I Mau Ke Aloha ‘Āina: 100 Years of Song Contest
Mele are the receptacles of our collective ancestral memory. They are what we, as a people, have used to talk to each other across generations. Upon creation, mele transform thoughts into energy. The more a mele is spoken, sung, and danced into life, the more energy it gains. Like a stone skipping across a pool of water, a well-crafted mele has the ability to skip across space and time, connecting us to our past and our future, and creating ripple effects in each new era.
Long before the inception of a choral competition at Kamehameha Schools, the practice of perpetuating mele Hawai‘i was well established. Charles E. King, a member of the first graduating class of the School for Boys in 1891, explained how the school’s singing tradition began:
“Theodore Richards … was inspired by [the] discovery of the great musical talent among us boys. Richards gave us Hawaiian songs to sing in four-part harmony; he was able to get into the hearts of his pupils, and that was the reason for his success … He took us on concert tours around the islands, making us proud of ourselves, proud of our school, and making our Hawaiian audiences proud of our accomplishments.”
In the early years of Song Contest, each class would perform two songs— the first was an original Hawaiian composition created by members of that class, and the second was a classic mele from the schools’ accepted repertoire. This is a profound reality, considering the context of the times. Hawaiian language was not allowed to be spoken in our own school. And yet, within the early establishment of Song Contest, students were allowed to exercise their ancient tongues through mele, adding to the collective memory.
As both the schools and the competition evolved over time, the practice of composing new mele was discontinued and our engagement with mele shifted. We were still accessing the information held in existing texts and continuing their reverberations into the future, but we were not actively creating new energies by voicing our contemporary stories. We were not skipping any new stones across the pool. That is, not until today.
On this, the 100th Song Contest, we reflect on the past century and pause to celebrate where this beloved tradition has delivered us. What originated as an acapella singing competition in an increasingly-threatened native tongue has matured into a practice of mele and mo‘olelo in our revitalized ‘ōlelo makuahine. This re-engagement with our history through song has activated us and brought us to renewed understandings of our cultural identity—an identity no longer fading, but one eager to thrive in modern contexts.
One hundred years’ worth of students have sung the songs of their kūpuna, preserving invaluable data that serves as our foundation and constant inspiration. Those mele are the pages of our history kept alive at the tip of the tongue.
Today, we realize that we are kūpuna for the century to come. We affirm that there are more pages to our story. And thus, we know there are more mele to be written. More stones to be skipped. In doing so, we ensure that we continue to tell our stories of today, grounded in our past and poised for our future. What mele will be sung about us 100 years from now?