Hula and Mele
Hula and Mele
According to legend, the first hula occurred when Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, wanted her sisters to entertain her with song and dance. Only Pele’s youngest sister, Hi‘iaka, would comply. Hi‘iaka performed gracefully and powerfully for Pele to the amazement of all.
Today hula is a beautiful art form and culturally significant practice that embraces and perpetuates Hawaiian history, legend, and culture.
Kuhi no ka lima, hele no ka maka.
Where the hands move, there let the eyes follow.
A rule in hula.
With no written language, the ancient Hawaiians recorded their histories, genealogies, legends, and the phenomena of their gods through the creation and memorization of chants, known as oli, and dances called hula.
Mele is a more general word that refers to any type of song or chant. An oli is a chant that traditionally was not accompanied by dance. Often long phrases were chanted in a single breath, with each phrase ending with an ‘i‘i (trill).
Hula dancers are trained by a hula master, or kumu hula, in a school called a hālau. The dancers are trained not only in the dance movements but also in the philosophy of the hula. In ancient Hawai‘i, one who trained from childhood in the art of chanting was known as haku mele, a prestigious accomplishment that gave the person a high ranking status in the society.
Considered a narrative movement, hula embraces the meanings of the chants while releasing the grace and spirit of the dancer. The essence of hula is to go inward, to touch one’s center. Dancers are especially aware of their feet touching the earth, and of the earth itself, which is felt to be the source of the power of the dance.
‘Auana and Kahiko
The two main forms of hula are ‘auana (also spelled ‘auwana) and kahiko. ‘Auana is the more modern style of hula, which is characterized by undulating movements and is usually accompanied by a Hawaiian band. Kahiko (which means “ancient”), is the older and more traditional form of hula.
In kahiko, an invocation precedes each dance, and the women often wear knee-length skirts made from flat green ti leaves. They may wear a necklace made from the polished nuts of the kukui tree (Aleurites moluccana, candlenut) or lei ‘ā‘ī (draping vines or flowers).
Bracelets of ferns around their wrists and ankles are known as kūpe‘e. The lei po‘o encircles the dancer’s head, which is traditionally graced with long, dark flowing hair.
Mele Oli and Mele Hula
The two general classes of chants, mele oli and mele hula, serve different purposes. Oli is a non-metered chant that is used for specific occasions and when addressing formal subjects, but not for dancing. Mele hula is a more rhythmic chant with a broader tonal range.
Mele oli may use just two or three notes, and the lines usually do not rhyme. Instead, the chants often have what is known as “linked assonance,” in which the end of one line has a sound-alike word or some associated meaning with the beginning of the next line.
Mele hula is accompanied by hula, and possibly musical instruments as well. Mele oli is never accompanied by dance or music, though may be accompanied by rhythmic instruments such as pā ipu (gourd drums).
In mele oli, the words usually revolve around a principal tone, which is pronounced with more emphasis than other tones of the mele. The principal tone occurs over and over, and several subordinate tones may also be repeated, though with less emphasis and frequency.
Mele hula is a relatively free melody, with more tones and larger intervals between tones. The range and pitch of mele oli is more restricted, while the melody is more confined and less voiced.
Mai pa‘a i ka leo, he ‘ole ka hea mai.
Do not withhold the voice and not call out [a welcome].
From a password chant used in hula schools. It was often used by one who would like a friendly invitation to come into another’s home.
The Artistry of Chants: Microtonal Inflection and Kaona
Chants may use an inflecting tone that momentarily varies from the principal or subordinate tone and then immediately returns. Microtonal inflection involves very quick, small alterations of the pitch, each time quickly returning to the main note. This creates a fluctuating or trilling sound. Chants rarely use melody, the variations in pitch that are so common in Western style songs.
The inflecting tones and the weaving up and down sounds of microtonal inflection provide much of the artistry of chants. Also integral to chanting is the use of kaona (hidden meanings, concealed references, or double meanings) that may allow the chants to be interpreted several ways.
Chants are typically metaphorical rather than literal. For example, the word lehua may refer to one’s lover, or may refer to the lehua flower blossom, or to Pele’s younger sister, the goddess Hi‘iaka (the lehua was her sacred flower).
In ancient times, the meanings of certain words in chants were known only by the haku mele, and a chant might be telling two or more stories at the same time. Deciphering the symbolism of a chant was considered part of the enjoyment, sort of an intellectual game.
The style used for a particular mele depends on the chant’s purpose, which resides in the meaning of its words. Some types of mele include mele ipo (love chant), mele inoa (name chant) and mele kahi (place chant). Hula ‘ili‘ili (pebble hula) is a form in which smooth, water-worn stones are used as clappers (castanets).
Different vocal techniques are required for different styles of mele, such as ‘oli‘oli (joyous), ho‘oipoipo (romantic), ‘ai ha‘a (vigorous), and ho‘aēae, a style of chanting with short phrases and prolonged vowels. The ho‘aēae style is often used in love chants. Different chanting styles require tones that may be tremulous, staccato (rapid fire), or more lyrical.
Hula and Mele—Carrying on the Hawaiian Culture
Hula and mele chants are the ancient way that Hawaiians tell their stories, pay reverence to nature, and unite mind, body and spirit with all of creation. Hula and mele are also a celebration of the beauty of the heart of the Hawaiian people, their love and aloha.
Traditionally, hula and mele have helped Hawaiians remember their origins and give thanks for all of the many natural wonders that enrich their world, including the animals, birds, fish, flowers, trees, mountains, streams, ocean, wind, and sky.
Chants are enhanced by hula, and both are integral parts of Hawaiian spirituality. Chants and hula carry on the legends and history of the Hawaiian people and help Hawaiians retain a connection to their ancient past. Hula brings forth the meanings of the chants, similar to how the form of poetry may give life to a poem.
Hawaiian chants and hula recount the origins of the Hawaiian people and the islands on which they live, as well as the origins of the universe. There are tales of migrations, genealogies, myths, customs and traditions. There are also stories of love, of longing for loved ones, stories of grief over deaths, and heroic explorations.
Hawaiian chants and hula acknowledge the ‘āina (land) and the history of the Hawaiian culture, a culture sustained by an oral tradition captured in the lyrics of the chants. Performed by those trained in the art, hula is infused with all the power and history of the Hawaiian people.
On the morning before performing hula, dancers traditionally walk up the mountain trails into the rainforest. There, with humility and reverence for the ‘āina (land), they take into their hands the verdant leaves and gently begin to weave and braid them into the strands of lei that will soon encircle their heads, necks and arms.
The dancers may gather the lacy pala‘ā fern (Sphenomeris chinensis, lace fern), and most frequently the palapalai fern (Microlepia strigosa) and in post-contact times the hardier laua‘e fern (Phymatosorus scolopendria).
The forest plants used in hula are symbolic—the palapalai fern is a representation of the hula goddess Laka; pala‘ā is an incarnation of Pele’s sister, Hi‘iaka; blossoms of ‘a‘ali‘i (Dodonaea viscosa) symbolizes strength.
Hula students also learn about the ‘āina (land), and how to respect and care for the ferns and flowers. Plants are conserved for future generations, and never taken by the roots.
The dancers give thanks to the source of the plants—the fragrant maile (Alyxia oliviformis) and leaves of ti (Cordyline fruticosa, ti) and woodland ferns—and ask permission for their use, paying reverence to Laka, the goddess of the forest and hula, as well as other ancient (kahiko) Hawaiian gods. Today many hālau also thank the god of Christianity.
Traditional instruments that accompany hula include the pahu hula, a drum made from the trunk of niu (Cocos nucifera, coconut palm) or ‘ulu (Artocarpus altilis, breadfruit), with a drumhead made from sharkskin.
Drumming sticks to keep beat are called lā‘au ho‘okani pahu. Also used are pū‘ili (split bamboo rattles) and the ‘ulī‘ulī, a gourd rattle that contains seeds and is adorned at the top with colorful feathers.
I le‘a ka hula i ka ho‘opa‘a.
The hula is pleasing because of the drummer.
The lesser details that one pays little attention to are just as important as the major ones. Although the attention is given to the dancer, the drummer and chanter play an important role in the dance.
The Rebirth of Hula—King Kalākaua, the Merrie Monarch
Beginning in 1820 when the First Company of American missionaries came to the
Hawaiians were eventually required to learn English, forbidden to speak Hawaiian, and made to wear Western-style clothes. Hula stayed alive only in secret, and the knowledge was passed along by those devoted to keeping this integral part of Hawaiian culture alive.
Formal restrictions on hula began as early as 1830 when Kuhina Nui (Regent) Ka‘ahumanu issued an edict forbidding hula and olioli (chants) as well as mele, which were described as songs for “pleasure.”[i] Ka‘ahumanu was co-ruler of the
Ka‘ahumanu’s 1830 edict also disallowed women from bathing in public, and banned foul speech.
Hula was practiced openly again after Ka‘ahumanu’s death in 1832, although missionary influences continued to push for hula regulations. In 1851, perhaps partly in response to hula being used to provide entertainment for whalers and other visiting sailors, the Legislature enacted a law requiring “public shows” to be licensed.
The missionaries of the Hawaiian Evangelical Society complained that hula interfered with industrious work (e.g. farming on sugar plantations), and asked the Minister of the Interior, Prince Lot Kamehameha (Lot Kapuāiwa Kamehameha, the future King Kamehameha V) to ban hula as a “public evil.”[ii]
The missionaries’ request was likely influenced by the fact that the decimation of the Hawaiian population by foreign diseases had worsened the shortage of plantation laborers in the
A law passed in 1859 required licensing fees for hula, imposing fines on violators and limiting hula performances to
Numerous cases of “public hula” were tried in the courts in the 1860s, but the strict sanctions were eventually eased due to pressure from the Hawaiian community. Licenses were still required, however, and fines continued to be imposed. The law restricting public hula to the
Public displays of hula were further revived during the reign of Hawai‘i’s last king, David La‘amea Kalākaua, which began in 1874. When King Kalākaua had a coronation ceremony for himself in February of 1883 at the newly built ‘
King Kalākaua later came to be known as the Merrie Monarch for his revival of hula and other Hawaiian customs, despite protests of the era’s missionaries and other influential families of the day. King Kalākaua was attacked in the newspapers for allowing “paganism.”
Despite King Kalākaua’s efforts to revive Hawaiian traditions, restrictions on commercial (public) hula remained in place until 1896 when the laws were finally repealed, three years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The government of the newly formed
Today the premier and largest hula event in the Hawaiian Islands is the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, held every April in Hilo on Hawai‘i Island. The week-long hula competition is named in honor of King Kalākaua, and is a prominent showcase of the living Hawaiian culture of hula and mele.
Numerous other annual hula gatherings, festivals, and competitions are held each year throughout the
[Photograph: Hula and Mele]
The Merrie Monarch Festival
Premiering in 1964 as part of the Hilo Festival, the Merrie Monarch Festival became an organized hula competition in 1971. Television coverage of the event began in 1981, and today the Merrie Monarch is the premier hula event in the state, and also the largest.
The Merrie Monarch Festival is named in honor of King David La‘amea Kalākaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891 and was known as the Merrie Monarch for his revival of hula and other Hawaiian customs. When King Kalākaua [David La‘amea Kalākaua] held a coronation ceremony for himself in February of 1883 at the newly built ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawaiian men chanted and pounded on pā ipu (gourd drums) and women in traditional dress performed hula.
King Kalākaua encouraged the traditional Hawaiian activities despite the protests of the era’s missionaries and other influential families of the day (beginning in 1820, the missionaries had exerted a steady influence on the native Hawaiians, discouraging traditional cultural and religious beliefs and practices, including hula). Kalākaua was attacked in the newspapers for allowing “paganism.”
Starting each year on Easter Sunday, the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition is a prominent showcase of the living Hawaiian culture of hula and mele. The Merrie Monarch Festival has long been planned and organized under the leadership of “Auntie Dottie,” a.k.a. Dorothy Thompson.
Stringent guidelines require Merrie Monarch contestants to present the judges with fact sheets detailing their research and the rationale for their performance. Costumes are also required to fit the time portrayed in the chant or dance.The Merrie Monarch is just one of numerous annual gatherings, festivals, and competitions held throughout the
[i] Napoleon, Nanette Naioma. Hula’s outlaw past: An integral part of daily life until 1820, hula was restricted for 76 years, citing: Silva, Noenoe. The Political Economy of Banning the Hula. Hawaiian Journal of History.
[ii]Napoleon, Nanette Naioma. Hula’s outlaw past: An integral part of daily life until 1820, hula was restricted for 76 years, citing: Silva, Noenoe. The Political Economy of Banning the Hula. Hawaiian Journal of History.