SONGS: Kawika

One of the dances that virtually every hula student learns at some point in her or his dancing days. Usually as a hula kahiko–ancient hula. But also performed as a modern hula ‘auana, too.

The mele has all of the marks of a classic hula ku‘i — there are multiple stanzas in the mele; each stanza is sung to the same tune; and the final stanza announces the conclusion of the mele–“Ha‘ina mai ka puana, ‘eā”. And, in most performances, the stanzas are separated by an instrumental phrase that repeats between every stanza–what many hula people call “vamp,” and many musicians call a “turnaround. The mele “Kawika” is a little unique, in that there are recordings and performance versions where the the vamp/turnaround is omitted, and the stanzas are presented one after another. Even without the vamp/turnaround, this mele is still in the format of sung hula ku‘i AND chanted hula ‘ōlapa, for the reasons just listed above.

UH Professor of Ethnomusicology Ric Trimillos wrote an article about “Kawika” in Ha‘ilono Mele–the Hawaiian Music Foundationʻs newsletter, back in 1977. In it, he compares the tune in three recordings: 1) a chanted performance by Kehuaho‘oulu Davis; 2) a swing band arrangement by Johnny Noble; and 3) the Sunday Manoa‘s uptempo arrangement that launched the Hawaiian Renaissance in the early 1970s. Trimillos considered the chanted version to represent the “original” form of the mele hula.

Letʻs have a look at additional historical sources.

Here are pages from the printed program of hulas performed for King Kalākauaʻs coronation festivities in 1883. Two of the presenters included a mele “Eia no Davida ka heke o na pua” on their programs. (E kala mai, Iʻm still trying to learn the $#@! program that will let me add highlights to jpeg images.) Click on any of these images to get an enlarged image that you can read more clearly. In Ehu Keohihinaʻs program, the entry is the sixth line from the bottom of the page.

It is significant that both presentations list this mele as “Hula Kui”. The term literally means “joining old and new,” and more specifically acknowledged the presence of “newer” stringed instruments such as guitar and ‘ukulele as opposed to hula with the older percussive ipu and pahu.

Now letʻs have a look at a notated source–Johnny Nobleʻs Collection of Ancient & Modern Hulas, published in 1931 (expanded in 1935, and reprinted in 1964 under the title Hawaiian Hulas). Page 31 has two versions of “Kawika” — on the top half of the page, the first version is described as “Ancient Hawaiian Hula;” on the bottom half of the page it is a “Hula Olapa”.

Noble 1931, page 31

A source like this clearly messes with hard and fast distinctions between “ancient” and “modern.” Especially because what Noble has labelled “Ancient Hawaiian Hula” at the top of the page is the tune that we all know and sing as the MODERN hula tune!!! And the tune that is closer in character to what many now perform as “ancient” is labelled by Noble as “Hula Olapa”–understood as hula with ipu accompaniment.

This is not the time or place for any kind of definitive declaration–if one could even be made. My purpose at this point is simply to point out the contents of different kinds of sources. And these sources do, in fact, resonate harmoniously with what a listener will encounter in commercial sound recordings. Letʻs take stock of some of the highlights among commercially released recordings.

l. Kalama Quartette (Okeh 41455), recorded 1930. A solo voice delivers one stanza using the chant tune with a tom-tom drum accompaniment, and is followed immediately by an a capella 3- or 4- part harmonized delivery of the same stanza. Ancient or modern? Does harmonization of a chant tune make it a modern tune? (especially since there is no added guitar or ʻukulele)


2. Andy Cummings & His Hawaiian Serenaders (Bell LKS-218), recorded ca. late 1940s. This arrangement alternates between a solo voice delivering the chant tune to drum accompaniment, and a harmonized rendition of the modern song tune with guitar accompaniment complete with steel guitar flourishes. This presentation also exploits the leap in the melodyʻs first phrase to showcase falsetto singing.


3. Johnny Pineapple and His Native Islanders (Bluebird B-11027), 1940. Now before anyone pooh-poohs Johnny Pineapple, you should know that the woman chanting is identified as Napua Woodd. And each chanted stanza is followed by a solo male falsetto singing the modern tune to ‘ukulele-led accompaniment, and repeated with choral harmonization.

4. Kai Davis (Makaha MS-2048), early 1960s. The modern tune sung in glorious falsetto, with piano and steel guitar flourishes and a drum kit on the backbeat.





Beginning in the late 1940s on the 49th State label, we start to hear recordings of the chant tune with only ipu accompaniment as it is taught to and performed by hula dancers. The Kamaainas (chant by Kuʻulei Kapamana and Nani Makakoa), Anna Kahalelehua Hall, Emma Bishop. Sometime in the early 1960s Lokalia Montgomery records on Waikiki Records. Then in the 1970s, Pele Pukui chants on Noelani Records, and Darrell Lupenui, fronting the Aloha Pumehana Serenaders, chants on Poki Records. And in between are multiple recordings by the Kodak Hula Show crew–the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club let by Louise Akeo Silva. “Kawika” was one of their standard chant numbers, heard on several recordings; but they also recorded “Kawika” as a modern song, too.

5. The Sunday Manoa’s 1971 recording is, as mentioned above, one of the key tracks that heralded a new attitude in Hawaiian music, uptempo and infused with pathbreaking confidence. The instrumental introduction was of unprecedented length. Its opening combined traditional hula instruments–pahu, ipu, ‘ulī‘ulī and kāla‘au–nodding in acknowledgement to ancient hula traditions. Then Peter Moonʻs extended ‘ukulele solo entered, riffing between minor and major chords, and finally settling in the major key when the vocals begin. And it is worth noting that the vocals are  most definitely not in falsetto, but rather in full voice, again setting this recording apart from earlier recordings of this mele.


6. Palani Vaughan‘s recording is another arrangement that has been widely emulated. His deep baritone voice is in great contrast to the appeal of the tuneʻs wide leap for falsetto singers; the vocal depth is further underscored by multiple menʻs voices singing an “‘ehe” refrain in unison.



There are three more recordings I want to comment on (yeah, dangling preposition). The visionary kumu hula Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu gives us not one but two different arrangements of “Kawika.”

On his first CD, Po‘okela, the mele is delivered as a chant with ipu accompaniment, but innovations in the ipu rhythms and in the text setting give renewed meaning to the sense of “ku‘i” as “combining old and new”–but this time, that combining is rendered in the ancient chant tune. On his followup CD Call It What You Like, Mark puts his stamp on the modern tune. Invoking Palani Vaughanʻs unison refrain, Mark adds an entirely new refrain–“E o mai e Kalani ʻo Kalākaua no he inoa”–thus enacting ku‘i on the modern tune.

And finally, truly ku‘i is Zanuck Lindsey‘s bold and brassy big-band arrangement with jazzed vocals, and extended improvisations on vibraphone and electric guitar, among other contributors.  Ku‘i–“combining old and new.”




The recordings discussed here are highlights among a host of versions by many artists, chanters and musicians alike. “Kawika” is a classic example of a “crossover” mele–one that straddles the performance lines between ancient and modern, by unabashedly embracing both at the same time.

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9 Responses to SONGS: Kawika

  1. cheryl says:

    Thanks Amy for this post. Kawika is an integral part of our hula tradition with Auntie Kau`i. As a matter of fact, it one of the common threads in the generations of people who have learned and danced with her.

  2. daganb says:

    Thanks so much. I recently taught my `ukulele class this song and the resources you provided here were very helpful, thank you again.

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  4. Aloha! What a great post. I learned alot in a short time and I caused me to look a little deeper. I found video music links for the groups you mentioned above:
    l. Kalama Quartette –
    2. Andy Cummings & His Hawaiian Serenaders –
    3. Johnny Pineapple and His Native Islanders (Bluebird B-11027), 1940 – (Could not find)
    4. Kai Davis –
    5. Palani Vaughan- (Could not find)
    6. The Sunday Manoa’s 1971
    And one more for fun

  5. sjf says:

    Thank you for the knowledge & thank you Tiki Grill for the video links!! Awesome!

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  7. Pingback: Weekend Music 2: Kawika

  8. Ki’ilani says:

    Kawika , kahiko style- I think this should be performed without a smile.
    If it was played in auana style as sung by the Ka’au Crater Boys, then I think a smiling dancer is appropriate. What is your opinion?

    • amykstillman says:

      Smiling — I wonder where not smiling during hula kahiko came from. I like to think that smiling is one more thing that should be related to what the mele is about. Certainly some relate moʻolelo that call for respect. But mele maʻi? Shouldnʻt we all enjoy a giggle or two?

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