The Hawaiian language is not easy to learn, let alone plumb for deeper meaning. Yet Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike are going for it. Today I hear a chorus of keiki voices raised in chant every morning when I park my car in front of a preschool in urban Honolulu. From business conferences to backyard family parties, I’ve come to expect a chanter to step forward to signal the start of the occasion. When this doesn’t happen, it seems somehow inauspicious, and I often overhear the grumbling that something special has been skipped. As a fan of contemporary Hawaiian music, I’ve heard mesmerizing chants seep into recordings by favorite artists. I’ve heard kumu hula, who identify themselves mainly as teachers, make CDs as chanters. If I want to learn to chant, I can choose a hula halau (hula school) or drop into an enrichment program at the university. If I want to delve even deeper into an understanding of oli, I can look, for example, to the words of celebrated nineteenth-century historian Samuel Kamakau; his description of oli appeared in the Dec. 21, 1867 edition of the Hawaiian-language newspaper Ka Nupepa Kuokoa and was translated in modern times by Kalena Silva. In chanting, Kamakau wrote, “the voice sounds gentle with a strong vibrato [‘i‘i] in the throat, the voice sounds nasal [nonolo] at the innermost part of the ear, the sound gurgles [‘ola‘ola] at the base of the uvula, breathing is comfortable in the chest, [the voice] moves up and down, the flow of air [makani] passes steadily over the surface of the tongue, the rows of teeth well apart, and the mouth opens nicely without the [neck] veins bulging out [kakauha]. This is how a skilled person chanted in ancient times.”
Chanters chant for any number of reasons: to educate, to empower, to remember, to rouse the community, to forge identity, to be one with nature — the list is long. A good chanter, says Hawaiian cultural authority Manu Boyd (seen here at the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa), blends with the environment and never distracts from it. “Hawaiian chant is inseparable from the sounds of nature,” he says. “And there is always room for nuance.”
Eminent Hawaiian cultural authority Manu Boyd is an imposing figure with a majestic voice to match his stature. When we meet in his air-conditioned Honolulu office, he lets loose a few thundering lines of oli, then rewinds and croons the same lines through velvety soft peaks and dips into glissandos that would rivet the ears of an opera fan. I listen intently. Boyd explains the point of his varied deliveries: “Hawaiian chant is inseparable from the sounds of nature. You chant and the sound becomes the ocean. You chant and the voice becomes the crackling fire. Your voice becomes the wind or the bird. And there is always room for nuance.”
Over the next hour, Boyd launches into demo after demo of the various styles of oli, like ho‘oueue, which, with its halting release, cannot be mistaken for anything other than a tearful lament. For every occasion, it seems, there is a form of chant. As for the style, there are also hundreds of variations: The quick-paced kepakepa might not seem appropriate for a lament, but as Boyd points out, if you are honoring the memory of an ali‘i with a genealogy going back forty generations, the jaunty approach might apply. “Just know your stuff and don’t leave anyone out,” he says firmly before letting his voice glide into yet another oli.
Boyd, who came of age during the Hawaiian Renaissance, didn’t so much learn chant as absorb it through osmosis in the hula halau of kumu Robert Cazimero. He listened to the oli of Ho‘oulu Cambra, who in turn had learned oli from Maiki Aiu Lake, who taught a firm, elegant style of hula and chant reflective of its origins on verdant Kaua‘i. In addition, Boyd was deeply influenced by renowned chanter Ka‘upena Wong. Like the true Hawaiian Renaissance man he is, he also cultivates a melodious voice that has great commercial appeal: He is the founder of popular contemporary Hawaiian music group Ho‘okena.
So why chant a story in compressed tonality if you can sing it in a fully developed melody? Kalena Silva, who originally had ambitions to become an opera singer, explains why many with a gift for song choose to do just that. In college, he says, he vacillated between Puccini and Pele, “until one day I realized there are plenty of singers in the world and so few chanters— and I wanted to be a chanter.”