Nā Mele ‘Ohana, Featuring Vickie Ii and her Family
Kīhei de Silva
No, it’s not Tony Tauvela’s Tokyo-based hula studio—that would be Mele ‘Ohana Nā Hau‘oli. Nor is it Mark Ho‘omalu’s now-disbanded, Oakland-based troupe—that would be Nā Mele Hula ‘Ohana. And no, it’s not a track on Keali‘i Reichel’s latest compact disc release, Ke‘alaokamaile—that would be "Mele ‘Ohana."
Na Mele Ohana, known and treasured today by only the most intransigent of Hawaiian music lovers, is a Hula Records LP of almost dinosaur vintage. Released in 1962, it features the inimitable voices of Aunty Vickie Ii Rodrigues and her children—Lani, Lahela, Nina, Boyce, and John. That was 43 years ago. Tony Tauvela was still a hupekole kid; Mark Ho‘omalu and Keali‘i Reichel were very much in their wā kaiapa, their diaper days.
Back then, the album was defined by liner-note writer Kini Sullivan as comprised of much-treasured family songs that Aunty Vickie had selected from her own buke mele. These songs were her inheritance and kuleana; they had either been "preserved in [her] family or written by a member of it."
In Aunty’s day, custom dictated that nā mele ‘ohana were not to be sung outside the family without family permission. Custom also dictated that permission be granted only to outsiders who agreed to care for these mele with understanding and vigilance. Na Mele Ohana was thus an act of extraordinary generosity and risk; it represented a paradigm shift, a leap of faith, a rethinking of ‘au‘a ‘ia e kama.
This then, you see, is a real occasion, for it is the first time that Auntie Vickie has opened her mele book for anyone other than family and close friends. She herself has taken the pages from her book, from which the words below were transcribed. After all, many of you folks would be writing them down from the recordings, for your own mele books . . . so you might just as well get the words right.
Custom, today, dictates very little. We need look no further than recent hula competition performances of "Pua ‘Āhihi" and "Pua Lililehua" for evidence of the abuse that results when mele ‘ohana (and mele hālau) fall into the hands of the uninformed and the unscrupulous. Kahauanu’s love songs for Maiki—songs that are precious beyond measure to all of Maiki’s hula family—become grist for the entertainment mill: language unravels, meaning goes generic, nuance drops out, ‘eha gives way to the painted smile, and dance-from-the-piko becomes dance-for-the-trophy. "Maika‘i kūlana hale wili, ‘a‘ohe mea hana o loko, ‘eā, ‘eā." Yes, it’s a fine-looking sugar mill, but nothing works inside.
For the most part, Na Mele Ohana has escaped this fate. Maybe because it has been out of print for so long. Maybe because there is still power in its words, a residual palekana of "aia i ka ‘ōlelo ke ola . . ." to ward against abuse. Maybe because Auntie Vickie insisted that English translations not be included in the album’s liner notes. Maybe because Aunty Vickie’s children have been watchful, single-voiced keepers of her legacy. Maybe because we have all somehow, through her music, become members of Aunty Vickie’s extended family.
The reasons may be hard to pinpoint, but the legacy is not. In a quiet, unpretentious way, Aunty Vickie’s gift of mele has served as source and inspiration for many of the "classic" recordings of the last half-century. For example, the three most popular and highly-regarded versions of "Hilo One"—those by Hui ‘Ohana, the Mākāha Sons of Ni‘ihau, and Ho‘okena—would not exist today without Aunty Vickie’s seminal Na Mele Ohana. Hers is the mostly unrecognized but still definitive, senior version of this now multi-generational tribute to Sweet Emalia Kaihumua, "ka ‘eha a ka mana‘o."
So, too, with "Hali‘ilua," the Hannah Parrish wedding song that we now associate with the Mākāha Sons of Ni‘ihau and, if we remember hard enough, with Marcella Kalua and Kawai Cockett. All three versions are now regarded as classics, but their status derives almost exclusively from their allegiance to the genuine article—to the "Hali‘ilua" of Aunty Vickie’s Na Mele Ohana.
Ditto for Katie Stevens Ii’s bittersweet "Pua o Kamakahala," the straying-husband song whose audio genealogy begins with Aunty Vickie—the composer’s granddaughter—and runs through Bill Ali‘iloa Lincoln, the Hui ‘Ohana, Tony Conjugacion, Ho‘okena, the Lim Family, and Ikaika Brown.
Ditto for Thomas Sylvester Kalama’s "Pua Mikinolia," the let’s-return-to-love-making song whose audio genesis begins with Aunty Vickie (the composer’s granddaughter) and extends through Keali‘i Reichel and Raiatea Helm.
All told, at least nine of Na Mele Ohana’s twelve songs deserve recognition as kumu to the classics: the four above, in company with "He Inoa no Ka‘iulani" (Mākāha Sons of Ni‘ihau), "Kalama‘ula" (Ho‘opi‘i Brothers, George Helm), "Ku‘u Pua Lehua" (Marlene Sai, Lim Family), "Radio Hula" (Karen Keawehawai‘i), and "Latitū" (Bill Ka‘iwa, Ke‘alohi). The tenth, "Ku‘u Pua Malihini" (Robert Cazimero with the Mākāha Sons) shares kumu honors with Mahi Beamer’s second LP, Mahi, Hawai‘i’s Most Remarkable Voice. The eleventh, the drinking medley "Kāmau Kī‘aha" has "classic" written all over it but has yet to a find a champion—my vote would be for Nā Palapalai in back-and-forth, boy-girl mode.
Only the twelfth song, James Fulton Kutz’s 1913 composition "Fair Hawai‘i," can be viewed as a lump in the poi ‘uo‘uo i kāohi pu‘u of Na Mele Ohana; its insipid, all-English lyrics (silvery moon, murmuring waters, twinkling stars, sweet charms, southern seas) are best left in the era, continent, and mind-set of their origin.
Nine (or ten) for twelve ain’t bad when you’re tallying up the impact of a single album on the next half-century of Hawaiian music. Kini Sullivan’s somewhat acerbic prediction regarding the fate of these mele has, indeed held true. They have been quietly copied and copied again into the mele books of successive generations of discriminating Hawaiians. They have quietly made their way into the repertoires of our best traditional musicians. They have been the high-born Keali‘iwahamana who "pe‘e i ka ‘ōpū weuweu me he moho lā"—who take up residence in the clumps of grass and eschew the world of tricked-out sugar mills.
Na Mele Ohana did not make the Honolulu Magazine’s "50 Greatest Hawai‘i Albums of All Time." Few of the albums recorded by our hulu kūpuna appear on this list. No Alice Namakelua. No Agnes Malaby Weisbarth. No Bill Lincoln. No Kai Davis. No Leo Nahenahe Singers. No Halekulani Girls. And of the few that are recognized—Aunty Genoa’s Party Hulas (11), the Sons of Hawai‘i’s Five Faces (15), Hawai‘i’s Mahi Beamer (20), Lena Machado’s Hawai‘i’s Songbird (26), and the K-Lake Trio’s Hawaiian Style (28)—only Lena Machado’s work is of the same, manaleo vintage. A clump or two of weuweu in a landscape dominated by hale wili. What more can one expect from a panel dominated by lio Kaleponi and kūmeka kāma‘a ‘ike ‘ole for whom the following "Hawaiian" recording artists are personal favorites: John Cruz, Jerry Byrd, Ethel Azama, Ed Kenney, and the Galliard String Quartet (as reported by Keith and Carmen Haugen in aroundhawaii.com)?
My own copy of Na Mele Ohana was borrowed thirty years ago, more or less permanently, from my mother-in-law, Nita Howell, who got it first hand from Aunty Mackey, her golf-buddy of many, many years. "Mackey" is the nickname of Aunty Vickie’s third daughter—Lahela—so the album has extra significance for us—a significance compounded today by the fact that Nita, Mackey, Lani, and Vickie are no longer here.
We played Na Mele Ohana constantly on an old Zenith stereo, then on a Magnavox when the Zenith broke, then on a Kenwood turntable-cassette combo when the Motorola broke, then on a 3-media Sony when the Kenwood bit the dust. Somewhere early in the Motorola era, we stuck a dime over the stylus to keep the needle from skipping over the accumulated scratches; by ka wā Sony, we had to replace the dime with a heavier, scotch-taped penny. When the Sony expired, so, for several months, did the voice of Na Mele Ohana. By then, record players of every kind had gone the way of 8-track cassettes and beta format VCRs, so the Rodrigues family languished on our LP shelf until I cobbled together a low-budget Technics turntable, a salvaged RCA amplifier, and a couple of mismatched Sharp speakers.
My copy of Na Mele Ohana has thus survived four name-brand sound systems and is in the process, I suspect, of outliving a hybrid fifth. Today, we play Aunty Vickie’s LP according to the following protocol: wipe the record carefully, clean the needle carefully, apply the nickel carefully, lower the stylus carefully, and then give yourself over completely to the music of a past, golden age. Our rules are strict; the album is treated with reverence; we play it only when we intend to give it our full attention.
At least that’s what we did until late last month (July 2005) when Hula Records reissued Na Mele Ohana in compact disc format. The CD is now playing in the background, on my computer’s CD drive, as I work on this review. I’m half-attending to it and half-thinking about how to illustrate, in helu fashion, its new-found popularity:
It was previewed by Harry B. Soria Jr. on Territorial Airwaves.
It was reviewed, glowingly, by the Advertiser and Bulletin, by Harada and Berger.
It is now part of the regular rotation on KKNE (940AM).
It is even a featured album on the KINE 105 website.
And it is available everywhere, from Tower to Borders, from hawaiicalls.com to e808.com.
I am delighted, on the one hand, by the return of this incomparable collection to the contemporary Hawaiian ear. I am troubled, on the other, by the potential ease with which the new formatting can strip a mea laha ‘ole of its ‘ole, can render commonplace a thing of uncommon value. Will "Hali‘ilua" soon become a favorite of the Keiki Hula stage? Will "Pua o Kamakahala" become a pretty-flower song performed ad nauseam by relentlessly grinning hālau Kepanī?
There is nothing new about this quandary. "‘Au‘a ‘Ia" and "‘Ūlei Pahu"—powerful, prophetic chants of the 18th century—warn us to ‘au‘a—to withhold that which we treasure—lest the "sacred councils fall" and "we become as nothing." Carefully disguised, superficially humorous mele of a century later—"Neki Hula," for example—warn us of the dangers of cultural promiscuity: of sugar-mills, California horses, and ignorant shoemakers. Katie Stevens Ii, in "Pua o Kamakahala," addresses the same issues with the metaphor of "ka mea poepoe"—the round thing, the coin, the purely physical attraction. "Nele i ka mea poepoe, pau ka pilina ua pa‘a." Is this round thing, she asks, all that really holds us together? How do we maintain that which is truly valuable?
In 1962, Auntie Vickie responded to the laha/laha‘ole dilemma with the release of Na Mele Ohana. She chose to risk it all; to love, to include, to share. But she did it carefully and incrementally. She gave the Hawaiian but not the English. She provided hints but not explanations. She made us labor to understand. She trusted that, in the process, we would come to see ourselves as members of her extended and still-vigilant ‘ohana—of the single family that is our lāhui ‘ōiwi itself.
Her strategy worked—42 years ago. If it is to work again, a new generation will have to accept the responsibilities of family membership. And we’ll have to keep better watch than we have, of late, been keeping.