Hula Ku‘i Songs

The hula ku‘i is the innovative “modern” hula that debuted in the late 1800s, particularly during the reign of King David Kalākaua (r. 1874-1891). Among the hula performances at ‘Iolani Palace during his reigh,  King Kalākaua‘s coronation ceremony in February 1883 is a milestone in the public performance of hula, and the printed program of titles of mele presented on this occasion is one of the first sources that identify specific mele as “hula kui.” You can view the program, Papa Kuhikuhi o Na Hula Poni Moi, courtesy of the Bishop Museum’s “Hawai‘i Alive” project (click on the last link in the “Key Resources” sidebar).

The songs of the hula ku‘i are the basis for what is commonly known as modern hula ‘auana in the present. The songform of these songs is so well known, and the term “hula ku‘i” would suggest that these songs were suitable for performance as hula. Hawaiian music does have a long tradition of music for listening pleasure, and many hula ku‘i songs are sung and performed without hula, and even in instrumental renditions by slack key guitar, steel guitar, solo ‘ukulele, piano, even orchestral arrangements.

Here are some of the main features of hula ku‘i songs:

  1. The mele text is organized into stanzas, mostly either two or four lines.
  2. All stanzas of the mele are sung to one tune. That tune is repeated for every stanza of text.
  3. The final stanza signals the conclusion of the song through the use of conventional phrases. The most common such line, in its fullest form, is “Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana.” Variants of this line omit one or more of the grammatical particles, such as “Ha‘ina mai ka puana,” or “Ha‘ina mai ana ka puana. Some other conventional lines are “Hea aku au, e ō mai ‘oe,” and “Puana aku au i ku‘u mele.”
  4. In performance, stanzas are separated by an instrumental chord progression. Among various terms for this interlude, many dancers call this a “vamp,” and instrumentalists often use the term “turnaround.”
  5. Instrumental accompaniment for hula performance is most often based around the ‘ukulele trio–‘ukulele, guitar, and bass.
  6. In hula, the most common basic lower-body time-keeping pattern is the motif called kaholo, literally “to run,” during which the dancer travels from side to side,

And here is a random list of widely-known and beloved hula ku‘i songs:

  • A Kona Hema ‘o Kalani
  • ‘Ahulili
  • ‘Alekoki
  • Green Rose Hula
  • Hi‘ilawe
  • Ho‘onanea
  • I Ali‘i No ‘Oe
  • Ka Uluwehi o Ke Kai
  • Ka Wai Lehua ‘A‘ala Ka Honua
  • Kalākaua, ka pua mae ‘ole i ka lā
  • Kawaipunahele
  • Kawika
  • Noho Paipai
  • Pāpālina Lahilahi

Recommended Listening: Composers (Haku Mele)

Throughout the 20th century, the decline of the Hawaiian language  posed a serious challenge to the continual appearance of new songs. Among mid-century songwriters, the work of three giants stands out, thanks to the efforts of producer Harry B. Soria, Jr., and HanaOla Records in issuing three compilations of historically significant singer-songwriters.

Lena Machado (HanaOla HOCD-29000)

This beloved songbird wrote classic hula ku‘i songs:

  • Ho‘onanea
  • Holo Wa‘a Pā
  • Kauoha Mai
  • E Ku‘u Baby Hot Cha Cha

John Kameaaloha Almeida (HanaOla HOCD-49000)

Hear him sing his compositions including:

  • ‘O Ko‘u Aloha Iā ‘Oe
  • Ku‘u Ipo Pua Rose
  • Green Rose Hula
  • Lei Hinahina
  • Lovely Sunrise Haleakalā

Bill Ali‘iloa Lincoln (HanaOla HOCD-96000)

Billed as “Hawai‘i’s Falsetto Poet,” listen to some of his songs:

  • Ku‘u Lei Liliha
  • Pua Be Still
  • Halema‘uma‘u
  • Nani Lawai
  • Ku‘u Milimili
  • Moku o Keawe

Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett

The two most recent CDs provide an excellent introduction to Kawaikapuokalani’s prolific output, even if they do not include his earlier hula ku‘i classics such as “Ka Wai Lehua ‘A‘ala Ka Honua,” “Hōpoe,” “Poli‘ahu,” and “Ka Pilina:

Honehone i ka Poli (Daniel Ho Creations DHC 80061)

Ho‘ōla i ka Poli (Daniel Ho Creations DHC 80071)


Keali‘i Reichel

This singer-songwriter burst onto the scene with his 1994 release, Kawaipunahele. Two retrospective collections gather highlights from his five CDs.

Kamahiwa–Collection One (Punahele Productions PP-010)

Kamalei–Collection Two (Punahele Productions PP-012)


Recommended Listening: Performers

All of the recordings in the ‘Ukulele Trio Music post are excellent starting points to discover classic performances of classic hula ku‘i songs. Among the stars in the firmament of fine singers are: Genoa Keawe, Raiatea Helm, Amy Hanaiali‘i (Gilliom), Karen Keawehawai‘i; Kawai Cockett, Tony Conjugacion, Kimo Alama Keaulana and Lei Hulu, Cody Pueo Pata, Bulla Kailiwai, Keao Costa. Among groups:  Makaha Sons, Ho‘okena, Kanilau.

In future posts, we will have a look at specific tracks. For example, one of my all-time favorite tracks is the very classic “Makee ‘Ailana” done exquisitely by the Brothers Cazimero, from their LP “Songs from Mama’s Songbook” and issued on CD only on the “Best of . . . Vol. III“.

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1 Response to Hula Ku‘i Songs

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure

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