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Noho Pono i ka Ihu – Tips from a Hawaiian Language Judge

Kīhei de Silva

I served as one of three Hawaiian language judges for the 15th annual Hula ‘Oni Ē hula competition held last Labor Day weekend at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. After critiquing 48 kahiko performances over the three-day event, I took some time to review my notes and think through my all-too-often repeated comments on the 48 score sheets. What follows below constitutes a top-ten list of tips for ‘ōlelo improvement. These won’t guarantee a victory in the competition, but they should help to raise the integrity and quality of all that is voiced by our po‘e hula. Tips 1–3 address the texts that are submitted in advance by each hālau. Tips 4–10 address the actual performance of those texts.

Although I plan on sharing these tips with next year’s participants, hopefully as part of the Hula ‘Oni Ē application packet, I thought that the list might also be of interest to the larger hula community. No laila:

1. Because you are judged on every word uttered during the course of your presentation, please submit accurately marked texts and translations for all mele to be performed: oli, ka‘i, mele hula, and ho‘i. Use the Hawaiian Dictionary to double-check your diacriticals; this is your job, not mine. If you choose to mark or not mark specific words in non-Dictionary fashion, please attach a short note of explanation.

2. Please do not submit texts that are xeroxed from Nā Mele Welo (or other mele books), old workshop handouts, CD liner notes, or entry forms from previous hula competitions. Do not submit printouts from or other websites. Short-cut practices of this sort do not demonstrate much commitment to our ‘ōlelo. Take the time to sit at your computer and type these mele for us in as accurate and careful a manner as you are capable.

  • Use a single, easy to read Hawaiian font when typing your mele.
  • Be sure to turn off your word processor’s auto-capitalize function. Otherwise every "‘i" and stand-alone "i" will show up in eye-boggling caps: "Ho‘I I ka la‘I."
  • Be sure that you’re giving us actual kahakō and ‘okina—not dingbats, umlauts, umlauted "y"s, carets, tildes, and other typographic symbols.

3. Please identify the sources of all your texts, for example: "Hulas of Kaua‘i, Mary Kawena Pukui, Bishop Museum Archives. Translation: Pukui." Or: "As taught to us by Kimo Alama-Keaulana who learned it from Adeline Maunupau Lee. Translation: Kimo Alama-Keaulana." Or: "I composed it for my kaikamahine to use as their oli for this competition." Judges often find themselves in the awkward position of not knowing the history, genesis, or legitimacy of a specific text. If, for example, we are expecting "E pua ana ka makani" and we see/hear, instead, "He pua na ka makani" we don’t want to dock you for garbling an old text if, in fact, you are chanting a legitimate version with which we aren’t familiar.

4. You will not create a favorable first and last impression if your dancers’ opening and closing kāhea begin, respectively, with "‘Ai . . ." and "Heʻinoa . . . ." "‘Ae" is correct, as is the ‘okina-less "He inoa."

5. "Ho‘opuka e ka lā ma ka hikina" is, by far, the most frequently performed entrance hula in this competition. It is also the most frequently mispronounced. "Hopuka," "nā hiwa," "ke ahiwahiwa," "ke ‘ā‘iwa‘iwa," and especially "nā‘ali‘i" are the all-too-familiar stumbling blocks in most of these renditions. "Ho‘opuka," "nā ‘iwa," "ke āiwaiwa" and the okina-less "nā ali‘i" are correct. The orthography of these words is neither controversial nor esoteric. The marks are in the dictionary; they simply need to be followed.

6. The big "Ō." For some reason, "o"s of all varieties attract an inordinate amount of vocal emphasis, regardless of their function in the phrases to which they belong. Most obvious, perhaps, is the dreadful "He inoa nŌ Hi‘iakaikapoliŌpele." The "no" here takes no kahakō, translates to "for/belonging to/honoring" (as in "A name chant for . . ."), and is by no means the emphatic second "nō" of something like "No Lunalilo nō he inoa"—"For Lunalilo, indeed, a name chant." The "o" of ". . . ikapoliŌpele," to finish my example, is unmarked and means "of" as in "the bosom of Pele." Like "no," it is a low-volume element in the correctly pronounced "He inoa no Hi‘iakaikapoliopele."

7. The double consonant, "n"s and "m"s in particular. There are no double consonants in Hawaiian; all syllables end in vowels. Still, words like "lani," "manu," "kama" and "mālama" are often chanted "lan-ni," "man-nu," "kam-ma," and "mālam-ma." This is a western-mouth affliction: easy to contract, hard to get rid of. Please work at a cure.

8. Dipthongs. Chanters seem much more aware, these days, of the need for tightly pronounced "lei" and "nei" (as opposed to the loosely formed "lay" and "nay"). Now it’s time to work on the contrasting sounds of "mai" and "mae," and "kai" and "kae." The first word in each pair is tight, the second, loose. Confused pronunciation of the words in not only incorrect but potentially insulting: "mae" means "to wither"; "kae" is "rubbish, excrement." We don’t want to extend an invitation to "come here" ("he mai") with words that mean "a withered thing" ("he mae"). Nor do we want to honor the little prince Kahakuohawai‘i by placing him in the "kae" of Huīa.

9. The rising end-note. Traditional mele hula are two- or three-note affairs, and each line consistently ends on the same or lower note than the note just before it. This isn’t an arbitrary pattern—one without reason or purpose. It is driven by Hawaiian pronunciation itself: stress naturally falls on penultimate syllables—on the next-to-last syllables of most words. Because a rising note is a stressed note, rising notes at the very ends of lines make proper, stressed-penultimate pronunciation nearly impossible. Kumu who make up their own tunes for mele that are otherwise voiceless—or who, for some strange reason, want to alter a traditional tune—are therefore advised to avoid the rising end-note. It can wreak havoc on your ‘ōlelo. Here, for example, is a visual rendering of what the REN can do to the well-known mele and tune for a Lili‘u train ride:

Eia mai au ‘o MakalapuĀ

Hō‘alo i ka ihu o ka LanakilĀ

‘O ke ku‘e a ka hao a‘i KūwilĪ

Ka hiona ‘olu a‘o HālawĀ


10. "Ho‘i ē, ho‘i lā, ho‘i e ka ‘ohu ē" is, by far, the most frequently performed exit hula in this competition. Like its bookend mele "Ho‘opuka e ka lā," it suffers from misreadings and mispronunciations that, after years of repetition, have almost become the norm. Two deviations are particularly disturbing. First: "Ho‘i e ka ‘ohu ē" has morphed into "Ho‘i i ka ‘ohu ē." The former is the original and means "the mist returns" (the intermediary "e" is a "tra-la-la," a rhythm-keeper; it has no meaning or function; "‘ohu" is the subject of the line). The latter is a contemporary aberration and means "returns in/to the mist" ("i" indicates the ‘ohu-location to which a never-identified subject returns). Second: the mele concludes with "Kupu a‘e ke aloha / Noho pono i ka ni‘o – Love sprouts and grows / To dwell harmoniously in the heights." "Ni‘o," however, has become a throwaway word, a blank to fill, a haka to pani. And chanters are filling this blank with all manner of inappropriate words: "niho," "nio," "niu," and "ihu," for example. These are meaning-killer words; they completely undermine the life- and love-giving message with which a hula performance is meant to conclude. Love doesn’t sprout and reside in the "tooth," in the "to criticize," in the "coconut," or in the "nose." Noho pono i ka ihu. Tsa!

Hula people are quick to say that language is the foundation of dance. Hula, we say, is language-driven. The words come first. You can’t have hula without language. And so on. If we are to do more than pay lip service to this principle, we must pay more careful attention to what we are chanting and how we are chanting it. If we can spend hundreds of dollars on costumes and lei, if we can spend hundreds of hours on the mechanics of hands and feet, then we should be willing to give at least equal attention to our mother tongue. Otherwise, we’ll continue to reside harmoniously in the nose.

Hula ‘Oni Ē, 2006 – ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, Kahiko Division Winners

1. Ka Lā ‘Ōnohi mai o Ha‘eha‘e, Tracie and Keawe Lopes, wahine, "Ka ‘Ō‘ō."

2. Nā Pualei o Likolehua, Leina‘ala Kalama Heine, wahine, "He Nani Hā‘upu."

3. Ka Pā Lehua o Ka Lei Lehua, Snowbird Bento, kaikamahine, "Kalākaua he Inoa."

© Kīhei de Silva, 2006