Oli — An Introduction

The tradition of oli lives as a vibrant means of expression and oratory. Its presence in contemporary Hawaiian formal occasions, however, belies its near-unsuccessful survival through much of the 20th century.  Both the Hawaiian language and the musical system of oli experienced precipitous decline following the end of the kingdom and annexation to the United States. What little that survived in continuous performance was but a shadow . . .

That the tradition of oli lives owes much to the tenacity of those who refused to let go and those who vowed to remember. The restoration of oli owes much to the dedication of  students of oli and scholars alike.

The scholarship: in 1923-1924, Yale anthropologist Helen Roberts traveled throughout Hawaiʻi, Maui, Oʻahu and Kauaʻi searching for kupuna who remembered mele, and recording these mele on crude portable recording equipment of the day. In 1933, Bishop Museum anthropologist Kenneth Emory recorded the renowned chanter James Kapihenui Palea Kuluwaimaka. In the 1970s, when ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Tatar joined the Bishop Museum staff, she undertook a re-study of these recordings and other unpublished archival sources. The study earned her the doctoral degree from UCLA, and was published in 1982 as Nineteenth Century Hawaiian Chant.

The students of oli: By the 1960s, the oli tradition could be likened to the narrowest part of an hourglass. The cultural resurgence of the 1970s, however, brought forth students whose interests converged with Tatarʻs scholarship. Well into the 1980s, chanters studiously labored to reinstate what Tatarʻs study had substantiated about the system of chant.

We have prevailed. The oli tradition lives.

Oli: An Overview

  1. Oli is a system for the recitation of mele (poetic texts).
  2. Oli is NOT accompanied by hula.
  3. Because oli is not accompanied by hula, it does not use patterned rhythm that guides dancers.

Recommended Recordings

Mountain Apple MACD 2043 The Master Chanters of Hawaiʻi (Mountain Apple MACD 2043).  Originally published in 1982 on LP under the title Nā Leo Kahiko / Voices of the People of Old (Bishop Museum Audio Recording Collection ARCS-1).  An anthology of historical recordings from Bishop Museum Archives, from the 1920s and 1930s.

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JVC VICG-5457-2 Hawaiian Chant: The Lyrical Poetry of Hawai‘i. (JVC VICG-5457-2, 1997). Unusual among chant CDs in that all but two of the 29 tracks are oli rather than hula chants. The collective of chanters, named Nā Wa‘a Lalani Kahuna, is led by kumu John Keolamaka‘ainanakalāhuiokalani Lake.

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One Response to Oli — An Introduction

  1. Wanda Certo, Cleveland, OH says:

    Mahalo for making very clear the difference between oli and chant. So many times, folks tend to use the two interchangeably. For one who is late to the love of Hawaiian music and culture, your teachings are invaluable.

    Me ke aloha pumehana,
    Auntie Wanda

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