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Lei Kiele

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

"Lei Kiele" is like "Pua Māmane" and "Ho‘ohaehae" because most people don’t know that Aunty Lena composed it. They think it’s an old song whose author’s name was forgotten long ago. In fact, it’s not that old. Aunty Lena copyrighted "Lei Kiele" in 1935, so it’s probably a newer song than some of her well-known favorites like "Ho‘onanea," "Kauoha Mai," and "Kamalani O Keaukaha." But people still find it hard to believe. 

This confusion might have come about for several reasons. First, because "Lei Kiele" is a waltz—something not usually associated with Aunty Lena; second, because she never recorded the song herself; and third, because the people who popularized it didn’t list her name on their albums. Aunty Agnes Malaby Weisbarth and the Ho‘oipo Trio sing it on their Just Like Old Times LP, and Marcella Kalua sings it on Girl From Papakolea. Both their liner notes give the song’s author as "traditional." This is a little bit odd since Aunty Lena and Aunty Agnes worked together during World War II as entertainers at military functions. It’s also odd because Aunty Lena gave singing lessons to Marcella Kalua in the early ‘60s. 

Aunty Lena really liked Marcella’s voice and pronunciation. She thought that Marcella had a beautiful, natural way of singing and that she only needed help with breathing and phrasing. Aunty Lena said the same thing about Emma Veary, another of the talented young singers she helped. She said that Marcella and Emma both needed work on projecting their words instead of just floating through them. Aunty Lena didn’t like when words got blurred and their meanings got lost; that was when she’d say "Kokoke au lūa‘i"—I’m close to throwing up. Getting back to the song, it’s funny that Aunty Agnes and Marcella would record "Lei Kiele" and not know who it belonged to. It belonged to their colleague and teacher.

A kiele, of course, is a gardenia. It was Aunty Lena’s favorite flower, but because of my asthma, she wasn’t able to keep as many of them in the house as she would have liked. One sniff of a gardenia, and I’d be wheezing for hours. People knew how much she liked the kiele, and they would bring her gardenia leis and bouquets when she sang at Kapi‘olani Park on Sundays with the Royal Hawaiian Band. When she got home, though, she would have to leave almost all of them outside. She could put a bouquet or two in her room but not in any of the living areas where we sat or ate. If she did, we’d all be sneezing non-stop, and my asthma would just be too much for me. But, oh, she just loved that gardenia. It was her favorite.  

I don’t know too much about the background to this song, but I think it might have been composed for Uncle Lu, her husband. You can see how the emotions of "Lei Kiele" are similar to the emotions of "Ei Nei" and "Aloha Nō," the two songs that she definitely wrote for Uncle Lu. In "Lei Kiele," she says, "Me ‘oe ka ‘ano‘i e pili mau"; this is like the "It’s you, it’s you, just you" of "Ei Nei." In "Lei Kiele," she says, "E ka milimili lei kiele"; this is like the "‘O ‘oe ku‘u lei, ku‘u mili ē" of "Aloha Nō." And in "Lei Kiele," she says, "Ka ‘i‘ini pau ‘ole a‘u e moe ‘uhane i nā pō"; this is like the "E haha‘i ana i kō moe ‘ole i ka pō" of "Aloha Nō." The three songs speak of the same things: loyalty, separation, sleeplessness, endless longing, and invitation to return. The gardenia was such a special flower for Aunty Lena, and it’s hard to imagine that "Lei Kiele" could be for anyone else. She and Uncle Lu were very close, you know.

Lei Kiele

Me ‘oe ka ‘ano‘i pili mau
E ka milimili lei kiele
Ka‘u hana mau ia e ke aloha*
I hoa pili no ka ‘iu anoano

Me ‘oe ka ‘i‘ini pau ‘ole
A‘u e moe ‘uhane i nā pō la‘i
Ho‘olale mai ana e pili
Ku‘u hoa i ke ‘ala aumoe

E maliu mai ‘oe e hali‘a**
E walea maila i ka ‘ohu
Onaona wale ho‘i lei kiele
Hone ana ka mana‘o e naue mai.

My yearning holds always to you
O darling gardenia lei
It will ever be my choice, e ke aloha,
To be your partner on love’s sacred heights

With you is desire unending
Filling my dreams on quiet nights
Urging me to be with you again
My companion of late-night fragrance

Look on me with favor, remember sweetly
Let us be absorbed, contented in the mist
So very sweet is my gardenia lei
My thoughts appeal softly for your return.



Source: Hawaiian text from the collection of Pi‘olani Motta, © 1935. Orthographic editing and translation by Kīhei de Silva.

*There are no ‘okina in Lena Machado’s music-sheet transcription of this mele. As a consequence, this line is written as "Kau hana mau ia, e ke aloha"—literally, "It is always your work, O darling." Because this pronoun makes little sense in the context of the song, I have changed kāu to ka‘u, "your" to "my." I follow the precedent, here, of several other singers, transcribers, and translators of "Lei Kiele"—Doreen Lindsey, Agnes Mallabey Weisbarth, Marcella Kalua, Jean Sullivan, and Kimo Alama-Keaulana. The same ‘okina decision and precedent holds true for "Au e moe ‘uhane" and "A‘u e moe ‘uhane"—"That you dream" and "That I dream"—in the second line of verse two. 

**Although the Weisbarth and Alama-Keaulana texts of "Lei Kiele" give this line as, "E maliu mai ‘oe e ka hali‘a," Machado’s song-sheet transcript does not include the definite article ka. My translation of the line attempts to reflect this absence. The ambiguity of language in the second and last lines of this verse also makes for difficult translation; the careful student of Machado’s work should consult Weisbarth (The Ho‘oipo Trio, Just Like Old Times, Hula Records, HS-551; also on and Alama-Keaulana (Ms Grp 329, 5.20, Bishop Museum Archives) for alternate interpretations. 


photo courtesy of: Pi‘olani Motta

At a Royal Hawaiian Band Sunday concert at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand. Honolulu, ca. 1940.

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