Four celebrated haku mele — composers of Hawaiian-language songs — discussed the art of Hawaiian composition Wednesday at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii.
Keali‘i Reichel, a kumu hula, Merrie Monarch judge and Hawaiian music star who has won more Na Hoku Hanohano awards than any mantel can hold, said an accomplished haku mele uses “words of extreme power.”
“When you listen to the radio today, within 20 seconds, you can tell if the mele was written from a Hawaiian point of view or if it was translated from English to Hawaiian,” he said. “It (the latter) doesn’t have the same power. It doesn’t have the same punch.”
Larry Lindsey Kimura, an assistant professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, started composing music in the late 1960s as part of an effort to revitalize the Hawaiian language, which was in danger of extinction.
“I wasn’t aware of anybody and I wasn’t thinking consciously of who else was composing, of my generation,” he said. “I don’t remember until way later, I think, Frank Hewett coming along. But in those days, there were old-timers, all entertainers in the tourist industry — which we still do have today.
“But times are changing. We don’t have to sing only for Merrie Monarch, or for hula, or for tourists. We compose because we want to, to commemorate certain events, certain happenings. So, it’s a good record of how we are living today as Hawaiians, as well.”
Manu Boyd, a kumu hula, television commentator, singer-songwriter and former leader of the Hoku-winning band Ho‘okena, noted everyone on the panel is “a learner of Hawaiian language.”
“None of us grew up speaking the language,” he said.
The forum was a Merrie Monarch Festival event, and Boyd said the old axiom of hula’s meaning being in the hands is a misconception born of ignorance.
“It’s all about the mele,” he said. “I am very selective of the mele that my own students now learn, whether I wrote them or whether they were composed by others. … My kumu hula is Robert Cazimero, but something that his kumu hula, Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake said — and it bears repeating — is that hula is the art of Hawaiian dance, and it expresses all that we hear, see, smell, taste, touch and feel. Hula is life.”
Hoku-winning singer-composer Kainani Kahaunaele said to be a haku mele, one needs to be “very knowledgeable in Hawaiian knowledge, in Hawaiian culture, … to how our kupuna created this classic music.”
“It showed me that I really needed to become very observant of my environment — and I don’t think I was, growing up,” she said.
She said an indication of a good song is “if our peers and our kupuna, they’re groovin’ along. …”
Reichel said he needs a muse to inspire his creativity.
“That muse may be a personal journey, love, heartbreak, frustration, anger — all those things — and being able to express it in a proper way. … That’s the ultimate goal …,” he said.
Added Boyd: “You cannot create things in a vacuum.”
“The mele you compose, the song or chant that you compose, has a personal meaning to you,” he said. “When you bring words to life, you put things together. … The haku lei is the weaver of leis. And so, haku mele is weaver of words.”
All four panelists agreed composers must consult with someone more knowledgeable in Hawaiian language and culture for a “mele paka,” a constructive critique of the composition, before sharing it publicly.
“Hawaiians believe that in the word there is power and you must be careful how you put words together,” Kimura said. “So, you should have a mele paka, which is editing, proofread, … and I express that to the students that I teach, as well, in the College of Hawaiian Language.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.