Mele Hawai‘i is a term used loosely to refer to all of Hawaiian music. However, in the 19th century, this term had a more specific function: to distinguish songs by Hawaiian songwriters that were modeled on Christian himeni, yet whose subject matter was not religious, and whose poetics incorporated the aesthetic practices of traditional mele composition.
Mele Hawai‘i songs are musical gems. Among songwriters, the group of brothers and sisters–Kalākaua, Lili‘uokalani, Likelike, and Leleiohōkū, known collectively as “Nā Lani ‘Ehā”–were prominent musical leaders in Honolulu. Raised in Christian belief and educated by the missionaries, these songwriters were musically literate, and published their songs in sheet music (such as the photo above) and songbooks. With this repertoire, they also fashioned a musical scene in Honolulu that aspired to recognition alongside European classical music. Mele Hawai‘i songs were often debuted in concert occasions held at Kawaiaha‘o Church. Moreover, many of the compositions demanded vocal technique and range possessed by trained singers.
Examples of mele Hawai‘i songs (jotted down off the top of my head–this list does not represent any “Top 10”):
ʻImi Au Iā ʻOe
Ka Makani Kaʻili Aloha
Kaua i ka Huahuaʻi (more commonly known now as “Hawaiian War Chat”)
Kuʻu Ipo I Ka Heʻe Puʻe One
Lei No Kaʻiulani
Lei No Kaʻahumanu
Ua Like No A Like
Uluhua Wale Au
Mele Hawai‘i repertoire has been the focus of Hawaiian choral singing associated with The Kamehameha Schools Song Contest. Choral singing has also been perpetuated in annual song contests of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs.
Over the 20th century, mele Hawai‘i songs have been performed and recorded by groups such as the Sons of Hawai‘i, the Peter Moon Band, Hui ‘Ohana, and the Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau. These and other musicians have established mele Hawai‘i repertoire in the realm of guitar- and ‘ukulele-based bands using the gentle relaxing strumming.
The recordings shown here provide an excellent introduction to the world of mele Hawai‘i songs.
Kamehameha Schools. Nā Mele Ho‘oheno / A Musical Tradition (Kamehameha Schools KS-1001-2, 1997). Recordings drawn from the historically significant archives of the schools’ Song Contest, and the renowned Concert Glee Club.
Kamehameha Alumni Glee Club. Through the Years . . . (Hula HS-644, 2006). A male vocal ensemble that has continued Kamehameha Schools’ choral traditions as alumni.
The Rose Ensemble. Nā Mele Hawai‘i: A Rediscovery of Hawaiian Vocal Music. (The Rose Ensemble, 2007). A remarkable project undertaken by a St. Paul, Minnesota choral ensemble renowned throughout the choral world. The performances are based in deep historical and archival research, and extensive coaching with Hawaiian-language speakers. The professional singers bring honed technical skill to the execution of rarely-heard songs such as “Pua Onaona” and “Pua Roselani.” Extensive liner notes include a historical essay, lyrics and translations, and information on sources used for the songs.
Ku‘uipo Kumukahi and The Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame Serenaders. Nā Lani ‘Ehā. A representative selection of mele Hawai‘i songs by a popular contemporary recording artist.
Mele Hawai‘i repertoire spans over a century of Hawaiian musical creativity. Future posts will explore in greater depth the range of recording artists (including those recorded on LPs long out of print), the songwriters, the performance traditions, and also the legacy of published songbooks.