Excerpted from Lena Machado, Songbird of Hawai‘i, na Pi‘olani Motta me Kīhei de Silva, © 2006 Kamehameha Schools.
Aunty Lena was always very attentive; she was an excellent listener. She said that when she sold lei as a girl in Honolulu, she would listen to the stories of the women she worked with as they sat around stringing flowers and passing the time. Some of these stories were about their own experiences; some of them were not. Some were stories that they’d heard; some were personal stories that they covered up by pretending to have heard them from other people. Aunty Lena said that these stories—the true, the second-hand, and the disguised—were often about romance, about affairs that began with dancing in the moonlight and ended with passionate moments of love that sent people soaring like birds. These stories would sometimes include the details of lovemaking—but told in a poetic way, not as anything lurid or wrong. The Hawaiian lei sellers, Aunty Lena explained, were not ashamed of their sexuality—especially when it was wrapped up in music and love.
When the story tellers used Hawaiian words to describe, in a poetic way, what had happened in a love affair, Aunty would think, hmmm . . . and remember those words. And when their stories of love would lead to laughter and the singing of Hawaiian love songs about similar experiences, Aunty would think, ahhh . . . and file the songs away in her memory. Then the lei sellers would look at young Aunty Lena and laugh and say, "Oh, don’t worry about this; it’ll happen to you later on in your life and then you’ll understand."
Aunty kept these memories alive within her until the time came to write "Ho‘onanea." She had paid attention to the way the storytellers described their experiences. How they felt lifted up like birds. How they spoke of the joining of things in nature—flowers, birds, rain, and enveloping mists—to describe their really passionate moments. So Aunty Lena wrote "Ho‘onanea" in this vein, and when she was asked where the song came from, she would answer in the same manner as some of the lei sellers of her younger days: "Oh, this is a story that someone told me. It’s about what this person felt when she was dancing, singing, and soaring like a bird."
Normally, when Aunty Lena wrote a song, she didn’t change it, or fix it, or re-do it. But she forgot to renew her original copyright to "Ho‘onanea" and found out in 1962 that the only way she could keep the song in her name was to write another phrase or bar to it and resubmit it as a different song. Luckily, she did this to "Ho‘onanea" before anyone else could jump in and claim it. What she did was change the words of the second and last lines of the song from "E ake inu wai a ka manu" to "E ake e pili me ku‘u manu." The first is the original from 1935; the second is from 1962. She changed it just enough to satisfy the Library of Congress.
When you listen to the 1935 and 1962 recordings of the song, the first version is light and lively, like it’s about two young people on the beach who are dancing and having a good time. But the second version sounds like a heavy love song; it is much more romantic and mature, much more expressive of a deeply moving experience. When you’re young, who cares about the aesthetics? When you’re older, you pay more attention to the moon and the waves that come crashing in. My guess is that Aunty Lena’s own experiences in the thirty years between the two versions helped her to give it this more intense, second shading. If it started out as a song about someone else’s joyful encounter, it definitely evolved into something more personal.
I don’t think, though, that Aunty Lena liked the new lines as much as she did the old. Even after she recorded the revised words, she sang the older text more often. "E ake inu wai a ka manu" has more meaning because it describes drinking the waters of passion and compares that experience to the soaring of birds. It’s not just yearning to be close to a bird; it’s about the sensation of floating, of being lifted up. So she changed the words to keep the copyright, but she usually sang the old words with the newer, more romantic way of expressing them.
Ma ka poli iho nō ‘o ho‘onanea*
E ake inu wai a ka manu
Hū wale mai nō ku‘u aloha
Ku‘u pō ho‘okahi e naue ai
‘O ka pā kōnane a ka mahina
Ahuwale nā lewa a kāua
Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana**
E ake inu wai a ka manu.
Lose yourself here in my arms
I long to drink deeply of love
My love wells up
On this one night of trembling anticipation
The soft light of the moon
Reveals our swaying dance
The summary is told
Of longing to drink deeply of love.
Source: Hawaiian text from the collection of Pi‘olani Motta, © June 26, 1933. Orthographic editing and translation by Kīhei de Silva.
*This line is most frequently sung as, "Ma ka poli iho nō e ho‘onanea," but Lena Machado’s 1962 Song Bird score sheet gives the text as "Ma ka poli iho no o ho‘onanea." Although e matches the abbreviated grammatical style of Machado’s poetry and makes good sense as either a verb marker or an imperative/suggestive, the o of her score sheet can be read as a soft imperative ō or as an ‘o that identifies ho‘onanea as the subject the line. Arguments can be made for all three possibilities—e, ō, and ‘o—but Machado’s own choice is evident, I think in both her 1933 and 1962 recordings of the song: she sings ‘o every time. Although I have given the line a poetic translation in the text above (in accordance with Machado and Motta’s own collaborative translation of the mele) it can be read more literally as, "Here, indeed, in my bosom is Ho‘onanea."
**Kimo Alama Keaulana notes that Lena Machado gave a five-verse, unpublished version of "Ho‘onanea" to Muriel Lupenui. Auntie Muriel’s "extra" paukū occurs directly before the "Ha‘ina" verse of our text:
‘Akahi e ka ‘ono a ko‘u pu‘u
I ka i‘a pahe‘e he unahi ‘ole
For the very first time the sweetness touched my throat
The slippery fish with no scales.
(Ms Grp 329, 2.71, Bishop Museum Archives, Keaulana translation.)