Giving Voice to a Culture
For more than a millennium, Hawaii relied on was an oral culture. It’s not mere chance that the spoken word has regained its importance today.
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It’s a winter night on Kahului Bay. The sea breezes please the skin as they puff through this almost-empty hall. Outside in the moist darkness mild waves roll audibly, and each slushy crescendo is long and easy and slow to fade. Inside the hall, ceiling fans tick quietly. The bare concrete floor seems to have been polished to a shine. Twelve students pull their chairs in a line that curves slightly around the figure of their kumu—their teacher—a young Hawaiian man who sits solidly on the edge of a simple wooden stage. “Listen,” says the kumu, and he begins to oli. To chant.
A dancer with Hokulani Holt's halau hula gives eloquent movement to the oli her kumu hula chants.
His voice is barrel-deep, Paul-Robeson-basso-profundo, resonant as a great trombone, and rich with ‘i‘i—the vibrato or controlled vocal trembling that is essential to oli. When he returns to silence, the waves and the breeze again dominate the large room.
He says, “Your homework this week, go look at the surf. Do your oli practice on the longevity of the wave. Right when the wave po‘i—starts to break—then you start the chant, then continue until the whitewash is no longer visible. One deep breath.”
Lung capacity is just one of the topics tonight, here with the weekly beginners’ class in the ancient art of oli—traditional Hawaiian chanting. The place: Hale Nanea, a native cultural center created five years ago by the Royal Order of Kamehameha, Maui Chapter. The roomy one-story structure sits in the industrial armpit of Kahului Harbor, beneath techno-monstrous petroleum silos and shrouded by the chain-link-and-concrete landscape of Maui’s most urban place. And yet, in the velvet darkness of nine p.m., with the subtle shoreline sounds and the moist breeze, what the kumu is saying feels quite true—and this is another topic tonight—that here in January we have reached the final month of the Makahiki season, the period when the people and the land restore themselves.
In Kumu Kapono'ai Molitau's numerous weekly classes, students learn intricate vocal techniques and ageless Hawaiian wisdom.
He says, “This is the time of harvest. That means to harvest your own knowledge. From this rain, things are growing; you have your own growth.” The class rehearses a chant dedicated to the god Lono, a pule ho‘omau—that is, a prayer (pule) that perseveres, never quits. “This version for Lono can be done till you turn purple,” he jokes. Then he has the students repeat the chant over and over and over. After they start to turn purple, he says, “By the time you got to the end, it actually felt like a pule.”
Then, quietly, almost as if he is talking to himself, he goes to work on their mana‘o, their thoughts: “First and foremost you must recognize what you’re chanting about—the sea rolling, the cool breezes, the mountain coming green. Put your energy through those things. This is a good help for all of us throughout this season of Lono. There’s so much more you can get from the day if you just open up to it from the time you get up to the time you go moe-moe (sleep).”
This teacher, Kapono‘ai Molitau, never moves from his position seated on the edge of the stage, clad in knit aloha shirt and shorts, a long checkerboard tattoo running like a ribbon along his leg. Larger than life, built like a linebacker or an epic hero, he’s the fellow you would choose to play the film version of the mighty warrior Kamehameha. A big man indeed, and yet bright eyes and a kind voice hold all that power in check. He’s part of the Lake family heritage, his father (and teacher) being the esteemed kumu hula John Keola Lake. Kapono‘ai teaches eight weekly oli classes here at Hale Nanea and by day works with the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission, the state entity charged with restoring the former “target island.”
Now kumu shifts the class’s attention to a chant called ‘Eia Hawai‘i—“Here is Hawai‘i”—which was composed 500 or so years ago by a kahuna nui (high priest) named Kamahualele. After crossing the Pacific on a voyaging canoe from faraway Kahiki, this priest saw the Hawaiian Islands appear, and he climbed to the top of his vessel and proclaimed his oli. Kapono‘ai tells his students, “Keep seeing these images in front of you, the same thing this kupuna [elder, ancestor] saw hundreds of years ago. Think of the imagery. It will help you get through the chant.”