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Nā Mele ‘Ohana: The Musical Legacy of Vickie Ii Rodrigues

FROM THE TIME SHE WAS BORN, Victoria Keali‘ika‘apunihonua Ii Rodrigues was carefully groomed for a life dedicated to music. Her family was full of keepers of song and story – those who carried on intentional acts of mele transmission, preservation, and creation through the generations. Music, for this ‘ohana, was beyond casual entertainment or social merrymaking. Music was inheritance of kuleana.

Aunty Vickie was born on November 14, 1912 to James Keaoulilani Ii and Agnes Luika Sylvester. In the customary practice of hanai, she was taken at birth and brought up by her paternal grandparents, James Kaihiihikapuokalani and Katherine Lahilahi Stevens Ii, her own parents known to her as her brother and sister until her teenage years.

"I began singing at an early age (3) and my training began. All of my family were musically inclined and taught me the songs of Hawai‘i, their composers, and the stories [behind] the songs. Whoever was the teacher at the moment would sing the song three times through; then I would sing the song, verses and chorus, with him or her, the fourth time through; [then,] I would have to sing the song alone. Thus I did not write a single word of any songs that I had been taught until 1949 when I was told by a dear friend that I should write the words and music down so they would not be lost to my children".

— Vickie Ii Rodrigues

Many of the songs taught to Aunty Vickie were Hawaiian classics, well known and widely performed. A good number of them, however, were private family songs – personal accounts of equally personal events – that, up until that point, were virtually unknown to the general public. She also learned mele that were more obscure in her day and may have been completely forgotten, were it not for Aunty Vickie herself remembering and reintroducing them. These include “Hawai‘i Aloha,” “Ka Na‘i Aupuni,” “Kaulana Na Pua,” and “Ku‘u Pua i Paoakalani,” considered today to be cornerstones of our surviving mele lahui.

While attending Sacred Hearts Convent and Washington Intermediate School, young Vickie’s talents were nurtured through vocal and piano lessons. At McKinley High, she met Doris “Ma” Keppeler who mentored her in the art of staging and planning. Vickie assisted “Ma” in producing, directing, and choreographing Hawaiian pageants until her graduation in 1931. All of this was invaluable to her future as a composer, musician, singer, recording artist, choreographer, and hula teacher. Aunty Vickie sang with a number of musical groups throughout her lifetime. In 1929, she became a member and regular soloist of the Kawaiaha‘o Church Choir under the direction of her cousin, Lydia Kawainui, and in 1930, Mrs. Amelia Guerrero invited her to become a member of the Honolulu Girls Glee Club. In the years that followed, she would also join the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club (directed by Louise Akeo), Bina Mossman’s Glee Club, Josephine Naukana’s Glee Club, the Lehua Trio, and Pauline Kekahuna’s Hau‘oli Girls.

As a featured frontwoman, Aunty Vickie spent 16 years on the “Hawaii Calls” radio show, starting with its very first broadcast in 1935, and often performed with Al Kealoha Perry and his Singing Surfriders at South Seas and the Kewalo Inn. As a producer, she helped to create many spectacular shows. She collaborated with Kihei Brown in 1962 on a Hawaiian concert, co-authored “Portraits of Hawaiian Queens” with cousin Napua Stevens in 1974, and worked closely with the Aloha Week committee from its inception to produce many of its early pageants. Community meant a great deal to Aunty Vickie, as evidenced by the importance she placed on lending her time and talents to others. Some of her civic affliations included ‘Ahahui Ka‘ahumanu, Hui Hanai of the Lili‘uokalani Childrens’ Trust, Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club, American Federation of Musicians – Local 677, ‘Iolani Guild, and St. Andrew’s Cathedral. In recognition of her immeasurable contributions to Hawai‘i, its people, and its music, she received numerous honors and awards both during her lifetime and beyond.

Vickie Ii married Clarence L. Rodrigues in 1931, and all five of their children also became entertainers: Lorraine Keaoululani “Lani” Custino, Rachel Kaneikolia “Mackie” Rodrigues, Lawrence Kaihiihikapuokalani “Boyce” Rodrigues, Katherine “Nina” Keali‘iwahamana Rapozo, and John James Ioane Rodrigues. Raised with the same sense of kuleana to the continuity of their family practice, Aunty Vickie’s children joined her to record two albums in the 1960s. Na Mele ‘Ohana and Na Mele Punahele, each comprised mostly of closely-guarded, previously-unshared family songs, remain an enduring testament to the legacy of the Ii family and their commitment to the perpetuation of mele Hawai‘i.

Tonight, we celebrate Aunty Vickie Ii Rodrigues and her ‘ohana as the students of Kamehameha Schools Kapalama proudly o¦er a tribute to this iconic musical family. And perhaps, in doing so, we may also inspire the next generation of masters – of keepers of song and story – to take on the kuleana that awaits them.