Volume 98 1989 > Volume 98, No. 1 > Hawaiian chant: dynamic cultural link or atrophied relic, by K. Silva, p 85-90
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To gain entrance into a hālau hula, a traditional school of Hawaiian dance, the student chants to those inside the building the words of the mythological hula deity, Hi' iakaikapoliopele:

Kūnihi ka mauna i ka la'i ē The mountain stands steep in the calm:
'O Wai'ai' ale'ale la i W ailua Wai'ale' ale of Wailua
Huki a'ela i ka lani ka papa 'auwai o Kawaikini The ditch-plank of Kawaikini is yanked up into the heavens,
Ālai 'ia a'ela e Nounou Then it's blocked by Nounou.
Nalo Kaipuha'a Kaipuha'a is hidden,
Ka laulā ma uka o Kapa'a ē And all that lies inland of Kapa' a.
Mai pa'a i ka leo Do not hold back your voice:
He 'ole kāhea mai ē. That is not how a chant begins. 1
1   Six Kaua 'i Island place-names are mentioned in this chant: Wai'ale'ale and Kawaikini are mountain peaks; Nounou and Kaipuha'a are hills; Wailua and Kapa'a are land sections.

Having demonstrated a grasp of the knowledge and the protocol associated with the hula, the student enters only after receiving a chanted response from within the school:

E hea i ke kanaka e komo ma ioko Ask the woman 2 to come in,
E hānai ai a hewa ka waha To be fed till her full mouth aches,
Eia nō ka uku lā 'o ka leo And to give in return the sound of her voice —
A he leo wale nō, 'ae. Yes, just the sound of her voice.
2   Although kanaka is translated here as 'woman', in reference to the deity Hi'iakaikapoliopele, the Hawaiian term implies no gender and it traditionally used to refer to both male female hula students.

Once commonly used among hula practitioners, the chanted request for entry and the ensuing response express the traditional Hawaiian value placed upon the use of language. The request peaks in intensity at its conclusion: “Do not hold back your voice: that is not how a chant beings”. The response states unequivocally, “Ask the woman. . . to give in return the sound of her voice — yes, just the sound of her voice”.

Hawaiians traditionally believed that language, especially when chanted, possessed mana, 1 that is, power derived from a spiritual source. The saying, 'O 'oe ka luaahi o kāu mele ('You bear both the good and the bad consequences of the poetry you compose') comes from the belief that the desired outcome of activities in various phases of life is, to a great extent, predicated upon the skillful manipulation of the mana inherent in language.

Most modern Hawaiians no longer hold this traditional belief, in large part because - 86 a of general lack of Hawaiian language expertise (most Hawaiians speak English or Hawai'i Creole English as our first language; 2 only an estimated 2,000 – or 1 percent – continue to be conversant in Hawaiian; Hawkins 1979:1). Despite the lack of a wide audience who can understand the language of chant texts, recent attempts to revive chanting have resulted in its remarkable emergence as a vital and relatively widely performed language art-form. Adapted for use in modern contexts, chanting is now generally performed in recognition of, and out of respect for, the way of life once prevalent in Hawai'i. Chanting also appears to provide an important means to affirm Hawaiian ethnicity in the culturally diverse (but predominantly Western) society of Hawai'i today.

Traditional chant contexts were numerous and varied; each context required the use of specific genres of chant texts and associated vocal styles. This use provided an important means of preserving and passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. Some chants were prescribed as to content; for example, prayer chants provided a means to address the many religious deities; genealogical chants substantiated the right of certain individuals and their families to political rule; praise chants honoured and glorified the gods, royalty and significant places; genital chants glorified procreative powers, especially of royalty; lamentations expressed praise, sorrow and mourning for the dead; what might be loosely referred to as “game” chants accompanied numerous kinds of physical activity, from the making of string figures to war exercises; certain kinds of love chants expressed both a regret at the loss of a loved one and a desire for his or her return; and informal, spontaneous chanting usually expressed personal emotions or opinions such as admiration, affection, ridicule or boasting. 3 It is difficult to think of an aspect of traditional Hawaiian life that did not include chanting in some way. Indeed, at one time or another, every Hawaiian expressed, affirmed and influenced the course of his or her life through the mana of language which was given focus and direction by chanting.

Although several of the prescribed genres of chant are still performed today, the informal, spontaneous genres are not, because most Hawaiians are no longer conversant in Hawaiian. Thus, modern chant performances frequently appear contrived, rehearsed and self-conscious, and only rarely show the traditional piquancy of spontaneous, chanted expressions of heartfelt emotions. To provide a context for the discussion of chanting in relation to its fundamental basis, the Hawaiian language, it seems appropriate here to offer a few comments on the recent history of the language.

Before the turn of the century, Hawaiian was spoken by most Hawai'i residents. In 1896, three years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by American expatriates, a law was passed which made the use of Hawaiian in schools illegal (Territory of Hawaii 1905:156). As English was then the sole legal language of instruction and the only language permitted on school grounds, children on all islands, with the exception of Ni'ihau, 4 were forced to abandon Hawaiian. In 1898, the annexation of Hawai'i by the United States effectively took away all opportunities for Hawaiian political self-determination and reaffirmed the prevailing status of English. These dramatic political, social and linguistic changes, combined with the influence of plantation immigrants from countries such as China, Japan and the Philippines, - 87 resulted in the decline of Hawaiian language use and gave rise to Hawai'i Creole English.

After the turn of the century, the decline in the number of Hawaiians who were knowledgeable in traditional language and culture was matched by a concomitant rise in those who embraced the English language and Euro-American culture. Of the various aspects of Hawaiian culture, chanting, in particular, was severely affected because of its inextricable association with the Hawaiian language. Increased Westernisation brought about the adaptation of many new and different values, which, in turn, resulted in the decrease of traditional chant contexts and the loss of many chant texts from the active repertoire. For example, as Hawaiians became Christianised, many traditional chants to the various Hawaiian deities came to be looked upon as pagan and were deliberately put aside and forgotten. 5

Hawaiian language and culture continued to decline until the late 1960s, when a renewed interest developed which has continued into the 1980s. 6 Hawaiian chanting figures importantly in this renewed interest. Although Westernisation has brought about several dramatic changes in chant contexts, uses and functions, chanting is being adapted with increasing frequency for use in several governmental, educational, commercial and private activities of modern Hawaiian society. For example, chanting has been made a part of the annual opening of the Hawai'i State Legislature; the annual May Day programmes staged by most public and private elementary, intermediate and high schools; night club entertainment designed for tourist audiences; chant and dance competitions; and especially programmes mounted by hālau hula.

In the face of increasing Westernisation, and with varying degrees of success, hālau hula strive to perpetuate traditional forms of learning associated with the hula and have become the single most important force in keeping chanting alive in recent years. Because chanting is no longer an integral part of daily life, most, if not all, chanters actively performing receive much of their exposure to chant in hālau hula and, as a result, claim repertoires largely associated with the rituals and dances of their schools. Recently, however, some hula instructors have made efforts to revive chanting associated with other contexts as well. 7

Most hula instructors use basic Hawaiian phrases and terminology while teaching; however, because only a few are conversant in the language, to the best of my knowledge, none actually teaches in Hawaiian, with the exception of instructors from Ni'ihau, where all residents continue to speak the language on a daily basis. The general lack of Hawaiian language expertise has given rise to several problems in chanting, such as mispronunciation and inappropriate use of texts. In addition, owing to the lack of an understanding of chant texts, performers frequently exhibit blank facial expressions and inappropriate hula movements.

The shortcomings of modern chant and dance performances notwithstanding, few activities in Hawai'i today unite large numbers of Hawaiians in a common cultural activity as do hālau hula. 8 Annual chant and dance competitions, held in response to the renewed interest in Hawaiian performing arts, provide Hawaiians with a similar opportunity to come together. 9 At the largest competitions, which may feature as many as 15 to 20 solo chanters and 30 to 40 dance groups, several thousand people - 88 gather to support and encourage their favourite competitors. The instructors and students of participating hālau hula strive for excellence in performance as supporters anxiously compare their selections for the highest awards with those of the judges.

As exciting and worthwhile as the competitions can be, they are unquestionably removed from the real-life contexts of the chants themselves. For example, a genealogical chant may be performed without the indicated member of the royal family present, simply because the chanter wishes to compete in the vocal style of genealogical chants. Similarly, a love chant may be performed without the loved one present, because the chanter wishes to compete in the style of love chants.

Although competitions provide a valuable means of increasing public awareness of chanting, they appear to be partly responsible for an increasing lack of musical spontaneity and involvement among some Hawaiians, who seem to have been influenced by a Western concept of musical performance clearly expressed in the competitions: musical performance in which a sharp distinction is made between the performers and the audience, and with the presupposition that some people are musical and others are not. Such a distinction is generally unnecessary from a traditional Hawaiian viewpoint which, while recognising special ability in individuals, maintains that everyone is capable of acceptable musical expression.

Clearly, chanting is no longer as important as it once was. Political, social, linguistic and cultural changes have made it necessary for Hawaiians to redefine the role of chanting in our lives. Although hālau hula and chant and dance competitions provide major support for the maintenance of chanting, there is a growing sense among Hawaiians that mere maintenance is not sufficient. All of which gives rise to the question, “Can we modern Hawaiians integrate chanting into our daily lives in ways both meaningful to us and true to our forebears?”

Recent efforts to promote use of the Hawaiian language indicate that this is possible. Increasing support from the private sector and the Hawai'i State Government has aided efforts to increase the pool of native speakers of Hawaiian through the nonprofit Pūnana Leo Hawaiian language preschools and the Hawai'i State Department of Education Hawaiian Immersion classes for children in kindergarten and first and second grades. 10 Such efforts have already begun to indicate that, as we revive our language and culture, we create increased opportunities to reassert the centrality of chanting to our daily lives. Thus, there is reason to believe that this dynamic language art-form may once again play a meaningful role not only in formal, prescribed contexts, but also in informal, spontaneous ones. In addition to affirming Hawaiian ethnicity, chanting may once again become a favoured means to communicate ideas and feelings — however special, commonplace, serious or amusing — that engage the mind and stir the heart. Then, perhaps, we may regain access to the rich resources of mana within both our language and ourselves.

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  • Bickerton, D. and C. Odo, 1976. Change and Variation in Hawaiian English. VolsI–III. Social and Linguistic Institute. Honolulu, University of Hawai'i.
  • Carr, E. B., 1972. Da Kine Talk: From Pidgin to Standard English in Hawaii. Honolulu, University Press of Hawaii.
  • Hawkins, E., 1979. Hawaiian Sentence Structures. Canberra, Australian National University. Pacific Linguistics Series B — No. 61.
  • Pukui, M. K., 1983. 'Ōlelo No'eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings. Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.
  • —— M. K., E. W. Haertig, M. D. and C. A. Lee, 1972. Nānā i ke Kumu: Look to the
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  • Source. Vol. I. Honolulu, Hui Hānai.
  • Tatar, E., 1982. Nineteenth Century Hawaiian Chant. Pacific Anthropological Records No. 33. Honolulu, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.
  • Territory of Hawaii, 1905. Reviewed Laws of Hawaii. Honolulu, Hawaiian Gazette Co.
1   For detailed discussion of mana see Pukui, Haertig and Lee 1972.
2   For a detailed discussion of Hawai'i Creole English, more commonly referred to by people in Hawai'i as Pidgin English, see Bickerton and Odo 1976, and Carr 1972.
3   For a detailed discussion of traditional chant types, see Chapter 3 of Tatar 1982.
4   Unlike most Hawaiians elsewhere, Ni'ihau residents contiue to speak Hawaiian as their first language, partly because of the long-term efforts of the island's owners, the Robinson family, to support the residents' comparatively traditional life-style, and partly because of the independence of the people themselves, described in the traditional saying, Ni'ihau i ke kīkū ('Ni'ihau leans back firmly'; i.e., Ni'ihau people are independent; Pukui 1983:252).
5   Most surviving prayer chants are found in written records left by 19th century Hawaiians who were less removes from traditional Hawaiian culture than successive generations, and who could boast of an extremely high literacy rate and a substantial number of accomplished writers.
6   People in Hawai'i commonly refer to this renewed interest as the “Hawaiian Renaissance”.
7   For example, using old sound recordings and written texts of 19th century Hawaiians as guides, some hula instructors are now teaching students certain kinds of genealogical and love chants not traditionally associated with the hālau hula.
8   Some instructors have told me they estimate the enrolment in their schools to be as high as 300 to 400 students.
9   The longest-running of these competitions is the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Competition held each April since 1971.
10   Following the opening in 1984 of the first Pūnana Leo school on the island of Kaua'i, there more have opened, one each on the islands of O'ahu, Maui and Hawai'i. The schools serve a combined total of 70 children. In September 1987, two Department of Education Hawaiian Immersion calsses began, one on O'ahu and the other on Hawai'i. The classes serve a combined total of 65 children.