Oli — Five Genres

In the post of November 15, 2009, I introduced oli, the art of Hawaiian chant, and recommended two recordings filled with many examples of oli.

Oli is the indigenous Hawaiian performance system of chanting. More specifically, it is the vocal performance of mele that is not accompanied by hula, thus oli does not use patterned rhythm or instrumental accompaniment. Any sense of rhythm is determined entirely by the words of the mele, and line lengths do not need to be consistent or uniform in length.

The system of oli includes five named genres that are distinguished from each other on the basis of musical elements. Here I shall provide recommendations to specific tracks, so that you, dear readers and listeners, may hear the specific sounds of each of the specific genres of oli.


Kepakepa is a rapid conversational style of delivery without sustained pitch. Kepakepa is used to recite lengthy mele such as genealogy or enumerations. Two examples of kepakepa chanting:

  1. An awesome example is the opening sequence of the 1989 documentary film Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture. Chanter Kaipo Frias of Hiloʻs Hālau o Kekuhi performs the mele “A Kauaʻi i ka ʻolewa i luna” at Halema‘uma‘u Crater.
  2. “Oli kepakepa,” track 10 on Hawaiian Chant: The Lyrical Poetry of Hawaii (JVC VICG-5457) is another awesome example of rapidfire delivery of genealogical information.


Kawele is heightened declamation that adds dramatic tension to the recited mele. Although less rapid than kepakepa, kawele also does not use sustained pitch. Hiloʻs Hālau o Kekuhi has been at the forefront of bringing this chant style to modern audiences. Examples:

  1. Chant student Heanu Weller of Hilo’s Hālau o Kekuhi presented her contest chant, “He ‘Aina Kupa ‘Oe Moloka’i,” in the 1989 King Kamehameha Chant and Hula Competition in the kāwele style. Highlights were televised, and a taped copy can be viewed at the University of Hawai‘i’s Wong AudioVisual Center.
  2. More recently, Hālau o Kekuhi‘s 2007 recording Hi‘iaka I Ka Poli O Pele (Mountain Apple MACD 8558), uses the kāwele style in the scene enacting the kilu game.


The olioli style of oli chanting uses definite sustained pitch. The recitation is placed on one recitation tone. Phrase beginnings may begin at a lower pitch, then settles in on the reciting tone; chanters may also use one or two pitches above the reciting tone to add some sonic interest, but those pitches are generally understood as temporary and even decorative. Phrase endings may also descend to a lower pitch. The prolonging of the recitation tone at line and phrase ends are moments of opportunity to apply the a specific kind of vibrato called ‘i‘i, again, to decorate the tone.

The olioli style is the style of chanting that remained in active use during the lean years when few students were learning the art of chanting. There are numerous examples of olioli on recordings. The examples listed here span a range of chanters across several generations.

  1. Ka‘upena Wong, “Mele Inoa No Kamehameha.” Mele Inoa (Poki SP-9003, 1973).
  2. Ka‘upena Wong, “Eia Hawai’i” on The Music of Hawaii(National Geographic 706, 1976).
    Chanter Ka‘upena Wong was a student of revered authority Mary Kawena Pukui, and was the ho‘opa‘a (chanter/drummer) for Pukui’s daughter, Pele Pukui Suganuma. Ka’upena’s performances were recorded in his prime, just before Ka‘upena withdrew from active performance.
  3. Maiki Aiu Lake, “Noho ana ‘o Laka i ka uluwehi,” Maiki: Chants and Mele of Hawai‘i (Hula HS-588, 1992). Renowned kumu hula Maiki Aiu Lake, a student of  Lokalia Montgomery, trained several classes of students who went on to play leading roles in reviving ancient hula kahiko in the 1970s.
  4. Edith Kanaka‘ole, Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele, and Nālani Kanaka‘ole. Mother and two daughters perform in the olioli style on the opening track of the 1978 LP recording Ha‘aku‘i Pele i Hawai‘i! (Hula HS-560).
  5. Lehua Hulihe‘e, “Noho ana ke akua i ka nāhelehele.” Hawaiian Drum Dance Chants (Smithsonian Folkways SF-40015, 1989).
  6. Manu Boyd, “Oli Lei.” On Ho‘okena, Choice of the Heart (Ho‘omau HOCD-1002, 1991).
    Lehua Hulihe‘e and Manu Boyd studied with John Kaha‘i Topolinski and Robert Cazimero, respectively, both of whom studied with Maiki Aiu Lake.


The ho‘āeae style of oli chanting combines melodic patterning and intense use of ‘i‘i vibrato phrases to achieve an emotionally powerful style of chanting especially favored for mele of love and affection. John Kaha‘i Topolinski and two of his chant students, Anthony Lenchanko and Kalani Akana, are major figures in modeling their understanding of ho‘āeae on the field recordings in Bishop Museum Archives.

  1. The classic example of the revived ho‘āeae style of oli is the track “Mele Ho‘oipoipo” performed by Kalani Akana on the compilation CD Nā Kumu Hula / Songs from The Source Vol. 1 (State Council on Hawaiian Heritage SCHH-CD-7001, 1997).
  2. Another example is by “Kaulana Kohala,” chanted by Brian Mersberg on Nā Kamaʻs Kamakolu (Makani MR-003).


Laments and funerary dirges were delivered in the style known as ho‘ouwēuwē, which was largely defunct in urban areas by the mid-20th century. Two tracks recorded on Hawaiian Chant: The Lyrical Poetry of Hawaii(JVC VICG-5457) are based on Kumu John Lake‘s recollection of wailing at family funerals during his childhood:

  1. Track 7, “Ho‘ouwē‘uwē”
  2. Track 13, “Kanikau”
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4 Responses to Oli — Five Genres

  1. Taupouri Tangarō says:

    Aloha Amy, this is Taupouri Tangaro (Kaipo Frias). I am interested to know if you have the Kamehameha Competition 1986 recording of me doing this kepakepa. If you do, may I have a copy?


  2. Sienna Achong says:

    Aloha Amy!

    I have a question: where can I find the examples of the different types of chant online? I tried to look for the CD online but I cannot find it.. Thank you so much!

    • amykstillman says:

      The $64 million dollar question–where to find the CD! Actually, the examples I list come from different CDs. The best place to look for the CDs is Hawaiian Music Island at http://www.mele.com I havenʻt posted audio files from the CDs because Iʻm one of the old-fashioned dinosaurs who still respect copyright restrictions. Hmm, maybe I should go cruising YouTube and see what is up there now! If I find anything, Iʻll post something.

  3. Sienna Achong says:

    Mahalo nui! Actually, a good friend of mine recommended the CD “Na Leo Hawai’i Kahiko” and I found it on Amazon for 20$. Gives full translations, explanations and the type of mele it is. Try checking that one!

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