Giving Voice to a Culture

For more than a millennium, Hawaii relied on was an oral culture. It’s not mere chance that the spoken word has regained its importance today.

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Story by Paul Wood | Photography by Tony Novak-Clifford & Jason Moore

oli hawaiian chantIt’s a winter night on Kahului Bay. The sea breezes please the skin as they puff through this almost-empty hall. Outside in the moist darkness mild waves roll audibly, and each slushy crescendo is long and easy and slow to fade. Inside the hall, ceiling fans tick quietly. The bare concrete floor seems to have been polished to a shine. Twelve students pull their chairs in a line that curves slightly around the figure of their kumu—their teacher—a young Hawaiian man who sits solidly on the edge of a simple wooden stage. “Listen,” says the kumu, and he begins to oli. To chant.

His voice is barrel-deep, Paul-Robeson-basso-profundo, resonant as a great trombone, and rich with ‘i‘i—the vibrato or controlled vocal trembling that is essential to oli. When he returns to silence, the waves and the breeze again dominate the large room.

He says, “Your homework this week, go look at the surf. Do your oli practice on the longevity of the wave. Right when the wave po‘i—starts to break—then you start the chant, then continue until the whitewash is no longer visible. One deep breath.”

Lung capacity is just one of the topics tonight, here with the weekly beginners’ class in the ancient art of oli—traditional Hawaiian chanting. The place: Hale Nanea, a native cultural center created five years ago by the Royal Order of Kamehameha, Maui Chapter. The roomy one-story structure sits in the industrial armpit of Kahului Harbor, beneath techno-monstrous petroleum silos and shrouded by the chain-link-and-concrete landscape of Maui’s most urban place. And yet, in the velvet darkness of nine p.m., with the subtle shoreline sounds and the moist breeze, what the kumu is saying feels quite true—and this is another topic tonight—that here in January we have reached the final month of the Makahiki season, the period when the people and the land restore themselves.

He says, “This is the time of harvest. That means to harvest your own knowledge. From this rain, things are growing; you have your own growth.” The class rehearses a chant dedicated to the god Lono, a pule ho‘omau—that is, a prayer (pule) that perseveres, never quits. “This version for Lono can be done till you turn purple,” he jokes. Then he has the students repeat the chant over and over and over. After they start to turn purple, he says, “By the time you got to the end, it actually felt like a pule.”

Then, quietly, almost as if he is talking to himself, he goes to work on their mana‘o, their thoughts: “First and foremost you must recognize what you’re chanting about—the sea rolling, the cool breezes, the mountain coming green. Put your energy through those things. This is a good help for all of us throughout this season of Lono. There’s so much more you can get from the day if you just open up to it from the time you get up to the time you go moe-moe (sleep).”

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