Island Music (A Brief History)

New Musical Tradition

“Music serves to enliven many an hour of sadness, or what would be sadness otherwise. It is an expression of the emotions of the heart, a disperser of gloomy clouds.”

(Juliette Montague Cooke; Punahou)

Since the beginning of time, every culture has developed means of passing on important information to its people. For Hawaiians, there was no written language until the 1820s. The missionaries introduced the alphabet which made it possible to represent Hawaiian language in the written form. Until then, all information was passed orally through the use of songs, chants, and poems.

Hawaiians devised various methods of recording information for the purpose of passing it on from one generation to the next. The chant (mele or oli) [is] one such method. Elaborate chants were composed to record important information, e.g. births, deaths, triumphs, losses, good times and bad.

In most ancient cultures, composing of poetry was confined to the privileged classes. What makes Hawai‘i unique is that poetry was composed by people of all walks of life, from the royal court chanters down to the common man.

All poetry contain layers of ‘hidden meanings,’ sometimes understandable only to those who are sensitized to different levels of subtleties. Hawaiian chants are no exception. A skilled chanter would oftentimes weave kaona or double-meaning creating different levels of possible translation.

So while some may hear the mele and think it means one thing, others more familiar with the context would understand a very different interpretation. It is often said that it is nearly impossible to fully understand the meaning of a chant because of this use of kaona. Only the intended recipient of the composition would be able to grasp its true meaning. (Lenchanko; KSBE)

Music, particularly drumming, [is] traditionally important in Hawaiian ritual. A drum is played as part of hula - a larger version was used in temples.

The seated musician normally played the pahu with one hand and a smaller drum, sometimes tied to the knee, with the other. (British Museum) Hawaiian musical traditions are essentially vocal. Percussive musical instruments are never played alone, but always to accompany chanting and dancing.