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.


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.”


The students can use the help. This oli is in the rapid-fire kepakepa style, designed to get a multitude of words expressed in the quickest possible time. To chant ten lines of complex Hawaiian poetry in a single exhalation requires sophisticated vocal techniques—tightening of the vocal chords and the jaw along with an easy breath release. And the words have to be true. Kapono‘ai takes time to talk about the word “pala‘a”—the wild lace fern and a brown dye derived from its leaves—and he runs his students through the exact intonation of Hawaiian phrases. When he breaks the news to his class that they are going to learn to chant this page-long poem in exactly three breaths, they murmur, “Wow.”

He says, “You’re going to find air you never thought you had.”
In this way, Kumu Kapono‘ai teaches personal discipline, poetic interpretation, exactitude with the Hawaiian language, native history and culture, empathy, numerous fine points of island folk skills, plus a deeply rooted and wholesome approach to living on the Earth. All this, together wholly, is oli.

Oli is different from other chant traditions,” says Hokulani Holt, the kumu hula who serves as cultural advisor to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. A form of ritual prayer at times, yes, oli is also the official library and history of a rich culture that had no books. Oli preserves family lineage knowledge and reminds us how to wake up, how to go surfing, how to treat one’s guests, and how it feels to fall in love. “And it was a vocalization of how a person felt about anything,” says Hokulani, “very much how poetry is today.”

To get a deep connection to oli, you have to know the Hawaiian language—even though, like listening to opera, it is always possible to enjoy it simply for harmonic pleasure. But oli sounds monotonous to the untrained ear, moving as it does among just three or five notes.

But notes aren’t everything, I discover when I visit Hokulani in her office at the MACC. “The head and throat and body are sound chambers,” she tells me. “The resonance moves around the body of the chanter. Listen.”

She intones a single strong note, giving it that steady ‘i‘i vibrato. Then without changing pitch or volume, she moves the sound around—down into the na‘au (diaphragm), up to her throat, then higher up to her nasal sinuses. As I watch her do this, seeing no change in her physical appearance, my ears twitch and my brain wobbles with disbelief.



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