story by J.W. Junker
Illustration by Alex Preiss
Between ‘Iolani Palace and the state capitol in downtown Honolulu, there’s a statue of Hawai‘i’s most famous composer, Queen Lili‘uokalani. Look at it carefully and you will notice that in her hands the Queen holds two items of great significance to Hawaiian music: the Kumulipo, an ancient chant that recounts the creation of the Islands, which the queen translated into English in the 1890s; and “Aloha ‘Oe,” Hawai‘i’s most famous song, which the queen wrote in 1877. Chant—poetry performed with just the voice or with percussion and dance accompaniment—is the original music of the Islands. Song came onto the local music scene in the late eighteenth century, and blends the rich tradition of Hawaiian poetry with Western music forms that range from hymns and opera to parlor music, jazz and even pop. Both chant and song were important parts of Queen Lili‘uokalani’s cultural life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—and both have inspired the Islands’ musical masters ever since.
Many of these legendary men and women are famous around the world, like steel guitar showman Sol Ho‘opi‘i, slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui and singers Genoa Keawe and Alfred Apaka. Some are more locally renowned, like chanter Keaulumoku or composer and scholar Mary Kawena Pukui, who was one of the key figures in the renaissance of Hawaiian traditions that began in the 1960s. Each of these people plus forty more of the most significant contributors to Hawai‘i’s rich music heritage are inductees into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, a small but passionate non-profit created in 1994 to recognize Hawaiian musical achievements. Though it may not be as glitzy as the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville or as well-endowed as The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame is a true community resource with a statewide reach. It brings together a diverse group of people who seek to preserve the past and keep it alive. Its members have a passionate commitment to performance, and many, including president Jim “Kimo” Stone and vice president Nola Nahulu, are active on the Hawaiian music scene. Board secretary Johnny Derby has hosted a Hawaiian sing-along at his house for more than forty years. Other board members sing with civic clubs or put on concerts. They even sponsor their own performing group, the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame Serenaders.
Directed by Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning musician Ku‘uipo Kumukahi, the Serenaders spread the gospel of classic Hawaiian music at local functions and are working on CDs and a songbook to promote the music of the Hall of Fame inductees. “I feel that the music of our inductees deserves the same respect as opera or ballet,” says Ku‘uipo. “The best Hawaiian composers measure up in their own way to Mozart or Beethoven.”
Like traditionalists the world over, Ku‘uipo understands the importance of learning from the elders and sharing that information with the younger generation. “Too many young musicians today lack the knowledge to play classic Hawaiian music,” she says. “They need to know what the words really mean, how they should be pronounced, what the composers wanted the music to sound like. The music of our kupuna is our birthright. It holds our history, our geography and our deepest ideals. It needs to be protected for the legacy to live.”
Induction into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame is also done with an eye on tradition. “We build consensus,” says Kimo, “based on the recommendations of advisors with long musical legacies of their own.” Volunteer advisors have included the late Aunty Irmgard Aluli, OHA chairperson Haunani Apoliona, longtime Royal Hawaiian bandmaster Aaron Mahi and other respected figures, but at the heart of the group, from the beginning, has been the influential composer, singer and arranger Kahauanu Lake. “There is no Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame without Uncle K,” says Kimo. “He was there at the start and continues to be the creative force behind the concerts and the advisory board.”