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He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani

Kīhei de Silva


Mele ma‘i, genital or procreative chants, were traditionally composed at the birth of a child—especially the first born—in order to celebrate and encourage the perpetuation of that child’s family line. Hawaiians believed that "through the piko came descendants" [1], and they expressed their belief in chant and dance.

Soon after the birth of a child, the people gathered to name it. Two names were selected for each child, a regular name and a pet name for his sex organs. These parts were not considered ugly or disgusting to the Hawaiians, who loved them as the life-giving power. Consequently they were given a pet name, and then the people composed a song or chant in honor of that name and, of course, a dance to go with it [2].

The higher the child’s rank, the greater the likelihood that more than one chant would be composed in honor of his or her ma‘i. High rank also increased the likelihood that these mele ma‘i would be composed regardless of primogeniture, that additional mele ma‘i would be composed throughout the honoree’s lifetime, and that all would be viewed as capable of invoking the "sexual prowess and potency [necessary for] the conception of offspring, thus maintaining the ali‘i lineage" [3]. 

Mele ma‘i originated in the pre-missionary days of complete openness about all things sexual. In those days:

. . . youngsters grew up prepared in body, mind, and emotions for sexual activity. The attitude a child absorbed was that the genitalia were revered for their role in procreation—but this need not take the fun out of intercourse. Sex was to be enjoyed. "The sexual act," Mrs. Pukui has written, "was accepted without being both creative and one of the supreme pleasure" [4].

"Shameless" sexuality, much to the dismay of the missionaries and those of like-minded prudery, is a primary characteristic of 19th century mele ma‘i [5]. Early or late, these mele consistently offer enthusiastic descriptions of the sexual organs and procreative activities of their honorees. 

‘O Pahua ka i ‘ōlelo mai
A he pāpale nui kona,
Komo aku nalo ke po‘o 
Koe mai ke kino i waho.

Pahua told me
That he has a big hat
The head vanishes in it
The body remains without. [6]

The language of the mele ma‘i is characterized by tersely worded metaphors and verb phrases. Genitals are compared to an assortment of unexpected, usually larger-than-life objects; the comparisons, delivered with a minimum of grammatical embellishment, are often explicit (and humorous) in the extreme:

Ko ma‘i lio olohe
Holo wale aohe hulu.

Your bald horse ma‘i
Racing all over, hairless. [7]

Ko ma‘i auka gula
He lile he lile he lua.​

Your gold bar ma‘i
Shining, shining doubly bright. [8]

Metaphors of this delightfully exaggerated sort are usually followed by verb phrases descriptive of lovemaking itself, or of the process by which a ma‘i is invited to perform. These verb phrases, like the metaphors they follow, are delivered in terse, staccato-like fashion. The grammar is minimal; the action is conveyed in stripped-down predicates connected only occasionally to subjects, objects, or locations; and the consequent effect is that of time-lapse photography in which we are required to imagine the transitions and fill in the blanks. 

Ka ua Liliko‘i Liliko‘i
Kuikele la
Mahiki o luna la
Ha‘ule o lalo la.

I ka laau, ehe aha
Ka pahi olo, ehe aha
Paa ko lima, ehe aha
E uhau ana, ehe aha
E ii ana, ehe aha
E mamau ana, ehe aha.

The Liliko‘i rain
Large sewing needle
Leaping up above
Tumbing down below. [9]

The log
The sawing motion
Your hands hold fast
Fitting tightly
Sticking. [10]

Mele ma‘i of invitation—those in which "bring it here" is a common refrain—are often less-intensely described and more patiently delivered than those of the "immersion" variety, but their unembarrassed focus, enthusiastic tone, and consistent use of tersely-worded metaphors and verb-phrases remains characteristic of the larger form.

Kō ma‘i kēia, lawea mai
Ho‘oheno i ka puni, hiu ā wela
Hiu a‘e kō ma‘i, lawea mai 
‘A‘ole mea koe, hiu ā wela
Ua nani Kilohana, lawea mai
Kuahiwi kapu ia lā o Ka‘ala
He ‘ala e ke oho a‘o ka palai
Ka maile lauli‘i a‘o Ko‘iahi
Ha‘ina kō ma‘i, lawea mai
Ho‘oheno i ka puni hiu ā wela.

This is your ma‘i, bring it here.
It woos its favorite one, win it over! 
Your ma‘i gets started, bring it here,
And leave nothing aside, win it over!
Beautiful is Kilohana, bring it here,
A sacred mountain is Ka‘ala.
Fragrant are the leaves of the palai, 
And the fine-leaved maile of Ko‘iahi.
This ends your ma‘i, bring it here,
It woos its favorite, win in over. [11]

Mele ma‘i, as demonstrated immediately above, frequently conclude in late 19th century hula ‘ōlapa fashion with a two-line "ha‘ina." The genre, however, is not limited to ‘ōlapa structures or conclusions. "Pūnana ka Manu," for example, follows the non-versified ‘āla‘apapa format (six lines of irregular length and meter performed straight through without ki‘ipā) and concludes with a humorous poke at the very westerners who tried to shame the genre out of existence. In the hands of this mele ma‘i, the innocent, missionary-style, classroom recitation of vowels becomes an increasingly passionate recitation of sighs, beginning with a very interested "ah" and ending with a thoroughly satisfied "oooh."

‘A‘ohe ho‘olale a koe aku: A
‘A‘ohe ho‘olale a koe aku: E
‘A‘ohe ho‘olale a koe aku: I 
‘A‘ohe ho‘olale a koe aku: O
‘A‘ohe ho‘olale a koe aku: U 

No more encouragement is needed, ah
No more encouragement is needed, eh
No more encouragement is needed, ee
No more encouragement is needed, oh
No more encouragement is needed, oooh. [12]

Mele Ma‘i for ‘Iolani, Kamehameha IV

 A surprising number of mele ma‘i for Alexander Liholiho, Kamehameha IV, have survived the 137 years since his death. At least ten texts of seven distinct compositions are housed in the Bishop Archives: "He ma‘i no Kalani Iolani / He haku oe o Makaio" [13], "He wahi ma‘i no Iolani / O ka hulu mau o ke lii" [14], "He ma‘i no Iolani a ka Hulumanu / Nani wale ka ma‘i o ka Lani e huhuki nei" [15], "Ho‘olohe mai Iolani ka inoa o ko ma‘i / Nou ka ma‘i lalelale i ka hai mea nui" [16], "He ma‘i kēia / No Iolani" [17], "He wahi ma‘i / He wahi ma‘i," and "He wahi ma‘i, e he a / No Iolani e he a" [18]. The last of these, commonly known as "He Wahi Ma‘i no ‘Iolani," is still performed regularly in public and remains a favorite in many hālau. 

The early proliferation and on-going survival of these mele may be due, in part, to the urgency with which the Kamehameha family (and Hawaiian nation) looked to ‘Iolani [19] for the perpetuation of the royal line. Kamehameha’s sacred children, Liholiho, Kauikeaouli, and Nāhi‘ena‘ena, died without leaving children to succeed them. Lot, Alexander, and Kamāmalu—grandchildren of Kamehameha through his less-sacred daughter Kīna‘u—represented the Kamehamehas’ last hope for direct, unclouded succession. But Kamāmalu could not find an acceptable mate [20], and Lot—after Pauahi refused him for Bishop—chose to live in self-imposed bachelorhood. Only Alexander seemed to follow a course commensurate with the needs of his dynasty. The young ‘Iolani was hānai ‘ia by the elder ‘Iolani, groomed as the elder ‘Iolani’s successor, and elevated, without hitch, to that ‘Iolani’s vacated throne. All seemed in order when Alex subsequently married, in almost fairy-tale fashion, the highborn and highly desirable Emma Rooke. The chants composed at his birth in order to invoke the potency of his Uilani would now combine forces with those composed to invoke the fertility of Emma’s Uu [21]. More mele ma‘i, for each of them, must have been composed at their marriage [22], and the expectations of all these mele must have found glorious fulfillment in the much-celebrated birth of Prince Albert Edward Leiopapa a Kamehameha, Ka Haku o Hawai‘i, on May 20, 1858. All must have been summarily dashed by the boy’s death four short years later.

None of Alexander Liholiho’s mele ma‘i is free today of the bitter-sweet context of this birth and death; the first embodies all that mele ma‘i were meant to celebrate and engender, the second embodies all that mele ma‘i were meant to combat. When ‘Iolani’s mele ma‘i are performed today, these performances embrace delight and sorrow, glorious beginnings and futile endings. Ultimately, because we are still very much here to perform them a century and a half later, our performances are acts of defiance and triumph. A senior line has indeed passed, but the baby-making, ma‘i-celebrating, long-remembering lāhui, nevertheless endures.

"He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani"

This mele ma‘i for Alexander Liholiho belongs to the private collection of Mary Kawena Pukui. It was taught by Kawena’s daughter, Mrs. Patience Namaka Bacon, at a Kalihi-Pālama Culture and Arts Inc. sponsored workshop on Friday, March 11, 1995, to a group of teachers and advanced students that included my wife Māpuana and her kumu hula graduates Kahulu Ka‘iama and Māhealani Chang. Mrs. Bacon indicated that this is a Joseph Keali‘iakamoku ‘Īlālā‘ole hula. She and her mother studied with ‘Īlālā‘ole (who was both Kawena’s cousin and uncle) between 1935 and 1938 while he was living in Honolulu, working as a custodian at Ka‘ahumanu School, and producing Hawaiian pageants [23].

Two days after their workshop, Māpu, Kahulu, and Māhealani met at our house, reviewed the mele, recorded themselves chanting it, and then danced to their audio recording until they were satisfied with their performance. I then videotaped both elements of the performance: first all three women in the ho‘opa‘a role, and then all three as ‘ōlapa. That two-days-later video recording, along with the ladies’ workshop notes and memories, are the text book and measuring-stick behind Miki‘ala Lidstone’s performance of "He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani" in 2000’s Merrie Monarch competition. When we say that we’ve done our best to teach Miki the same hula that was taught to Māpu, this is what we mean.

"He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani" is a carefully constructed, two-part mele ma‘i that bears considerable resemblance to those of the invitational, "bring it here" variety. Its first section is devoted to a search that results in discovery. Its second section is devoted to an invitation that results in intimate propinquity. And its third section—which, in fact, is a single line—closes poetic shop with the suggestion that the real fun is just beginning.

In more specific terms, the chant opens by investing ‘Iolani’s ma‘i with the capacity for curiosity and quest: the chief’s ma‘i gets moving (naue a‘e); the chief’s ma‘i peeps (ki‘ei mai) and peers (hālō mai) in the composer’s direction. His investigation ends with a rhetorical question indicative of success: "He aha lā ia"—What in the world is this! The ambiguous ia ("it, this, that, the aforementioned"), in an exclamation that can be attributed to either Uilani or the composer, allows for two interpretations: either Uilani is expressing mock surprise at his discovery of the composer’s ma‘i, or the composer is expressing mock surprise at her discovery of Uilani’s now very attentive state.

In either case, a mutual attraction has been established, and the composer now shifts from description to direct address. She offers a three-fold invitation: "Bring it (lawea mai), drag it (pukua mai), hook it (loua mai) here to me." Because all three verbs are delivered in the imperative form [24], we should not overlook the urgency of her request, nor should we minimize the enthusiasm of her response to his increased proximity: "Eia nō ia lā"—Here it is, indeed. At this point—where many mele ma‘i are still working up to an a-e-i-o-u of total gratification—she indicates that she is closing-up what little distance now separates them: "I move up to it." Then she leaves the rest to our imagination.

"He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani" distinguishes itself from the other mele ma‘i in our discussion because of its absence of metaphors and preponderance of verb phrases. Although an implied comparison exists between the moving, peeping, peering ma‘i of the first three lines and something capable, on its own, of motion, curiosity, and investigation, that something is not identified. Although an implied comparison exists between the carried, dragged, and hooked ma‘i of the sixth, seventh, and eighth lines to something comparable in size to fish ("pukua ... to offer, as a fish") and breadfruit ("lou: to with the lou pole...for bread-fruit"), that something is not identified. The chant refrains, then, from making the humorous, exaggerated comparisons characteristic of many mele of its genre. Instead, it provides a series of expressive, but hardly overblown verb phrases and exclamations that outline the process by which interest is aroused, invitations are made, and lovemaking is initiated. In this sense, it is a "modest" mele ma‘i [25].

The modesty of language in "He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani" is complemented by its modest choreography. While more than a few mele ma‘i performed in hula competitions of the last decade are characterized by excess—by lower-body bumps, grinds, thrusts, and pā‘ū partings, and by all manner of immoderate hand motions, grimaces, and leers—"He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani" is a model of elegant restraint. It consists almost entirely of paired kāholo and kāwelu sequences: kāholo with the initial "He ma‘i no ka lani" of all nine lines, and kāwelu with the closing phrases of all but the last two lines. The hands for "He ma‘i no ka lani," are "hula-motion-right" and "hula-motion-left"—in other words, the words convey all that is necessary. The hands for the seven kawelu phrases are moderately expressive: the one-handed catch-and-pull pukua motion (far too tame by most contemporary standards) is the biggest and most vigorous of the lot; the one-handed reach-out-then-to-the-side naue motion is perhaps the simplest and most subtle; the slightly hooked index finger of loua represents the descriptive-but-hardly-extreme character of all seven.

The closing lines of the dance replace the kawelu with an ‘ami kūkū ("Eia nō ia lā") and an ‘ōniu ("‘Oni au i nēia lā")—both with very simple hand-on-hand gestures. Although this change in lower body dance motifs reflects a corresponding shift in the mele’s action, neither ‘ami, ‘ōniu, nor the accompanying hand motions or pleasant facial expressions do anything more than indicate that transition. In no way does the dance require us to pantomime of the throes of ecstasy: in no way do we intend to surrender "He Ma‘i No Kalani" to such pantomimes.

Joseph ‘Īlālā‘ole, born in 1873, attended the Royal School in Honolulu and lived with Queen Emma and Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani while he was a student there [26]. His family in Puna was particularly loyal to Emma and hosted her at their Kaimū home when she toured the Puna and Ka‘ū districts of Hawai‘i Island [27]. It stands to reason, then, that an ‘Īlālā‘ole hula for the ma‘i of Emma’s husband is nothing less than a time machine. "He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani" provides us, across the span of the 20th century, with a mele ma‘i from the repertoire of a hula master who, as a boy, actually lived with the widow of the man it honors. Thus, ‘Īlālā‘ole’s hula provides us with possible answers to the nagging questions: What did an actual 19th century hula ma‘i look like? Is the bump-grind-and-thrust of today’s "classic" hula ma‘i performance a defining characteristic of the traditional form? Does the enthusiastic celebration of a ma‘i require extremes of gesture and expression; are these extremes more strip-club than Hawaiian in their origin? Are vulgarity and immodesty strictly western concepts and behaviors?

Our decision to present "He Ma‘i no Kalani" in the Miss Aloha Hula competition reflects our commitment to ‘Īlālā‘ole’s "time machine" and to providing today’s po‘e hula and viewing public with legitimate alternatives to contemporary perceptions of the mele ma‘i dance form. Make no mistake about the delight we take in the poetry of 19th century mele ma‘i and in its celebration of pleasure and procreation. Make no mistake, either, of the importance we place on conveying our delight through a comparatively modest hula belonging to a master of that century. It is quite possible that "He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani" will put our audience to sleep, or send them to the food booths; if so, it will demonstrate, all the more, the importance of preserving real tradition and educating the public in its worth. 

Ko ma‘i auka gula
He lile he lile he lua. 

Your gold bar ma‘i
Shining, shining doubly bright. [8]



He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani
Text and translation from the Mary Kawena Pukui Collection as provided by Mrs. Patience Namaka Bacon on March 11, 1995.

He ma‘i no ka lani—ke naue a‘e lā
He ma‘i no ka lani—ke ki‘ei mai lā
He ma‘i no ka lani—ke hālō mai lā
He ma‘i no ka lani—he aha lā ia
He ma‘i no ka lani—lawea mai
He ma‘i no ka lani—pukua mai
He ma‘i no ka lani—loua mai
He ma‘i no ka lani—eia nō ia lā
He ma‘i no ka lani—‘oni au i nēia lā
He ma‘i no kalani

The chief’s ma‘i—there it goes!
The chief’s ma‘i—‘tis peeping in
The chief’s ma‘i—‘tis peering in
The chief’s ma‘i—what of that?
The chief’s ma‘i—bring it here
The chief’s ma‘i—drag it here
The chief’s ma‘i—hook it here
The chief’s ma‘i—here it is
The chief’s ma‘i—I move up to it.



  1. As used here, ma‘i and piko both refer to male and female genitalia. Mary Kawena Pukui et. al., Nānā i ke Kumu, Honolulu: Hui Hanai, 1972, v2: 78.
  2. Pukui, quoted by Mazeppa King Costa in Appendix A ("Interview with Mrs. Mary Pukui") of Dance in the Society and Hawaiian Islands as Presented by the Early Writers, 1767–1842, Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Honolulu: University of Hawaii at Mānoa, June 1951:134.
  3. Elizabeth Tatar, 19th Century Hawaiian Chant, Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1982:46.
  4. Nānā i ke Kumu, v2:75.
  5. Mele ma‘i were still being composed and published in the first two decades of the 20th century. See, for example "He ma‘i keia ehe aha / No Kalohelani auwe hehene" composed "for a girl" and published in Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, Dec. 26, 1913. 
  6. "‘O Pahua ka i ‘Ōlelo Mai," Mary Kawena Pukui, Nā Mele Welo, Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press, 1995:146–147. Pukui translation.
  7. "Ko Ma‘i Lio Olohe," MS SC Roberts, 3.9:87–89, Bishop Museum Archives. My translation.
  8. "Ko Ma‘i Auka Gula," Tom Hiona, Hawaiian Chants, Hula, and Love Dance Songs, Ethnic Folkways FE-4271. My translation.
  9. "Ka Ua Liliko‘i," Hiona. My translation.
  10. "He Wahi Ma‘i / No ‘Iolani," From Leina‘ala Kalama Heine, 11-21-78. My translation.
  11. "Kō Ma‘i Kēia," Mary Kawena Pukui (tr.), Nā Mele Welo, Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1995:150–151.
  12. "Pūnana ka Manu," a mele ma‘i for Albert Kūnuiākea, Emma’s cousin, as taught by Maiki Aiu Lake.
  13. Henriques-Peabody Collection, HI.M.76:8.
  14. Roberts Collection, MS SC Roberts 5.3:46–47. Mader Collection, MS Grp 81,7.12, and MS Grp 81,9.20.
  15. Mele Manuscript Collection, HI.M.70:6. Micro 152.1, Nupepa Kuokoa, Jan. 2, 1864.
  16. Roberts Collection, MS SC Roberts 5.3:46–47. Mader Collection, MS Grp 81,7.12, and MS Grp 81,9.20.
  17. Mader Collection, MS Grp 81,5.39.
  18. Micro 152.1, Nupepa Kuokoa, April 23, 1864.
  19. The name is shared by Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) and his hānai son Alexander Liholiho. It is used throughout this paper to refer to the latter.
  20. Victoria Kamāmalu had no trouble finding lovers of the sort deemed unacceptable by her family, among them the rival Lunalilo and the already-married Monsarrat.
  21. Uilani and Uu are the names of Alexander Liholiho’s and Emma’s ma‘i. Mrs. Patience Namaka Bacon, SFCA-sponsored hula workshop; Kalopā State Park, Hawai‘i, 1986.
  22. The mele inoa "Nani Wale Ku‘u ‘Ike ‘Ana," composed for Emma on her wedding tour of the Hanalei district of Kaua‘i in 1856—though not a self-announced mele ma‘i—contains a number of mele ma‘i style comparisons that can be interpreted as meant to encourage the fruitful union of Emma and her king: "‘O ka iki ‘auhau ia / E welo ai i ko piko"—"This is the little hau firebrand / That will stream into your piko."
  23. Adrienne Kaeppler, Hula Pahu: Hawaiian Drum Dances, Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1993:150.
  24. Lawe +‘ia = laweaPuku + ‘ia = pukuaLou + ‘ia = loua. The ‘ia embedded in these words can be read as either a passive or imperative marker; its function here is clearly the latter—that of command. 
  25. In July 1981, Māpu learned another version of this chant from Lani Kalama who, we believe, learned it from Lōkālia Montgomery (unfortunately, we were too hūpō at the time to confirm the mele’s origins). Aunty Nana’s (Lani’s) version, entitled "He Ma‘i No Kalani," is several lines longer (including verses for ho‘oku, ho‘olewa, and mamau) and in slightly different order than ‘Īlālā‘ole’s ("Ke naue . . .," for example does not appear until the fourth "He ma‘i no ka lani" sequence). Aunty Nana’s explanation of the song was extremely modest: a man and woman catch each other’s attention, they get acquainted, decide "to be friends," and, in "moving closer together," enjoy lasting contentment. The rest, she would remind us, "is for each of your dancers to understand in her own time." Her dance is performed in standing position, but without feet. As with "He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani," the ho‘opa‘a and dancer exchange phrases: the ho‘opa‘a gives the first half of each line, the dancer the second half; the exchange, however, is more conversational, less chant-like, and the hand gestures are even more subdued. We teach Aunty Nana’s mele ma‘i to our students, include it in our ‘ūniki repertoire, and occasionally perform it in friendly settings. In Aunty Nana’s view, it is "just a little something" for us to share in our hālau. We mention it here for the purpose of advancing our belief that there is precedent for modestly performed mele ma‘i, and that such modesty (within the span of a single hula generation) seems to have been put to pasture as the "boring" product of modern, western/Christian prudery. We argue, in the concluding paragraphs of this paper, that ‘Īlālā‘ole’s mele ma‘i provides strong evidence that the modestly performed mele ma‘i is, in fact, a legitimate 19th century Hawaiian tradition.
  26. George Kanahele, Hawaiian Music and Musicians, 163.
  27. Joseph ‘Īlālā‘ole, interviewed by Mary Kawena Pukui, HAW 78.1.2–3 (1960), Bishop Museum Archives Audio collection.  Emma, for example, was sitting on the lānai of their Kaimū home when she saw the hōkū welowelo that signified Ke‘elikōlani’s impending death. ‘Īlālā‘ole also remembers being told, about certain items of furniture in the Kaimū home: "We no put our feet on that; you know Queen Emma sat on that chair."



© Kihei de Silva 2006. This essay is a slightly revised and updated versions of a piece that originally appeared in Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima’s Merrie Monarch 2000 Fact Sheet. The author retains all rights to this essay; no part of it may be used or reproduced without his written permission.

Kamehameha iv - hawaii state archives  large

photo courtesy of: Hawaiʻi State Archives

Alexander Liholiho, Kamehameha IV. A surprising number of mele ma‘i for his "Uilani" have survived the almost century-and-a-half since his death. At least ten versions of seven distinct compositions are housed in the Bishop Archives; one of these—"He Wahi Ma‘i no ‘Iolani"—is performed regularly in public and remains a favorite in many hālau. The less well-known "He Ma‘i no ‘Iolani" survives through the efforts of Patience Namaka Bacon who learned it from Joseph ‘Īlālā‘ole in the 1930s.

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