Ka Nani a‘o Hilo
Kīhei de Silva
Haku mele: Kinoiki Kekaulike II and Keahinuiokilauea (original chant); John Kameaaloha Almeida (revised and abridged text, music).
Sources: 1) Kuluwaimaka Collection, HI.M.51.1:52–54, Bishop Museum Archives. 2) Kalanianaʻole Collection, HI.M.30:298, Bishop Museum Archives. 3) Roberts Collection, MS SC 2.5:12b–16a, Bishop Museum Archives. 4) Mader Collection, (Fern and Silva), MS Grp 8,7.9, Bishop Museum Archives.
Discography: 1) "Ka Nani aʻo Hilo," John K. Almeida, 49th State Records 45212. 2) "Kāua i ka Nani aʻo Hilo," George Nāʻope, Hawaiʻi’s Golden Treasure, MDL Records 6405. 3) "Kāua i ka Nani aʻo Hilo," Mango, Mango Season, Tropic Express TER 1001.
Text below: Transcribed from Almeida’s 49th State release. Translation: Kīhei de Silva.
Kāua i ka nani aʻo Hilo
I ka ua lolokū aʻo Hanakahi.
ʻAkahi hoʻi hou kuʻu manene
I ka meʻeu hoʻi aʻo koʻu oho.
He ʻūlāleo paha na ka ʻiwi
Ke wā mai lā i ʻŌlaʻa.
Ua laʻa ia pua i ʻaneʻi
Eia lā i koʻu kīʻaha.
He ʻupena na’e mai kēia
ʻAʻohe iʻa koe ke hei mai
Haʻina ʻia mai ka puana
I ka ua lolokū aʻo Hanakahi.
Here we are in Hilo’s splendor
In the midday rain of Hanakahi.
I’ve never felt this unsettled
And my hair is nearly standing on end.
Perhaps you are reacting to the ʻiʻiwi
Chattering away in ʻŌlaʻa.
No, this flower is set aside right here
It is here in my vase.
In that case, this is a net
No fish escape when it is drawn in.
Tell the summary of the song
In the midday rain of Hanakahi.
"Ka Nani aʻo Hilo" is Johnny Almeida’s re-interpretation of the considerably longer mele "Kāua i ka Nani o Hilo," a frequently appended and revised chant for Kalākaua that was probably first composed in the early 1880s by Princess Kekaulike Kinoiki II (the younger sister of Queen Kapiʻolani) and Keahinuiokilauea (the first wife of Kuluwaimaka).* Where the earlier composition consists of a spirited, 36-line debate between two women over the various tools and techniques by which men are caught, Almeida’s version allows us to eavesdrop on a flirtatious conversation between a man and woman who are caught for a time in Hilo’s midday rain. In the space of 12 lines (the original is three times that length), Almeida moves us from initial small talk to a quickly escalating, tongue-in-cheek courtship, to a mutually agreed upon midday tryst. The language of Almeida’s song is ostensibly about goose bumps, a bird, a flower, a vase, and a fishnet; it is by these seemingly innocent references, however, that the man expresses his interest, that the lady tests his sincerity, and that the two agree upon a relationship. Almeida’s language is appropriately veiled, but his musical presentation is decidedly unambiguous. He clearly means for us to understand the song as a dialog between lovers-to-be: he sings the man’s part, Julia Nui and her Kamaʻāinas take the woman’s part, and all join in on the verses that set the scene and describe its outcome.
Verse 1. Almeida opens with a seemingly innocuous observation: "Here we are in beautiful Hilo, caught in a midday shower." Nui and the ladies respond by repeating his seemingly innocent patter.
Verse 2. Almeida sings alone. Our hero, perhaps less caught up in the splendor of Hilo than in the splendor of his new acquaintance, expresses tactful interest: "I just now feel an inner trembling, and it's giving me a tingling, creepy sensation all the way up my scalp." His language is poetic, couched in double meanings that convey intelligence, wit, and good manners. He could easily be referring to the effect of the rain, to a sudden chill that brings shivers and raises goose bumps. On the other hand, he could be referring to the first disorienting sensations of desire: he has never felt this way before, he is all a-tremble, his "hair" stands on end.
Verse 3. Nui and her chorus take this verse for themselves. Our heroine discerns the conversational drift and chooses to display her own skill at double-talk by purposely misinterpreting his initial advances. "Your creepy sensation is probably caused by the chattering of birds in distant ʻŌlaʻa." An ʻūlāleo is a spirit voice, an ʻula is a ringing in the ears that means "one is being talked of" (Pukui and Elbert, 367), and the chattering of birds is a frequently used metaphor of scandal (ʻŌlelo Noʻeau, 1304, 2921, 2350). Consequently, the lady can be seen as both teasing her suitor ("It’s not love; it’s just vertigo") and subtly inquiring about his own commitments ("Should I be wary? Will this to lead to gossip and other unpleasantries?").
Verse 4. Almeida sings alone. Our hero, fully aware of the cautions and possibilities that have just been advanced, assures our heroine of his good intentions and unattached status. "This flower is reserved; it is kept here in my vase." He implies that he is not the subject of bird chatter, nor does he have a bird’s interest in flitting from flower to flower. His flower has not been given before; it has been held in reserve for the occasion that now presents itself.
Verse 5. Nui and her chorus take this verse for themselves. The cards, so to speak, have been laid on the table. The lady approves of her companion and his suit. Their wordplay, their double entendre has been so enjoyable that she chooses to decorate her consent in a final metaphor: “He ʻupena naʻe mai kēia, ʻaʻohe iʻa koe ke hei mai” – if yours is a flower in a vase, then mine is a net from which no fish can escape."
Verse 6. Almeida, Nui, and the Kamaʻāinas sing this haʻina verse together. The joining of male and female voices provides a musical commentary on the outcome of the courtship: the midday rain of Hanakahi has led our couple to a hana hoʻokahi—to a single, enjoyable task. Almeida is too subtle to furnish further details; the man and woman have reached an agreement, and the rest is for us to imagine.
The essay above was written by Kīhei de Silva and published in his book He Aloha Moku o Keawe: A Collection of Songs for Hawaiʻi, Island of Keawe, Honolulu, 1997, pps. 9–10. It is offered here, in slightly revised and updated form, with his express consent. He retains all rights to this essay; no part of it may be used or reproduced without his written permission.
* Kuluwaimaka’s short introduction to the mele is quite specific and authoritative: “Na ke kaikaina keia o ka Moʻi wahine o Kapiolani, oia hoʻi o Kinoiki, o Kekaulike kekahi inoa. Oia ka makuahine o Kuhio and me Kawananakoa. Ka lilo ana aʻe keia o Kinoiki i kiaaina no Hawaiʻi, a o Hilo kahi o noho ai. O wau [ʻo Kuluwaimaka] ka mea nana i kakau keia mele, a na ke aliʻi a me koʻu wahine—o Keahi, no Hilo, na mea nana i haku.” (This is composed by the younger sister of Queen Kapiʻolani, that is to say, Kinoiki: Kekakulike is another of her names. She is the mother of Kuhiō and Kawānanakoa. Kinoiki became governess of Hawaiʻi [island], and Hilo was her place of residence. I [Kuluwaimaka] am the one who transcribed this mele; the chiefess and my wife—Keahi of Hilo—were the ones who composed it.)
Kimo Alama Keaulana identifies the mele as having been composed “for King Kalākaua’s visit to the volcano on Hawaiʻi. Years ago, Uncle George Naope wanted a chant for the Merrie Monarch Hula Competition as the contest chant for the first time a contest chant was to be used. I gave him this chant. In the 5th verse, the 2nd line should be "ʻAʻohe iʻa koe hei nei" (Personal communication, May 24, 1999). Since Kinoiki Kekaulike was governess of Hawaiʻi from 1880 until her death in 1884, she probably composed “Kāua i ka Nani o Hilo” in that four-year period.