Mele, mele, mele…

I realize that the original intent of this blog, advocating for Pacific Islanders in film, has gotten a way from me a little bit. But I also realize that focusing just on film is a pretty restrictive limitation, especially when there are so many other forms of Pacific Islander representation and creative expression that are just as important and interesting – but perhaps aren’t recognized as such (as I mentioned with the tattoo). So I’d thought I’d keep my title (`cause it sounds so cool), but expand on my original theme by looking at, for example, some of my favorite traditional Hawaiian songs.

What we know as “Hawaiian” music is a very diverse genre that also reflects the changing demographic of Hawai’i’s occupants throughout the past two centuries. For example, when I hear the Spanish melodies prevalent in so many “traditional” Hawaiian songs, I cannot help but imagine and love the image of paniolos listening to their mentors,  Mexican vaqueros, singing as they travel the Hawaiian countryside on their horses. Or local kids discovering Bob Marley on their radios for the first time in the 70’s, as they cruise along the beaches in their rusty cars looking for cute boys or girls. Or Hawaiian ladies with bobbed hair and fluttery dresses dancing on the hotel rooftops of 1920’s Waikiki to the “hot” Hawaiian jazz tunes of Sol Ho’opi’i or Sam Ku.

In terms of music, though, I usually am drawn to the older songs, many of which are mele set to Western-style melodies. It’s not because they’re more “authentic,” but because they convey a particular way of thinking about the experience of “place,” and the effort to attempt to accurately name and describe it.

1) The first one is Holei, a very traditional song that describes the place of Kalapana, which is on the big island of Hawai’i. What is interesting to me about this song are two things: 1) it only has one verse! and 2) it is about a relationship between the sea and the land, of one speaking and the other listening. It’s easy to see this relationship in the contrast between the passive stillness of the land (the receptive listener), and the noisy moods of the sea (it roars and crashes, or the waves are lapping and the water is calm). This “conversation” became heated though, in 1986-1990, when Kilauea poured lava across the land, covering part of Kalapana. Did the land finally have enough? Or did Pele overhear and get annoyed? Listening to the sea, and her anger “bubbled” over? Hmm…

Kalapana (before it got smooshed by lava…)


`O Kalapana, kai leo nui,

Ua lono ka uka o Holei,

He uwa la Kalapana, e,

Kuli wale, kuli wale i ka leo,

He leo no ke kai, e.


It is Kalapana, the great-voiced sea,

The uplands of Holei listened,

Roaring is Kalapana,

Deafened, deafened indeed by the voice,

It is the voice of the sea.

Listen at:

2) The second is Hanohano Olinda by Ida Kapohakimohewa, which describes a place on Maui that is way up high towards Haleakala. Since it is ranch/pasture land, I would guess this is a paniolo song. If you listen to it, it has a sort of country twang. It also evokes the physical sensation of being in this place, celebrating its sometimes cold and rainy weather. For a contemporary listener, it also subverts expectations about Hawai’i by describing something not normally associated with tropical islands – such as the experience of a paniolo (cowboy) traveling through the chilly mountains (I like anything subversive :P).

Olinda, Maui (I can't remember where I found this image, sorry...)

Hanohano Olinda

Hanohano Olinda ku`u home kuahiwi

E ho`opumehana i ke ahi kapuahi

`O ka ne`e pa`a mai a ka ua nâulu

Kumaka kui kele` înikiniki i ka `ili

Ha`ina `ia mai ana ka puana

Kêhau kakahiaka `înikiniki pâpâlina


Glorious is my home in the mountains of Olinda,

Warmed by the fire in the hearth,

Sudden showers that creep and move along,

Seems like needles pricking the skin,

Tell the refrain,

The morning frost that stings the cheeks.

Listen at:

3) The last song is Ho’i I Ka Punana. It is a song about the ‘iwa, a frigate bird that is an important presence in traditional Hawaiian culture. The ‘iwa bird brings help and guidance to those who are lost, in suffering, or are in need – much like the role of a chief (mentioned in the last lines). In all the iconography for Hawai’i, the ‘iwa bird is absent. Perhaps that is a good thing, as something special doesn’t need to always be revealed to all, but only to those looking for it.

Iwa - Hawaiian Frigate Bird

Ho’i I Ka Punana

Lele manu lele e

Lele I halala nuku manu e

Kani le’a kani e

Kani kani kani manu mele e

Lele ho’olahalaha lele iwa e

I ka malamalama oi kelakela

Ho’i e ka lani, ho’i i ka heke e

Ho’i i kou punana kaulana e


Fly bird fly,

Fly halala nuku manu e,

Sing, joyfully, sing,

Sing, sing, sing, songbird,

Fly and soar iwa,

In its great brilliance,

Return chief, return to the top,

Return to your famous nest.

Listen at:


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