Regarding Hawaiian Composition
by Noah Haalilio Solomon
None would question the expertise of Nā Lani ‘Ehā in the department that would today be considered ‘extracurricular’. However, during the time in which they learned the art of haku mele (song writing), it was indeed an activity by which the scholastic-readied citizens showed their faculty and creativity.
Realistically speaking though, many song writers of the time did not learn song composition formally, in a classroom, by studying its various components. Hawaiian language was the medium, and the greater portion of the entire population in the late 1800’s seems to have absorbed the elevated, poetic usage while growing up. Considering other linguistic aspirations, (playful banter, clever debate, epic story-telling) it seemed a particular goal among Hawaiians to maintain a thorough grasp of their language in several different aspects of interaction.
The advantage of The Royal Four, Nā Lani ‘Ehā (Lili‘uokalani, Kalākaua, Likelike, Leleiōhoku), was their schooling at the most elite institutions, and furthermore, in a bilingual setting. After familiarizing myself with much of the poetry written by these four experts, I consider their era, qualitatively, the most prolific of all Hawaiian poetry that is still known today. This is most likely due to their command of both languages with paralleled competence.
Imagine all revolutionary periods which changed a portion of whatever medium in question: the Renaissance for art and architecture, Shakespearian for literature; although maybe not intended, the differences in style/form/composition were too positive to not affect change.
Such is perhaps how I equate the era of Hawaiian composition by the contributions of Nā Lani ‘Ehā; a time of validation for it as a form of art. Perhaps it brought to a head all that which anyone had been postulating without any certainty. Perhaps their compositions, while still true to traditional form, had illustrated certain tendencies that were more popular and/or useful, and may have introduced guidelines that codified the art itself.
This was a time I imagine as the Golden Age of Hawaiian composition. Now it may seem that this artform can be understood less enigmatically, as such well-known contributions were made by a politically powerful group of natives. And as this was being recognized as an important facet of tradition by foreign powers occupying Hawai‘i, it was a timely fruition that any and all attention being drawn to native folklore probably contributed to its perpetuation.
As much of our Hawaiian has warped and fell from context, there is a risk of falling short while continuing this practice in modern times. I nominate these four masters to look to as examples of marrying English and Hawaiian within a Hawaiian perspective. If we are fighting the onslaught of “namu haole” imposing onto our mother tongue, perhaps it only makes sense to masterfully handle both, in which we may be equally viable, as were they, Nā Lani ‘Ehā. Only then can we truly honor their legacy.