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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There are all sorts of oli styles, the most commonly heard being the olioli style, which allows for free-flowing expression on the part of the chanter, which may include lots of he‘u, a quick, up-flicking lilt of the voice. Depending on the mele, or lyrics, of the chant, an oli can be about all kinds of things—a genealogy, a place, the exploits of a famous person, someone’s love for the homeland or a child. You find a whole range of pule and healing poems, as well as chants about daily work, Hokulani says, for example, pule “not only to recount the activities of fishing, but also to approach the deities of fishing.”

But the deep attraction of oli is not a curiosity about antique customs and notions. For Hokulani, these chants are living voices. “I see [the art of oli] as a particular responsibility and honor to do these words justice. I become the voice of the person who created them.” When I suggest that oli is a form of time-travel, she shouts, “Yes!”

Eia Hawai‘I

Eia Hawai‘i, he moku, he kanaka
He kanaka Hawai‘i e
He kanaka Hawai‘i
He kama na Tahiti
He pua ali‘i mai Kapa‘ahu
Mai Moa‘ulanuiakea Kanaloa
He mo‘opuna na Kahiko
Laua ‘o Kapulanakehau
Na Papa i hanau, na ke kamawahine
‘O Kukalaniehu laua ‘o Kahakauakoko

Na pulapula ‘aina i pae kahi
I nonoho like i ka hikina, komohana
Pae like ka moku i lalani
I hui aku, hui mai me Holani

Here is Hawai‘i, an island, a man
A man is Hawai‘i
Hawai‘i is a man
A child of Tahiti
A royal flower from Kapa‘ahu
From Moa‘ulanuiakea Kanaloa
A grandchild for Kahiko
And Kapulanakehau
Papa begat him, the daughter of
Kukalaniehu and Kahakauakoko

The scattered islands are in a row
Placed evenly from East to West
Spread evenly is the land in a row
Joined on to Holani

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