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Oh, You Sweet Thing

Melehina Groves

Ma ‘ane‘i mai ‘oe, ma ‘ane‘i mai ‘oe,
      oh you sweet thing . . .

Ma ‘ane‘i mai ‘oe, ma ‘ane‘i mai ‘oe
      na‘u ‘oe e honihoni aku

"Ho‘ohaehae" belongs to that rare category of song that has the power to evoke my most cherished childhood memories—in my mind, the faint buzz of an AM radio station will forever be associated with what real Hawaiian music sounds like. I can slide "Ho‘ohaehae" into a CD player today and be transported 20 years back in time to find myself suddenly driving up the Pali with my father, windows down, listening to KCCN 1420 AM, I can hear him singing along to a version of "Ho‘ohaehae," my young ears impressed when he mimicked the high notes. Who was that teasing voice calling out to, ". . . oh you sweet thing?" 

No wonder this mele fascinated even my young ears—its haku mele is Aunty Lena Machado, a master of Hawaiian poetical expression and music. I think of her as a "lawai‘a" of sorts—her diverse talents are woven together into a finely-meshed net, one that captures even the smallest of fish. Today, more than 60 years after "Ho‘ohaehae" was composed, I still fall completely under Aunty Lena’s spell. I would venture a guess that any lover of Hawaiian music has had a similar experience; Aunty Lena had her own unique gift for capturing the intimacy of our emotions, but also drew largely on her heritage—the mele and mo‘olelo of her ancestors—and their legacy of native expression. 

The newly published Lena Machado, Songbird of Hawai‘i celebrates Aunty Lena—not only the incomparable haku mele and performer—but also the independent Hawaiian woman, an every day hero whose story is told through the voice of her hānai daughter, Pi‘olani Motta. 

"This book is unprecedented because it is Aunty Pi‘o’s voice," said writer and researcher Kīhei de Silva. "The mele, the photographs, the mo‘olelo, they’re all of great value, but what really sets this book apart is its warmth, it is Aunty Pi‘o telling the story." Aunty Pi‘o herself exemplifies the quietly humble yet iron-willed determination shared by so many of our Hawaiian women. She refused to be deterred from sharing Aunty Lena’s story—no matter what the obstacle.

All 30 of the mele featured in Songbird were chosen by Aunty Pi‘o herself, for her own reasons, and are presented in the order she determined. The book itself is not designed to read as a research project, but rather welcomes the reader to he wai ‘au‘au—a pleasant splash in cool waters—to immerse himself in the relaxed yet refined art of storytelling that our kūpuna so effortlessly mastered.

"Kūpuna like Aunty Pi‘o, they have that gift. They still know how to tell stories. Our job is to be the ear, knowing that they will tell us exactly what we need to know, exactly how we need to know it. We just have to be patient enough to listen," said de Silva. 

You wouldn’t think that would be so difficult. Most of us cherish the rare opportunities to visit with kūpuna and let them talk story, sharing in their own quiet way, but not everyone sees the value in such exchange. Aunty Pi‘o had taken her idea for the book to several places before approaching Randie Fong, who "knows magic when he sees it." Fong, who was to become the musical editor for Songbird, immediately recognized the immeasurable value of Aunty Pi‘o’s vision—over twenty years of Aunty Lena memories lovingly compiled in a large manila envelope—patiently waiting to be shared. A team including de Silva, musical notator Robert Mondoy, and designer Stacey Leong was assembled and suddenly Songbird had found its voice.

"This is a perfect example of why we should each be telling our own stories in our own voices," said Fong. "Through Aunty Pi‘o, Songbird has given us a window into our kūpuna’s time, she trusted us with the gems of her history. That was just incredible."

"My lifestyle while growing up was appreciating things Hawaiian, the language and the culture," said Aunty Pi‘o. "Although during my time, we were told not to use the Hawaiian language, we were supposed to use English, Aunty used to send me to different areas to be raised by the kūpuna in those areas," she continued. Aunty Pi‘o was raised with the voices of kūpuna and from a young age recognized and appreciated the value in their traditional skills and wisdom.

Songbird reminds us that ours was an oral tradition. The native perspective of how knowledge passed from generation to generation was once the only perspective and it is still deserving of our respect and recognition. We indigenous people must continue to share our stories in our own diverse voices. We should celebrate the fact that these stories will be colored by the unique lens of the storyteller and support each other in the undertaking of projects like Songbird. We must reassure each other that our individual and shared experiences are valid. Many times I find interviewees worrying, "Maybe we should take that part of the story out, no one wants to hear that," when really, those are ka ‘īna‘i e moni ai ka pu‘u—the juicy parts that leave us wanting more, the parts that make us real! 

De Silva often reassured Aunty Pi‘o, "ʻAunty, this is about you and your memories and if somebody else remembers it differently, that’s fine.’ Part of oral history is respecting the storyteller and understanding that versions will change depending on people’s memories. Events are seen and recalled through individual lenses, and that’s part of the beauty of storytelling."

It was Aunty Pi‘o, perhaps more than anybody else, who would be able to share Lena Machado with all of us. In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, the role of Hawaiian women had nothing to do with being in charge of anything—but she was in charge of everything! As Aunty Pi‘o said, "She would kill you with kindness, but if that didn’t work, look out!"

Part of Aunty Lena’s magic is truly in the tightly-woven net she casts—a true ‘upena nae, ‘a‘ohe i‘a hei ‘ole! If her mastery of subtle, kaona-infused Hawaiian poetry does not intrigue, if the hint of English sprinkled here and there does not entice a non-speaker, if her lilting soprano and incredible range are still not enough, then the pure emotion of her music, capturing our experiences from the poignant to the kolohe, will surely catch even the most slippery of fish.