"Long Live the Grand Old, Sonorous, Poetical Hawaiian language..."


Oli and mele are a long-time part of the Hawaiian tradition. “As the Hawaiian songs were unwritten, and adapted to chanting rather than metrical music, a line was measured by the breath; their hopuna, answering to our line, was as many words as could be easily cantilated at one breath.” (Bingham)

When the American Protestant missionaries first arrived in the Islands, they broke into song. Hiram Bingham notes that on April 1, 1820, off Kawaihae, Kalanimōku came onboard their boat. “Then, ere the excitement of the chiefs’ visit was over, Mr. Thurston and his yoke-fellow (Bingham speaking of himself) ascended the shrouds …”

“… and, standing upon the main-top (the mission family, captain and crew being on deck), as we gently floated along on the smooth silent sea, under the lee of Hawaii’s dark shores, sang a favorite song of Zion (Melton Mowbray), which they had sung at their ordination at Goshen, and with the Park St Church choir, at Boston, on the day of embarkation.”

Once established in the Islands, missionaries used songs as a part of the celebration, as well as learning process. “At this period, the same style of sermons, prayers, songs, interrogations, and exhortations, which proves effectual in promoting revivals of religion, conversion, or growth in grace among a plain people in the United States …”

“… was undoubtedly adapted to be useful at the Sandwich Islands. … some of the people who sat in darkness were beginning to turn their eyes to the light”. (Bingham)

“Before the year 1823 had closed the (Bingham and William Ellis) had prepared a small hymn book of sixty pages, of which 2000 copies were printed in December. Mr. Ballon says: ‘A large proportion of the hymns were original, but among them were translations of Watt’s 50th Psalm, Pope’s ‘The Dying Christian to his Soul,’ several choruses from Handel’s Messiah.’”

“‘This book also contained a translation of more than forty select passages of Scripture.’” It was called Na Himeni Hawaii; he me ori ia Iehova, ke Akua mau’. “Literally-translated the title reads thus, ‘The hymns Hawaiian for the praise of Jehova the God continuing’”. (Westervelt; Thrum)

On October 23, 1823, missionaries wrote: “We are about to put to press within a few days an edition of twenty hymns prepared principally by Mr. Ellis. We purpose also to print a catechism and a tract.” (Ballou & Carter)

“A large proportion of the hymns were original, but among them were translations of Watts’ 50th psalm, of Pope’s ode, The dying Christian to his soul, Owhyhee’s idols are no more (originally Taheite’s), the jubilee hymn, several choruses from Handel’s Messiah, &c.” (Ballou & Carter)

“In August of 1825 the 2,000 copies of this first edition had all been given out gratis and it was felt that hymns were needed more than any other textbook. On March 10, 1826, it was recorded that 10,000 copies of the second edition of hymns, nearly through the press, would exhaust the paper on hand.”

“The next issues of this little book then appeared in what now seems rapid succession: 1827, 1828 and 1830. In the edition of 1826 the number of hymns had grown from 47 to 63; in the third, fourth and fifth editions 100 hymns were printed on 108 pages.”

“Each of these four issues, from 1826 to 1830, was published in an edition of 10,000 copies, except that of 1828, of which 20,000 were printed.”

“The fifth edition, of 1830, was delayed because the old type was so worn down by long usage as to be quite impracticable.” (Wilcox; Damon The Fiend, March 1935)

The missionaries wrote other songs – and sang with the ali‘i. “The king (Kamehameha III) being desirous to use his good voice in singing, we sang together at my house, not war songs, but sacred songs of praise to the God of peace.” (Bingham)

One of the unique verses (sung to an old melody) was Hoʻonani Hole – Hoʻonani I Ka Makua Mau. Bingham translated it to Hawaiian and people sang it to a melody that dates back to the 1600s – today, it is known as the Hawaiian Doxology.

Another popular Hawaiian melody was written by another missionary, Lorenzo Lyons. “Lyons was eminently popular with Hawaiians and with all men. His nature was guileless, cordial, enthusiastic, cheering. He was remarkable for hospitality to Hawaiians always seeing that his visitors passing through Waimea had something to eat.” (Hawaiian Gazette, October 19, 1886)

Lyons was an avid supporter of the Hawaiian language. He wrote a letter to the editor in The Friend newspaper (September 2, 1878) that, in part noted: …

An interminable language … it is one of the oldest living languages of the earth, as some conjecture, and may well be classed among the best…the thought to displace it, or to doom it to oblivion by substituting the English language, ought not for a moment to be indulged. … Long live the grand old, sonorous, poetical Hawaiian language.”

Lyons was lovingly known to Hawaiians as Ka Makua Laiana, Haku Mele o ka ʻĀina Mauna (Father Lyons, Lyric Poet of the Mountain County). Lyons was fluent in the Hawaiian language and composed many poems and hymns; Lyons’ best known and beloved work is the hymn “Hawaiʻi Aloha,” sung to the tune of “I Left It All With Jesus” (circa 1852.) The song was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 1998.

“Widely regarded as Hawaiʻi’s second anthem, this hymn is sung in both churches and public gatherings. It is performed at important government and social functions to bring people together in unity, and at the closing of Hawaiʻi Legislative sessions.”

“The first appearance of “Hawaiʻi Aloha” in a Protestant hymnal was in 1953, nearly 100-years after it was written. Today, people automatically stand when this song is played extolling the virtues of ‘beloved Hawaiʻi.’” (Hawaiian Music Museum).

Queen Liliʻuokalani, while a student at the Chiefs’ Children’s School, learned and became fluent in English, and studied music and the arts. Her talent for music blossomed and she eventually wrote more than 150 songs, including “Aloha ʻOe.”

“To compose was as natural to me as to breathe; and this gift of nature, never having been suffered to fall into disuse, remains a source of the greatest consolation to this day.”

“… Hours of which it is not yet in place to speak, which I might have found long and lonely, passed quickly and cheerfully by, occupied and soothed by the expression of my thoughts in music.” (Liliʻuokalani)

“In view of the fact that the best modern Hawaiian music, now known the world over, owes much to the musical form of these early hymns, one wishes that history had been less restrained.”

“Yet, even in default of any direct, consecutive record, one may piece out quite a little of the story of Hawaiian hymns from references in early letters and accounts of their printing.”

“And when one has the good fortune to touch with one’s own hands many of the early songbooks printed in Hawaiian, the search toward a complete account of them becomes a fascinating pursuit.” (Wilcox; Damon The Fiend, March 1935)

“When our Protestant missionaries came to hymnody in Hawaiian – as they very soon did – they reared a natural superstructure upon this rich and rhythmical foundation of the Bible. It was a veritable treasure house.”

“But strangely, too, another very deep-seated source of balance and rhythm and figured speech flowed in the cultural consciousness of the Hawaiian people to whom these new Christian messages were being brought. Instinct in the Hawaiian mode of thought was the impulse and the act of prayer, of supplication, of praise.” (Wilcox; Damon The Fiend, March 1935)

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