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Aunty Irmgard Farden Aluli: A Musical Journey

Like episodes in a novel, the storied life of Aunty Irmgard reveals a woman who understood the power of song to capture the profound beauty of her world. She pulled just the right notes from the air giving voice to stories, memories and feelings that would otherwise be lost or forgotten. The songs featured this evening are like entries in a journal – they are postcards that recount the highlights of a musical journey for all to enjoy. Irmgard Farden came into the world on October 7, 1911. One of thirteen children born to Annie Shaw Farden of Lahaina (originally from Honolulu) and Charles Kekua Farden of Māliko, Pā‘ia, Irmgard’s childhood was filled with singing and the strains of the piano, saxophone, violin, and guitar.

The talented Farden family has always been famously associated with their Lahaina home, Puamana. Leaving behind their big plantation house in Māla in 1916, Irmgard remembers the move to their new six-bedroom home along the beach:

One of the first things that he [Dad] did when we moved in was to have each one of us take a sprouting coconut tree and plant it. He had the holes dug and lined up the little plants in a row along the beach…“As this tree grows, so will you. You must take care of it and give it water every day”… [Dad had] the stone masons come and chisel the name on the curve of our stone wall. Then it was painted with gold.

Irmgard attended St. Andrew's Priory in Honolulu as a boarding student in 1925. Shortly after, she and her sister Diana became members of the Annie Kerr Trio, an enormously popular singing group of the time. Irmgard enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i graduating in 1933. In those early years, Irmgard taught home economics at the University and at both Moloka‘i and Washington intermediate schools. Irmgard recounts her writing of the song, Puamana:

It was in 1937 that I composed Puamana. I was home on a visit (I was teaching on Moloka‘i), and suddenly—I was just sitting at the piano playing—and this tune came. I said to my sister Emma [Emma Farden Sharpe, who later became a beloved kumu hula on Maui], “Come, do a few steps of the hula to this song that I am just composing.” She asked, “What song is it?” I said, “It’s going to be for Puamana” with no hesitation, although I didn’t even know that yet—I hadn’t planned it. But it must have been the love for this place that brought this all about. I got the tune, and my sisters gathered ‘round with their instruments—we had the bass, the piano, the ‘ukulele, the guitar. And we started to hum it in harmony. Then Dad came home for lunch. I said (before he even had a chance to eat), “Dad, come sit down and help us with Hawaiian words for this song for Puamana.” As we threw him phrases, he would translate them into Hawaiian. Because we had planted those coconut trees as youngsters and watched them grow over the years, I had to include them in the second verse of the song.

Irmgard married Nāne Aluli in 1941. After WWII, they moved to Tennessee and Los Angeles with their children so Nāne could pursue a degree in law. By the time they returned to Hawai‘i some four years later, three more keiki had come along. All the while, Irmgard continued to compose songs marking important events and experiences in her life. Another Irmgard classic is Laupāhoehoe Hula which she composed in collaboration with noted Hawaiian scholar and poet, Mary Kawena Pukui. Irmgard recalls:

At the time, I was living in Punalu‘u [O‘ahu]. While doing my housework one day, the word ‘Laupāhoehoe’ flashed across my mind, and along with it a beat for a hula. I mentioned it on a later occasion to Kawena. I said, “Do you think it would do well for a song?” She said, “Oh, yes, it should!” Well, then I forgot about it. About a month later, again I was doing housework and the word “Laupāhoehoe” flashed across my mind, and this time it really was bothering me. I dropped the housework, got on the phone, and called Kawena. I said, “You know, Kawena, that word “Laupāhoehoe” is bothering me. I think we’d better write our song.” She said, “Fine. But you know I have never been to Laupāhoehoe. Have you?” I said, “No.” She said, “Well then I think what you’d better do is get some information about Laupāhoehoe, then call me and I’ll write the lyrics.” This was all by telephone. I was in Punalu‘u. She was in Honolulu. So I gathered the information, and gave it to her over the telephone. She wrote the words, then she phones me back, gives me the Hawaiian lyrics and the translations. I take them, set them down in front of me. I look at the words. The music comes very easily. In about 15, 20 minutes I finished the song. I called her back and played it over the phone. So this song was composed entirely by telephone.

With so much demand for the Annie Kerr Singers, Irmgard formed the Puamana singing group in 1966 comprised of herself, sister Diana Fernandes, and Annie Kerr singer, Thelma Anahu. In 1976 the Puamana Trio included Irmgard, and her daughters Neaulani and Mihana. At the untimely passing of Neaulani, niece Luanna McKenney stepped in and was joined shortly thereafter, by Irmgard’s youngest daughter Aima McManus. These four talented women were the epitome of “island elegance,” delighting crowds for many years at The Willows restaurant and performing frequently throughout Hawai‘i and the West Coast. The group produced two albums, “One Little Dream of You,” and “Have a Smile,” and a compact disc anthology, “From Irmgard, With Love.” Irmgard received the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988 for her life’s work in Hawaiian music, and again in 1998 as a member of the Annie Kerr Trio. Later that same year she was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. Shortly after, she was honored as a living treasure by the Prince Kūhiō Hawaiian Civic Club. Although Irmgard left us on October 4, 2001, her beloved compositions and the vibrant music-making of her family continue to resonate in the hearts of all who love and value the treasured musical traditions of Hawai‘i. It is with great honor and privilege that the students of Kamehameha Schools Kapālama lift their voices this evening in tribute to one of Hawai‘i’s most beloved and prolific composers. Join us now as we embark on an incredible adventure of story and song celebrating Aunty Irmgard Farden Aluli: A Musical Journey.