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Ku‘u Wā Li‘ili‘i

Excerpted from Lena Machado, Songbird of Hawai‘i, na Pi‘olani Motta me Kīhei de Silva, © 2006 Kamehameha Schools.

Aunty Lena enjoyed telling us the story of the event that inspired “Ku‘u Wā Li‘ili‘i”—about how, on her sixteenth birthday, she tried to be a lady but couldn’t quite live up to her own expectations. She said that when she was twelve or thirteen years old, she pestered her adoptive mother Mary Davis Loo Pan into promising that when she turned sixteen she would be allowed to dress like a grown-up lady. Young Lena’s idea of grown-up fashion included a cinched-waister (a corset), a long dress with a frilly petticoat, stockings and high-heeled shoes, a Gibson-girl hairdo, a wide-brimmed hat, and long gloves.

When Lena came of age, she was given all she had requested, and she put on her finery with the idea of making a big impression at a fair that was being held at St. Louis College, which was then located on College Walk in the River Street area of Honolulu. She told us later, “I thought that this would be the perfect time for me to show off.”

Lena was already a tall girl—5'10", long-legged, and often mistaken for someone older than the teenager that she was—and in her high heels and fancy clothes, she looked even more like a full-grown beauty of the town. Grandmother Loo Pan’s sisters and their families gathered on their front porches to watch Lena walk down their dirt and gravel lane. “What is this thing going down the street?” they asked each other, laughing, as Lena waved goodbye.

She boarded a streetcar at the School Street stop, paid her fare, and went to take a seat. But when she tried to sit, she found that she could not bend at her waist. Her whalebone corset cut into her sides, pinched her ribs, and made it difficult for her to breathe. So she chose, instead, to stand up and hold on to the overhead bar. She was already embarrassed, but the conductor made things worse when he said, “Would you please sit down.” The only response that Aunty Lena could come up with was, “Oh, I’m getting off at the next stop.” 

This spared her further embarrassment on the streetcar, but it also left her with a very long walk to River Street in the warm mid-afternoon sun. When she reached the fair, she was perspiring and footsore, but she noticed that she was attracting many long and admiring looks from the male fair-goers, so she forgot for a time how uncomfortable she had started to feel. Before long, however, her various pains returned in full force. Her corset was killing her, and she felt herself wobbling on her aching feet and painfully pinched toes. She made every attempt to continue walking through the fair like an elegant, straight-backed lady, but when she felt her hat sliding to one side, her hairdo collapsing, and perspiration running down her cheeks, she turned and headed for home. 

At about the halfway point of her return, she leaned against a wall and took off her shoes for what she thought would be a little rest. But this turned out to be another mistake. When she tried to put her heels back on, they wouldn’t fit. Her feet were now too swollen for shoes. So she took off her gloves, carried her shoes, and continued on her way, becoming more and more disheveled with every step.

When Lena finally walked down the lane that led to her home, her mother and all her relatives were waiting on their front porches for her glamorous return. What they saw was a droopy-haired, sweaty girl in stockings, her skirt hiked up under one arm and her shoes, gloves, and hat slung over the opposite shoulder. Grandmother Loo Pan, of course, was aghast. “Auē,” she scolded, “hūpēkole kaikamahine—trying to act like a grown-up lady when you’re only a runny-nosed kid!”

Aunty Lena never forgot this event and the hūpēkole scolding with which it ended. She would tell us this story about the stockings and no shoes, and the hem of her dress up to here, and the hair hanging down all mōkākī. It was so funny, and we would laugh and laugh, telling the funny parts over and over again. So we were pretty well-versed in not acting like lōlōs, and we knew that when we got to be that age, we weren’t going to repeat her mistakes.

More than 20 years later, Aunty Lena composed “Ku‘u Wā Li‘ili‘i” in memory of her “childhood days” of trying to act like a grown-up and of hoping to catch the glances of members of the opposite sex. Of course, Aunty Lena fictionalized and embellished the story a little bit. For example, the “Tūtū” that she refers to as having so lovingly raised her were not her real grandparents; they were the grandparent generation of relatives and lei-sellers that filled her to the brim with fish and poi. And she wrote the song from the point of view of someone who had caught her man and who had learned that flirtatious behavior can lead to something more than just glances. This sometimes-you-get-more-than-you-bargained-for interpretation was apparent when Aunty Lena sang the song for mature audiences. At the “sweet oil” and “lilo” verse, she would make a big ‘ōpū gesture and walk around in imitation of a pregnant woman. People think of Aunty Lena as a very dignified lady, but when I listen to “Ku‘u Wā Li‘ili‘i” and think of her great sense of humor and her love for dressing up, acting, and imitating people, I have to say that she could also be quite a clown. Yes, she was also quite a clown. 

Ku‘u Wā Li‘ili‘i

Ho‘omana‘o a‘ela ala au*
I ku‘u wā li‘ili‘i
Kapa ‘ia mai au he hūpēkole
A nui a‘e he wahine u‘i

Hānai ‘ia au a nui pu‘ipu‘i**
I ka nui miki ‘ai a Tūtū+
‘Ai a mā‘ana, inu a kena++
Ke aloha ia o nā kūpuna

A nui a‘ela ala au
Mai hea hō‘ea ana ‘o iala
I ka milimili me kahi sweet oil
A lilo ana au iā iala

Ha‘ina ‘ia ma ka puana
Ho‘omana‘o a‘ela au i ku‘u wā li‘ili‘i
Kapa ‘ia mai au he hūpēkole
A nui a‘e he wahine u‘i.

I am remembering
My youth
When I was called a runny-nosed kid
But I’ve become a beautiful young woman

I was raised to perfection
Under the loving care of my Tūtū
Who looked after my every need
Such is the love of grandparents

Now that I am grown
People say, “Where did she come from?
Caressed lightly with sweet oil
I am completely taken by her”

The story is told
Of remembering my youth
When I was called a runny-nosed kid
But I’ve become a beautiful young woman.

Source: Hawaiian text from the collection of Pi‘olani Motta, © June 12, 1944. Orthographic editing and translation by Kīhei de Silva. 
*The Song Bird score sheet for "Ku‘u Wā Li‘ili‘i" gives the opening lines as, "Ho‘omana‘o e la la wau." Lena Machado clearly sings this "e la la" as "ela ala"—a contracted form of a‘ela ala, hence my transcription of the text here as "Ho‘omana‘o a‘ela ala way." The same thought process is at work in my transcription of Song Bird’s "A nui e la la wau" (verse 3, line 1) as "A nui a‘ela ala wau." Elisions of this sort are characteristic of Machado’s vocal technique and are suggestive of both her fluency in the language and her grounding in similar vowel-swallowing styles of Hawaiian chant.

**The literal meaning of pu‘ipu‘i is "plump, stout, stocky." This line might then be translated as, "I was fed until plump."

+A miki ‘ai is a finger-dip of poi. This line might then be translated as, "By the many finger-dips of poi that Tūtū fed me."

++The literal meaning of this well-known saying is, "Eat and drink until thoroughly satisfied." The non-Western concepts of beauty, eating, and affection that are expressed in this verse of "Ku‘u Wā Li‘ili‘i" make it difficult to provide an accurate English translation that accommodates the values of both cultures.