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Nā Mele ‘Ohana, by Kaha‘i Topolinski

Kaha‘i Topolinski

The essay below was published in the Hawaiian Music Foundation’s newsletter Ha‘ilono Mele in January 1976. It was the first of a series of three essays (the second and third parts were published by HMF in February and March of the same year) and is reprinted here with Kaha‘i Topolinski’s permission. Parts two and three will be reprinted in the upcoming spring and summer issues of Kaleinamanu, again with the author’s consent. Although Ha‘ilono Mele has not been published for almost a quarter-century, we hope that this reprint will stir fond memories of that brave and groundbreaking publication, and of the late George Kanahele, its founder. 



The European discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Captain James Cook in 1778 represented the beginning of drastic cultural change for the Hawaiian people, change that affected psychological, cultural, and social values governing their lifestyle. By the 1850s, the Hawaiian people were no longer the product of an exclusively Hawaiian environment. They had become "Children of the turning tide," as described by ‘Ai Kanaka in the prophetic "‘Au‘a ‘Ia," a chant in which he admonished future Hawaiians to hold fast to the knowledge of their heritage or all would be lost. Today, this synthetic facade is so readily and completely accepted that many writers assume that all traces of the ancient Hawaiian life and customs have vanished and that what has replaced this original identity is not likely to be genuine. For the casual observer today, there is little visible of the indigenous cultural traditions, but for someone willing to take the time to win the confidence of the Hawaiians, who tend to mask carefully their deep, intimate feelings and customs from those they feel might scoff or misunderstand, there are many things to demonstrate that the old habits, mannerisms, and customs are still perpetuated today within the family.  

The faithful keeping of family mele or chants, with the accompanying dances, is one significant ancient custom still practiced by a few Hawaiian families. The unbroken continuity of such sources assures reasonably reliable accounts and trustworthy examples of the traditions and particular history of a family lineage in a given locale.

A special ingredient of Hawaiian chants is the all-important kaona or hidden meaning in the choice of words. The haku mele or composer knew the importance of kaona and was skilled in creating mele that featured hidden meanings as a guarantee of the success and quick acceptability of the chant. For the Hawaiian mind, the principal charm of the chant lies in the words, and, in many instances, the kaona is expressed in exquisite poetic imagery. Series of word paintings describing the beauties of nature may be used in such profusion that they tend to bewilder someone accustomed to the restraints of most modern poetry. However, they who seek in Hawaiian chants only the kind of secondary meaning that refers to human passion entirely lose sight of the fact that a people capable of such imagery and marvelous depictions of the natural beauty surrounding them could hardly, at the same time, have vulgar intentions. The human emotions involved with love and sex have occupied the constant attention of poets throughout the ages. It is to the Hawaiian’s credit that he treats this universal theme in such beautiful and figurative language. 

The most refined mele has at least two meanings, achieving the second one by pun, allegory, word play, or similar devices. In composing mele, especially mele inoa or name chants, the composer was aware of the fact that many Hawaiian names are descriptive and nearly all of them compounded and hence capable of at least once secondary translation. And, of course, he could and did capitalize on the ambiguity through contractions and other manipulations of his poetic design. 

The cleverness of the composer was also demonstrated by the way in which he took advantage of the language, for, with its paucity of sounds, the same phonetic combinations might carry a number of meanings not necessarily related. The custom of omitting all but the most essential words in poetry left much to be supplied by the imagination, and the inferences thus drawn depended considerably on the predisposition of the auditor. Additionally, the key to an entire passage might be in a single secret word, and, lacking its proper translation, the entire meaning might be very different from the one intended. 

There were those learned in the art of reading these secret or double meanings, but there were also composers so cunning in their manipulation of words and meaning that none but those familiar with the specific circumstances involved could fully comprehend the complete meaning of a mele, although other interpretations might serve the general listener. According to the late 19th century Hawaiian historian Samuel M. Kamakau, the chants were couched in language that "very few could understand, but the tone and the voice [of the chant] was all that some people cared about." It was the story in poem fashion that came first and then the mele of a few tones. "Because of the limited tonal range of Hawaiian chants, monotony is an outstanding characteristic in the reciting of family chants."

When these chants are heard by people accustomed to only Western music, the usual result is boredom. However, the attitude is quite different when the listener knows and can appreciate the subtle vocal ornaments employed by the chanter; then the mele becomes a divine piece of phonetic art, for it is the words themselves that establish the importance of the story.

Due to the fact that the ancient Hawaiian communicated verbally and lacked a written form of language, it is my opinion that the claim made by many writers that all family mele were handed down from generation to generation with faultless accuracy is misleading and simply not true. Even in a society that has a written language to preserve its literature, inaccuracies and "variants" occur in the course of transmission. The natural result of depending entirely on memory and transmitting the family mele by word of mouth, therefore, was the gradual accumulation of many versions of a single mele. Even those concerned with genealogical descent, which were given the greatest care to be preserved accurately, are sometimes known in many variants. However, there are also extraordinary examples of compositions—some hundreds of lines long—that have been maintained with complete accuracy from the time of their creation. Examples of the chants belonging to the gods, notably to Pele and Hi‘iaka, are remarkably consistent, a fact that may be partly attributed to the directness of their language.

The types of mele found in a prized collection of family chants consist of: 1) mele inoa, or name chants, 2) mele koihonua, or genealogical chants, 3) mele ma‘i, or chants describing the sexual parts of the body, and 4) kanikau, or death chants. The texts of these chants, especially the mele inoa and the mele koihonua, contain a great deal of family history dealing with legendary or real events involving individual family members. Some of these historical events go back to the time when gods and goddesses walked among the people; some depict the people’s migration to the various islands, the great wars, the calamities, or the passionate stories of deep, intense love, which is so often the theme of Hawaiian mele. 

The koihonua chant is one that ties the forefathers of a Hawaiian family together with their descendents, composed of both blood and adopted relatives, and honors their significant or colorful deeds by assuring their preservation within the family’s consciousness. A comparison of the koihonua chants of Kuali‘i, Peleiholani, Hikikuiolono, and Umikukaailani, as found in the collection of the late Mrs. Victoria Kuali‘i Sumner Ellis Buffandeau, discloses an accuracy in content that is almost unbelievable. In these magnificent compositions, careful consideration has been given to the accurate preservation of the names and the details of this noble family’s history, running chronologically from the white heat of the creation of the gods right down to the present. Thus the koihonua affords the Hawaiian family a unique peace of mind springing from a secure knowledge of its past in support of its challenges for the future. 

Dr. Mary Kawena Puku‘i states that there were two types of chants that were especially composed to honor the first-born child (hiapo) of the Hawaiian family. They were the mele inoa and the mele ma‘i. The mele inoa praised the name of the newborn child and gave documented proof of the right of the child to bear the chosen name. The mele ma‘i honored the genitals of the newborn child, which were worthy of blessing and praise because that child would be the one from whose loins or womb would come a hiapo in the next generation to perpetuate the bloodline. 

The composition of a mele ma‘i is characterized by describing either the genitals or the act of love. The words are highly figurative, using objects in nature to illustrate human creation. For example, often the flower represents the female sex organ, and a bird might designate the male sex organ. So skilled were the composers in the choice of words than any sign of vulgarity or blatantness is absent from the mele. The result of such care in fashioning this kind of mele is a beautiful story of love and the procreation of the race. At times, a mele ma‘i is light-hearted and given to a play on words that have certain sounds in them to evoke for the listener a mental picture of the story being recounted.

The mele ma‘i was of such a highly personal nature that dances created for it were usually only performed in the privacy of family gatherings, such as at a birthday feast for the person honored. The following example of mele ma‘i belongs to the family collection of my wife and is used here with her permission. No attempt is made to explain the underlying or secondary meaning of this mele, for that privileged information is an exclusive prerogative of her family.

He pua lehua mai luna la
He lehua ho‘ohenoheno la
He pua ia no ne‘i la
I ku ka la‘au nui la
Ua pulu i ka ua noe la
Ohu hali‘i i ke aloha la
Ha‘ina ka pua lehua la
Ka Beauty o ka pua kea la
Pua kea i pili i ka poli la
He ma‘i no Kamamoakuali‘i
The lehua blossom ascends the heights
The sweet blossom travels below
You are the (desired) flower
On the large base of the tree
Soaked by the misty rain
The mist that fills (the opening) of love
My love song of Lehua ends
Behold her beauty
Love’s desire, the bosom of puakea
In honor of the Chiefess Kamamokuali‘i








Throughout his lifetime, the person to whom a composition was dedicated was the sole owner of the mele. At his death, all his mele became the property of the family, unless otherwise stipulated by him. Thus, the mele blessed for life and immortalized that family member, and through that person prestige and honor were added to the ‘ohana or family.

Another important type of mele was the kanikau, a eulogistic chant honoring a deceased person. The primary content of this type of chant was the sincere reiteration of all the stories and accomplishments pertaining to his life. Such a mele was composed by anyone who might have had a close attachment to the deceased. The chant was recited with sobbing lamentation in the presence of the surviving family members at the place where the deceased was laid to rest. The kanikau evoked tremendous emotion on the part of the deceased’s family and provided a complete release of grief. As the poetic lamentation fell from the lips of the chanter, tears flowed unchecked, without shame, while the family relived in their memories the life of their departed loved one. Often, along with the kanikau, the deceased’s favorite music and hula were performed in his honor, as was done for Queen Dowager Emma in 1885. The following kanikau, translated from the Hawaiian language, are expressive of this style of chant. The first chant was written for Princess Victoria Kamamalu, who died May 29, 1866.

It is you, O young rosy bud,
O changing, sacred flower for a lei of Haona;
The lei, when worn, brings fond memories of the night,
Of the short night of ma‘akuni, of my companion.
The rain scatters the hala fruit of Kanakea,
The young bracts of the hala blossom fall too,
The overripe fruit, bruised, sends forth a fragrance
The sweetness reaches the lehua blossoms beloved of the birds.
I am bruised and wounded by grief
I hurt to my innermost depths
There is none other like you, my dear,
My child! My child!

The second kanikau was written for the High Chiefess Nancy Wahinekapu Sumner Ellis. The word "Naki" is the Hawaiian translation for the name Nancy. This kanikau was composed by Nancy’s half-sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Keawepo‘o‘ole Sumner Achuck, who was the great grandmother of Nalani Olds of Honolulu. Note the difference of emphasis in the text of this chant.

O my Naki, not my companion of childhood days.
One with whose troubles I shared alike.
Born of the same blood, the ocean has separated us.
Alas, you are gone forever, the separation is permanent.
Oh—you have deserted me . . .
O Naki I shall never see your face again . . .
Here I am left with a great burden in my heart
Love for you makes my tears flow unchecked
Oh, my sister! My sister, farewell! Farewell!

All mele were so extremely important to individual family members that there developed within each family a master bard who was not only skilled in composition but also adept at memorizing and retaining the family’s chants.

Any person in a family who was not an expert but wished to compose a sarcastic mele consulted with an old composer who would assist in inventing the most scurrilous possible attack and then be counted on not to divulge the secret. Certain family members have thus been taken entirely by surprise in some public gathering by suddenly hearing a mele chanted abusing them very effectively and leaving no room for doubt as to the identity of the one being insulted. There was no recourse except to improvise an answer on the spot or to retire in tears, as some women have done, awaiting a suitable opportunity for inventing a reply and delivering it at the right psychological moment. If the unlucky object of the spite could contrive an extemporaneous answer clever enough to silence her tormentor, then the one who initiated the insult would lose face publicly. 

Family mele sometimes took the form of great epics; these were of unique importance in the life of the individual family members, especially among the papa ali‘i or royalty. Chiefs kept bards and great chanters to recite their mele inoa and those of their ancestors, and heralds to proclaim their rank and unbroken decent from the gods. Thus, family chants were useful in proving lineage and kinship, whether commoner or ali‘i. When the child who was to become Kamehameha the Great was born, the family chant or mele inoa of Kahāopulani was publicly performed to prove her blood lineage to the child and thus give her the right to nurse the child and rear him in secrecy away from the clutches of King Alapa‘i, who had ordered the child destroyed. And, in like manner, the right and honor to recite the "Mele Inoa no Kamehameha" at the unveiling of his statue in the rotunda of the nation’s Capitol in Washington D.C. was accorded to Mr. Ka‘upena Wong, not only because he is a great chanter, but because he is also a direct descendant of the Chiefess Kahāopulani.

In summary, then, the Hawaiians preserved a mental record of their family mele so that they might be made known to successive generations and so that their progeny would benefit in this knowledge, binding them to the entire ‘ohana in a network of family genealogy and personal histories, mingled with legend and fantasies of the human mind. All these epics penetrated the very being of the ancient Hawaiians, generating an abstract supernatural force enabling them to have more than a biological relationship to their ‘ohana. Their sensed, emotions, and psyches were quickened or attuned to each other and also to their departed kūpuna or ancestors who were brought closer to their living descendents each time the family bard recited with pride the accomplishments, mele inoa, and the history of the family’s ancestors.

Hawaiian family compositions were concerned with themes found in life development surrounding the individual. Thus, a birth, death, or other significant event was a prime reason for creating a new mele to record and preserve it for future generations. Hawaiian family mele in ancient times were committed to the memory of family bards. Hours would be spent in memorization. Honest efforts were put forth to preserve with complete accuracy all family mele. However, due to the imperfections and limitations of man, some of the family mele that have come down to us today are filled with inaccuracies, abridgements, and exaggeration.

Hawaiian mele, including family mele, are saturated with kaona or double meaning representing a surface meaning as well as a secondary meaning understood by those for whom it is intended. Each family had its own archives, its collection of mele. This was a treasury of knowledge that unlocked the inner or private secrets of a family and its origin. Not having a written language did not hinder the Hawaiian from preserving a record of the family embodied in the mele composed for and by the family to preserve its history and lineage.

Ua pau, ua hala lakou
Koe no na hana no‘eau

Their days are over
They have all departed
Their artistic handiwork lives on.


(End of part one of a three-part series.)



© John R. Kaha‘i Topolinski, 1976

Victoria kualiyi sumner ellis buffandeau, painting - kahai topolinski  large

image courtesy of: J. R. Kahaʻi Topolinski

Mrs. Victoria Kuali‘i Sumner Ellis Bufandeau, whose family mele collection is referred to in the accompanying article, "was typical of her aristocratic generation, as the Hawaiian monarchy fought for its existence in the 1890s" (Topolinski, Hawaiian Music Foundation, Ha‘ilono Mele, January 1976).

Elizabeth keawepoyoole sumner - kahai topolinski  large

image courtesy of: J. R. Kahaʻi Topolinski

"Mrs. Elizabeth Keawepo‘o‘ole Sumner Achuck, composer of the kanikau or death chant for Nancy Sumner. She was also the great-grandmother of Mrs. Nalani Olds" (Topolinski, Ha‘ilono Mele, January 1976).

Victoria kamamalu and nancy wahinekapu sumner - kahai topolinski  large

image courtesy of: J. R. Kahaʻi Topolinski

"Left to right: Princess Victoria Kamamalu (heir presumptive to the Hawaiian throne, and sister of King Kamehameha IV) and high chiefess Nancy Wahinekapu Sumner" (Topolinski, Ha‘ilono Mele, January 1976).

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