer Tandy MacKenzie singing traditional Hawaiian tunes. Listen to his rendition of “Mai Poina `Oe Ia`u” in particular.

And as for that little wedding song that started this whole investigation. Well I am particular to the version sung by The Makaha Sons and Nina Keali`iwahamana.

Unfortunately I couldn’t dig up much more than the fact that it was originally written for this unrecorded operetta in the 1920s. I guess all we can do then is just sit back and listen to this beautiful mele.

Mele Aloha `Aina

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With the recent shift in ideology surrounding the A`ole TMT movement towards that of Hawaiian Sovereignty, I thought it fitting to offer a summary of three of the well known songs that are centered around the theme of sovereignty. Before I do that I would like to say that I offer this summary purely with factual interest in the music, the songs, the performers and the songwriters. I do not feel it fitting for the purpose of this blog to put forth any opinions on the sovereignty movement nor present this information with any particular agenda. I hope you are reading this with the same interest.

Anytime you are discussing songs about Hawaiian sovereignty you must start with “Kaulana Na Pua”. For a comprehensive background of this mele I highly suggest you visit this page and read this essay written by Eleanor C. Nordyke and Martha H. Noyes. Here you will find a comprehensive breakdown of the important elements behind its composition, meaning, initial performance and subsequent reworking of its melody. To hear an early version of the song I would suggest hearing the version found on the “Folk Songs of Old Hawaii” album. You can listen to this album streaming on Spotify or purchase it on iTunes. For the track “Kaulana Na Pua” go here.

Over time this song has been recorded numerous times, one of the most well known versions being by Peter Moon from his album “Tropical Dreams” in 1979 with this version here:

This version is up beat with a spoken word introduction summarizing the meaning of the song. It moves into an instrumental introduction section that is repeated throughout the song featuring a complex guitar riff that sets up the bouncing slack key solo in the middle of the track. The song is powerful and strong with a depth of arrangement, rhythm, choral repetitions and instrumentation that makes it one of the most standout Hawaiian recordings ever put together. This song is not for the light of heart. Listening to it is a summary of all that is Hawaiian music and the Hawaiian mentality. It is complex, well thought out, yet free and simple at the same time, presenting the ultimate dichotomy of the Hawaiian perspective.

Another well known version is by the Makaha Sons from their 2001 album “Na Pua o Hawaii”. Listen to it here:

Here the song is presented at a slower tempo with more emphasis placed on the lyrics and the complex vocal stylings of Moon, John and Jerome with contributions by Manu Boyd and Teresa Bright. Here the song is nostalgic yet up lifting. It reminds us of the past with its melancholy choral arrangement yet offers hope for the future with its key modulations and uplifting choral vocality.

A recent version that really puts a modern stamp on the tune is by the ProjectKULEANA group. This well crafted video presentation of the song starts with a chant by Na Haumana o Ke Kula `O Samuel M. Kamakau and then moves throughout the islands to different locales and features different established Hawaiian entertainers singing various lines of the sings to the same rhythm track. You can see and here it here:

With the familiar guitar, ukulele and stand up bass along with interjections of an ipu rhythm, piano, slack key and steel guitar solos really fill out of the sound of this song complimenting the variety in vocal deliveries and phrasing by each singer. Each sections is set up with different back grounds offering a variety of visuals from `Iolani Palace to the back streets of Honolulu to Mana road in Waimea. It is truly an amazing compilation of audio and visual greatness, presenting the song as part of a bigger picture of the struggle of the Hawaiian in today’s world.

Next to “Kaulana Na Pua” the second most significant and recognizable song about Hawaiian sovereignty is “Hawaii ’78” by Israel Kamakawiwo`ole. This song has a fascinating history that was relatively unknown until the creation of this website by Kawika Crowley one of the original co-composers of this song. To learn the true history of this song I would suggest you visit this website and read his description of how and who composed originally composed this powerful song.

Listen to IZ’s version here:

While not a true sovereignty song in the sense that it directly calls for the establishment of an independent Hawaiian nation, the imagery of the lyrics concerning the “land that was taken away”, “the people in great great danger” and the repetition of the phrase “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono” clearly points towards a dissatisfaction with the current state of Hawai`i and a call towards an older time.

Regardless, the song has become an anthem of sorts with its haunting vocal introduction and meditative ukulele picking. This is all complimented with the powerful message that the lyrics present, telling the story of the kings and queens of the past crying upon visiting the modern world and seeing all the changes modern man has made to the the land. This imagery is matched by the strength of IZ’s vocal delivery when he sings “how would he feel”. By asking this open ended question is forces the listener to really look at and ask themselves in their heart where they stand on this most fundamental of questions, how would those from the past react upon seeing all this that has been put built on this land.

Finally I would like to present Liko Martin’s “All Hawaii Stands Together”, a song that has also been redone by the aforementioned ProjectKULEANA group. Here is the most well known version sung by Dennis Pavao’s:

At first with its geographical references to various places throughout Hawaii the song appears to be a simple call for the people of Hawaii to stand together in support of unity moving forward. But upon looking deeper the lyrics present a more poignant and powerful message beyond a simple call for unity. In the first chorus Liko tells the listener to “hold their banners high”and that “we shall stand as a nation” references to the banners in support of the re-establishment of the Hawaiian nation.

In addition, towards the end of the song Liko uses the phrase “Onipa`a kakou”. This is a phrase accredited to Queen Lili`uokalani meaning “to be steadfast, establish, firm, resolute and determined.” (credit: Queen Liliuokalani Trust website)

For another version of this song see the video project by Project KULEANA here:

For the same reasons I suggest you see the ProjectKULEANA version of “Kaulana Na Pua” I suggest you watch the above video as well.

While this is not a comprehensive summary of all the songs that reference or present ideology of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, these three songs are a good place to start. I would suggest you also listen to Palani Vaughan’s “Ka Mamakakaua”. Lyrics can be found here. Also “E Ola Ke Aliʻi Ke Akua” would qualify as would “Hawaii Pono’i” and “Hawaii Aloha”. Finally I would suggest “Ka Na`i Aupuni” while not an anthem of sovereignty definitely has the potential to take on this role.

As the Hawaiian sovereignty movement changes and develops over time more music will come to the forefront that expresses the feelings and political goals surrounding this movement. While this blog post is just a tip of the iceberg in analyzing the music surrounding the issue of sovereignty, I hope it encourages you to look deeper into this issue and learn more about the facts involved.