He Ahupuaʻa Ke Mele: The Ahupuaʻa Land Division as a Conceptual Metaphor for Hawaiian Language Composition and Vocal Performance

This article examines how the elements and interactions of the natural world can used as metaphors for the formative processes of Hawaiian language composition and vocal performance. It will examine the composition Ka Wai A Kāne (“The Water of Kāne”) and its depiction of the movement of water through the ahupuaʻa (a pre-contact land division) to present a conceptual metaphor of the author's construction—mele (Hawaiian language composition) is ahupuaʻa (a hawaiian land division). This broad conceptual metaphor, the other related and underlying symbols, and the individual metaphoric statements that will be coined in this paper will provide a new means of interpreting and understanding these formative processes.

Between June 2008 and July 2009, I conducted a series of kūkākūkā (discussion) and listening sessions with seventeen prominent composers and performers of Hawaiian language music on the islands of Hawaiʻi, Maui, Oʻahu and Kauaʻi.1 During these discussions, the participants and I listened to and discussed compositions and recorded vocal performances that these individuals believed to be exemplary in terms of Hawaiian language composition and/or vocal performance. The focus of this research was to examine notions of authenticity in Hawaiian language composition and vocal performance, and the perceived authority of individual composers and performers. However, my thoughts frequently returned to a question that I had pondered for many years: What is a Hawaiian conceptual model for mele (Hawaiian poetic composition)? In other words, what is significant in Hawaiian culture that could be analogous to mele and explored in terms of their similarities? I sought something similar to Steven Feld’s characterization of how the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea “systematically metaphorize ‘water’ and ‘sound’ to express a theory of the form and performance of their vocal music” (1981:26-38). However, the conceptualization that I sought needed to reflect a Hawaiian epistemology that acknowledges the importance of place, history, and genealogy in defining the world that we inhabit and in shaping our understanding of it (Meyer 2003:103).

Many months after completing, transcribing, and translating these discussions, I found myself returning to a mele and a recording chosen by singer, composer, and kumu hula (hula instructor, source of hula knowledge) Kealiʻi Reichel: James Kaʻupena Wong’s chanted recording of “Ka Wai A Kāne” (“The Water of Kāne”) (State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, 1997). “Ka Wai A Kāne” is an older composition performed in a chant style that does not include any instrumental accompaniment. Reichel explained his reasons for selecting this composition:

It [“Ka Wai A Kāne”] is full of imagery that presents itself in a specific kind of order. So starting off with the east, then into the west, and gives us insight into how our kūpuna [ancestors] saw the universe. . . . So you know the going to the four corners, starting in the east and then going to the west, and then going verse by verse to specific places that talk about the wai [water] of . . . where you can find the wai a Kāne [the waters of Kāne]. I think that is what stands out for me, the imagery of that. And a lot of it is elemental imagery that again serves as a reminder. You know, I think it's brilliant. I think it's one of the most brilliant and easy mele to connect to, you know, from ancient times. (Reichel, personal interview, 11/1/08)

As I listened to this recording and reviewed the text on multiple occasions, I pondered if the structure and logic of this composition could be applied metaphorically to examine Hawaiian composition or to explain the compositional process. Almost immediately, an image appeared in my mind of the movement of water as depicted in the “Ka Wai a Kāne.” I became less focused on the pairing of words with opposing meanings and the highly descriptive language found in each verse—elements that are frequently cited as prominent features of this composition and Hawaiian compositions in general. Instead, I was drawn to the movement of the water from uplands to the sea, from the sea to sky, its return to the uplands in the form of rain, and the interactions of the physical elements. It occurred to me that what was being depicted in “Ka Wai a Kāne” suggested an understanding of the hydrologic cycle.2 With this realization, I almost immediately began to see the geological elements of the ahupuaʻa (a land division) as a musical landscape, the water as the thoughts contained within Hawaiian poetic compositions and vocal performance, and the water’s movement as the processes that influence composition and vocal performance in the Hawaiian language.

This article will systematically examine how the elements and processes of the natural world can be used as metaphors for the elements and formative processes of Hawaiian language composition and vocal performance. I will use “Ka Wai A Kāne” and its depiction of the movement of water through the ahupuaʻa to present a conceptual metaphor of my own construction, mele is ahupuaʻa.3 This metaphor will utilize the three formative process of music as proposed by Timothy Rice (1987:474-475), which expand upon Clifford Geertz’s contention that “symbolic systems . . . are historically constructed, socially maintained and individually applied” (Geertz 1975:363-364). Rice provides a second model that is also valuable here—his proposal for a subject-centered musical ethnography that “posits for each subject, person, or individual a three-dimensional space of musical experience” (2003:158). The three dimensions of his proposed “imaginary, ideal space” (158) are time, location, and metaphor. This model will also be used to explore the mele is ahupuaʻa metaphor.

The movement of water through the hydrologic cycle and its interaction with both the natural and man-made physical features of the ahupuaʻa represents these formative processes. Mele is ahupuaʻa, the other related and underlying conceptual metaphors, and the individual metaphoric statements that will be coined in this paper will provide a new means to understand meleone that will “generate new knowledge and insight by changing relationships between the things designated” in metaphor (Black 1979:37; italics added).

An Overview: Hawaiian Composition and Vocal Performance

Haku mele is the Hawaiian term for both the act of writing Hawaiian poetry and the composer of Hawaiian poetry. Mele is the term for the poetry itself—the words, thoughts, meanings (both literal and metaphorical), and poetical devices used by the composer. Mele have been described as “expressions of religious devotion and personal emotion, including formal documentation of genealogy and history” (Tatar 1982:22-33). The word mele does not mean “music.” There is no evidence of a pre-contact Hawaiian term that directly corresponds to the English concept of music (Tatar 1982:23), though a modern term, puolo, has been coined (Kōmike Huaʻōlelo 2003:182). Mele can also be used to describe the vocalization of the text, though more specific terms do exist for vocal performance in older chant and later singing styles. The melody is most often referred to with the terms leo (voice) or ʻea (melody, transliterated from the English “air”), whether it is performed vocally or instrumentally. Pana refers to the rhythm of performance. Terms that more directly corresponded to introduced musical concepts began to appear after the arrival of Protestant missionaries and their publication of hymnals that contained musical notation (Stillman 1996).

European explorers who reached Hawaiʻi in the late eighteenth century provided the earliest descriptions of indigenous performance practices (Stillman 2005:75). These practices can be divided in two broad categories—oli (chant) and hula (chant accompanied by indigenous dance performance and indigenous instruments) (Tatar 1981:485). In 1923, Helen Roberts recorded many examples of the Hawaiian music of that era, including vocal performances by Hawaiians who were born between 1820 and 1860. Using this resource and examining written Hawaiian language sources from the early nineteenth century, Elizabeth Tatar documented approximately 210 Hawaiian language terms that describe the mele themselves, the chant styles, and the vocal characteristics and adornments that were used in performance (1981:483).

In 1820, Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaiʻi. They and their native converts translated many English hymns into Hawaiian and wrote original ones. The fusion of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and metric elements from these introduced hymns with indigenous performance practices led to the development new genres of Hawaiian music, such as hula ʻōlapa, hula kuʻi, and mele Hawaiʻi. The development of these genres in the 1860s and later reflected the “social transformation and westernization happening in the islands as American economic influence and political interference intensified” (Stillman 2005:85). A decade after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, the first new musical style that was not primarily composed in the Hawaiian language appeared in Hawaiʻi: hapa-Haole. It combined elements of both popular American music and hula kuʻi (Tatar 1987:10).

None of the forms of Hawaiian music that have been discussed here (nor others that have been omitted due to space constraints) have been abandoned. Even those forms that were suppressed by missionaries because of their association with Hawaiian deities or the perceived vulgarity of the movements (when performances were accompanied by hula) have survived and continue to be performed today. While many have evolved and reflect the influences of introduced musical forms, there continues to be a respect for the older genres and attempts by many performers to maintain older compositional and performance practices. And, as has been common over the nearly two centuries since the arrival of westerners, some contemporary practitioners choose to infuse new compositional and performative elements from musical genres that originate outside of Hawaiʻi, including reggae and hip-hop.

Metaphor, Hawaiian Composition, and Vocal Performance

The frequent use of metaphor in Hawaiian language composition is well documented (Donaghy 2010; Hoʻomanawanui 2005:32; Tatar 1982:22-33; Elbert and Māhoe 1970:17; Elbert 1951:346-47; Pukui 1949:252). George Lackoff and Mark Johnson have noted that not only is the human conceptual system fundamentally metaphorical in nature, but the language we use to talk about these concepts is also systematic (2003; 1980:7). They provided the conceptual metaphor of argument is war to explain the systematic nature of this metaphorical concept. They observed that when we talk about arguments, we might use the vocabulary of war, such as to “attack a position,” “indefensible,” “strategy,” “gain ground,” and “win.” By doing so, “a portion of the conceptual network of battle partially characterizes the concept of an argument, and the language follows suit” (2003:7). Likewise, the individual metaphors created and discussed within this paper will rely on lexicon common to descriptions of the ahupuaʻa land division.

While cognitive scientists have examined and discussed metaphor use in terms of broader human understanding and reasoning, Naomi Quinn argues that “cultural understanding underlies metaphor use” (1991:56-57), and prior research into Hawaiian compositions supports this notion. Hawaiian language poet and scholar Larry Kimura created a systematic and metaphoric conceptual framework for analyzing the structure of mele, and coined the term meiwi (me[le] (song) + [ʻō]iwi (indigenous)) to describe the traditional poetic devices found in the structure and thought contained within mele (2002:2). The words and thoughts of the mele are classified as kino ʻiʻo (flesh of the body), and the structural and poetic devices classified as kino iwi (bones of the body). The kuʻinaiwi (bone joints) are poetic devices that help the listener to perceive a connection or linking from one line to the next through the use of sounds, thought, and grammar in a manner may indicate their being identical, similar, or opposite. Each of these linking devices is also referred to as a kuʻina (joint), with an additional Hawaiian term identifying its specific type (10-20). The systematic nature of these metaphors could be described as being part of a larger conceptual metaphor, mele is the human body, and Kimura himself identified it as such: “Ua like ke mele Hawaiʻi kuʻuna me ke kino kanaka. Ua hiki ke māhele ʻia ke mele i loko o ʻelua māhele nui aʻu e kapa nei, ʻo ia ke kino ʻiʻo a me ke kino iwi (2). [Traditional Hawaiian songs are like the human body. You can divide them into two major categories that I will define as the flesh of the body and the bones of the body.] While Kimura focuses on the poetic structure of mele in his analysis and in the construction of the mele is the human body conceptual metaphor, this paper focuses on the formative processes of Hawaiian language composition and vocal performance, and provides a different conceptual metaphor with which to examine them.

In Hawaiian poetry, human beings, their acts, and emotions were often guised as elements of nature, including wind, rain, birds, and lei (a garland made of flower, leaf, other vegetation, shells, seeds, or other materials) (Elbert and Māhoe 1970:17). Therefore, human being is nature could be considered to be a broad Hawaiian conceptual metaphor under which the individual metaphoric statements found in poetic compositions could be classified. The use of metaphor in this manner allows thoughts to be presented ambiguously through association, comparison, and resemblance (McArthur 1992:653–55). English speakers may favor the consistency of remaining within a single conceptual metaphor (as described by Lackoff and Miller) and avoid using so-called “mixed metaphors” from different conceptual realms. Such metaphors are not avoided in Hawaiian compositions, provided that the underlying thought remains consistent. For example, a single person may be metaphorically represented as a bird, wind, rain, ship, mountain, or any number of elements in the same song. On the other hand, multiple individuals may be depicted using similar elements that would suggest to the uninformed listener that the song was for a single individual (Pukui 1949:252). The flexible nature of metaphor use in Hawaiian poetry supports Quinn’s argument that these usages “provide satisfying mappings onto already existing cultural understandings” (1991:65).

Onomatopoeia is common in the Hawaiian language, and such expressions of language may be examined as metaphors for any sound, including those of nature, and even those created by the human voice itself. As L. P. Wilkinson notes, “a large proportion of onomatopoeia is metaphor derived from the structure of the language, and the pleasure we take in it has the same source as that we take in all metaphor, the simultaneous perception of a single idea operating in two distinct fields of association, the enriching of one field with the associations of the other” (1942:129). The sounds of the land not only inspired the songs, but vocal practice as well. The increase and decrease in the amplitude of a vocal performance echoed the “increase and diminution” of tone heard in the surf, waterfalls, winds, and rains (Solberg 1983:45). Haku mele Manu Boyd's recent composition, “Mele ʻAilana” further explores the various sounds of nature that inspired Hawaiian composition and vocal performance practice, referring to them all as mele ʻailana (island music) (2012):

Ke kani nei nā manu i ke kualono
The birds are singing upon the ridges
Pālua ka hoene me ke kāhuli . . .
In sweet duet with land shells
Hiolo kahi wailele i nā pali
Waterfalls cascade from the cliffs
Ka ʻuʻina e ʻuhene ana i ka ʻiu . . .
Crackling, splashing merrily in the distance
ʻŌlapa ka uila kuʻi ka hekili 
Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles
Me he kani pahu ala i ka lani nui . . .
Resounding like a big drum in the heavens
Ke poʻi a ka nalu no Kahiki mai 
Waves from far-off Kahiki crest

Me ke kai nehenehe i ka ʻiliʻili . . .
The ocean rustles through the pebbles
Hoʻolono i ka leo o Hawaiʻi nei 
Listen to the voices of Hawaiʻi

Mele ʻailana ē 
That, my friends, is island music

Students of Hawaiian chant would imitate the sounds of nature during their training: “The student goes to the beach and imitates the sound of the waves. He goes to a certain section of a valley to learn the peculiar sound of the wind there. Hawaiian chant and poetry make extensive use of the similarity of sound between the word and its referent” (Charlot 1979:52). The names of some birds are similar to the sounds that they make, such as the ʻalalā (Hawaiian crow). ʻAlalā is also the term for a name of a chanting technique “with open mouth vibration and tremor of the voice, and prolonged vowels” (Pukui 1983:18) that somewhat resembles the sound of the crow. Other chant techniques that have analogs in the natural world are haʻi (breaking or cracking of the voice), heʻu (a creaking sound), and kuolo (to rumble or shake, also a vibrato technique). The words for some sounds, including those of some natural elements such as winds, rain, and water movement are onomatopoeic in nature—features that further enrich the mele is ahupuaʻa metaphor.

Ahupuaʻa: A Hawaiian Conceptualization

Ahupuaʻa is the Hawaiian term for a division of land that generally (but not always) runs from the higher elevations down to the sea, and to the edge of reefs that separate shallow and deeper waters. Ahupuaʻa are subdivisions of the larger moku (district) units that comprise each island. It has been theorized that the organization of Hawaiian communities into these land divisions and the demarcation of their spatial boundaries began in the thirteenth or fourteenth century C.E. (Hommon 1986). The boundaries of ahupuaʻa are generally defined by fixed natural features such as valleys, ridges, and streams, though they were sometimes marked by less permanent features such as trees or rocks. The term ahupua‘a is comprised of the separate terms ahu (altar) and pua‘a (pig), derived from the older practice of building altars of stones at points where the main road traversing the island crossed from one ahupua‘a into the next (Kelly 1983:28). The altar was dedicated to the god Lono (Williams 1997:28), and a carved image of a pig's head was placed upon it, as were tributes to chiefs (Pukui 1983:9).

Figure 1. Illustration by Mele McPherson. “Ke Ahupuaʻa,” 1994. Image courtesy of Hale Kuamoʻo, The Hawaiian Language Center, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

Each ahupuaʻa was “a reasonably self-contained subdistrict or divisions of land, capable of supporting a community” (Stauffer 2004:239), and has been characterized as a “complete example of the Hawaiian cosmos” (Charlot 2005:65). Most natural resources that Hawaiians required for housing, clothing, and tools, along with cultivated crops, fresh water, and food from the sea, were available within it. The land was largely controlled by the chiefly class, with the rights of land use redistributed upon succession. Makaʻāinana (“people who attend to the land”) had gathering rights both inland and at the sea, and while they did not own land, their tenure was relatively stable (Kelly 1983:28). Sustenance was a communal activity, with farmers of the uplands trading their crops with those who lived along the shoreline. For these reasons, the ahupuaʻa has become a model or metaphor for contemporary efforts to achieve sustainability in Hawaiʻi (Mayor's Energy and Sustainability Task Force 2008:3-4; Yonan 2010).

Figure 2. Illustration by Juan Wilson. “The Ahupuaʻa of Hawaiʻi Island,” 2012.

The ahupuaʻa and other divisions of land in Hawaiʻi (both larger and smaller than ahupuaʻa) are the subjects of many songs. “Hilo Hanakahi” is a mele that takes the listener on a tour of the island of Hawaiʻi through its larger districts, beginning in Hilo on the east coast, and moving clockwise through the Puna, Kaʻū, Kona, Kawaihae, Kohala, Waimea, and Hāmākua districts.4 In 2012, the Kamehameha Schools commissioned new compositions honoring the ahupuaʻa that were part of the estate of Hawaiian royal Bernice Pauahi Bishop. These lands provided the foundation for what later became the Kamehameha Schools, an institution founded to provide quality education to students of native Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian ancestry. The compositions were performed and broadcast statewide at the school's annual song contest on March 16, 2012, which celebrated the 125th anniversary of the school. The school’s choice of this theme reflected its philosophy that “the inter-relationship of people and land—of kānaka and ʻāina—is fundamental to Hawaiian identity and central in Hawaiians’ worldview” (Kamehameha School 2012).

The ahupuaʻa provides a rich conceptual framework within which the processes of Hawaiian composition and vocal performance can be examined, as it is a reasonably self-contained and self-sustaining parcel of land that includes numerous physical characteristics, including the interactivity and interdependence of man and nature. The most pertinent characteristic of the ahupuaʻa to this analysis is the movement of water through it—the hydrologic cycle. “Ka Wai A Kāne” describes this movement, and will be used to extend the conceptual metaphor mele is ahupuaʻa.

Overview of Ka Wai A Kāne

Audio Example 1. “Ka Wai A Kāne,” performed by Kalena Silva, 2007. Used with the permission of Kalena Silva.

The composer of “Ka Wai A Kāne” is unknown. The song’s first known appearance in print was in Nathaniel Emerson’s Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula (1909:257). “Ka Wai A Kāne” contains a total of six ʻoki (non-symmetrical verses or paragraphs) that can be thematically grouped into three pairs of locations where the water of Kāne (a Hawaiian deity) may be found: in the rising and setting of the sun, the mountains and the sea, and above in the sky and below on the earth. The complete text of “Ka Wai A Kāne” and its translation are included in the appendix at the end of this article. The text will be analyzed verse by verse. Each of the six verses of opens in an identical fashion, asking the listener, “Where is the water of Kāne?”5

He ui, he nīnau,A query, a question,
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe: I put to you:
Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?Where is the water of Kāne?

The question is rhetorical in nature, as the text subsequently answers the question and informs the listener/reader of the location of the waters of Kāne. Each verse has its own internal structure: The question is asked, numerous locations where the water of Kāne can be found are listed, and this emphatic statement closes the verse:

Aia i laila ka wai a Kāne.The water of Kāne is there.

The three lines that appear at the beginning of each verse and the single line that closes it will not be repeated below, and only those lines that are unique to the verse will be presented and examined.

One prominent structural feature of mele (and Hawaiian literature in a broader sense) is the use of words which represent ʻekoʻa (opposites) (Charlot 2005:16; Kimura 2002:16). This includes the use of opposites such as uka/kai (upland/sea or seaside), luna/lalo (up or top/down or bottom), loko/waho (inside/outside), hikina/komohana (east/west), kāne/wahine (man/woman), hikina o ka lā/kaulana o ka lā (sunrise/sunset), and akua/kanaka (god/human). This use of paired opposites is present in “Ka Wai A Kāne,” as in many other Hawaiian compositions. However, it is important to note that the Hawaiian emphasis is not on the dichotomy of the polar opposites. What is most significant are the “similarities among objects and fields supported the extension of the same principles to the different areas of the whole field of knowledge” (Charlot 2005:247). Charlot also noted that in Hawaiian literature, “pairs of opposites are often used to express completeness” (2005:255).

The Metaphorization of the Ahupuaʻa

The conceptual metaphor mele is ahupuaʻa contains of three major elements that represent the elements of Hawaiian composition and vocal performance:

  1. Manaʻo (thought) is wai (water). 
  2. Kaiaulu (society) is ʻāina (land).
  3. Moʻokalaleo mele (corpus of compositions) is kai (sea). 

In the metaphoric statement manaʻo is wai, wai represents the thoughts of the composer during the process of composition and of musical performance. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of water to Hawaiians, and the value they place on it is evident through analysis of linguistic evidence. A collection of proverbial sayings, ʻŌlelo Noʻeau, lists 114 sayings that mention water, and an additional 122 that include place names which begin with the prefixes Wai- or Kawai (the water) (Pukui 1983:351). Wai is often used metaphorically in mele. In many cases it is not the wai itself that is the most important aspect of the text, but the adjectives that further describe its characteristics. The water’s temperature, stillness, movement, appearance, and other characteristics may be representative of human emotion, movements, appearance, and characteristics. As such, this metaphor is consistent with Gannon’s observations that metaphors are comparative “with respect to certain characteristics” (2001:18-19). Wai is mentioned seventeen times in the six verses of Ka Wai A Kāne—once at the opening, once at the end of each verse, and several more times in the final verse.

In the metaphoric statement manaʻo is wai, water represents the thoughts of the composer during the process of composition. ʻĪlei Beniamina, a native speaker of Hawaiian, used the flow of water as a metaphor for the continuity and directionality of thought in her own compositions, 

ʻO ka wai e kahe ana ʻo ia . . . ʻo ke alahele e kahe ai, nāu e alakaʻi, hiki. A i ʻole, e holomoana nō ʻo ia, ʻaʻole ʻo ia hoʻi hou ana i luna. ʻOkoʻa kēlā. No laila ʻo ke kahe maikaʻi o ka noʻonoʻo e hahai ana a hiki aku i ka hopena. Hiki iaʻu ke koho i ke ala aʻu e makemake ana iā ia e hoʻopau. ʻO ia ka momi loa o ka hiki ʻana ke haku–ʻo ka haku mele, pono e noho a noʻonoʻo i kēlā. Kekahi manawa ʻaʻole pono e noʻonoʻo, puka wale, kākau, a laila ʻāpōpō e nānā ʻōlelo, wow. Pūʻiwa au i kekahi manawa. (Beniamina 2009)

[The water that flows, the path that it flows on, you can control it. Or it just flows to the sea—it doesn't return upland. That is different. So, the result is the proper flowing of the thought follows until its conclusion. I can choose the path that I want to finish at. That is the epitome of the ability to compose—composers needs to sit and think about that. Sometimes you don't need to think, it just comes out, you write, and next day look at the words, and go “wow.” Sometimes I'm surprised.]

Beniamina’s use of kahe to describe the connected and flowing nature of the thought is notable. Kahe is glossed as “To flow, trickle, drop, melt” (Pukui and Elbert 1986:111). There is no mention in this gloss, nor in the examples provided, that would be applicable to the use of kahe to directly express language or thought. Whether the use of kahe to express the flow or connectivity of thought represents a metaphor of Hawaiian origination or is simply the use of Hawaiian language to represent a foreign metaphorical concept is a subject worthy of further research, though perhaps indeterminable.

In the metaphoric statement kaiaulu is ʻāina, land represents the society that influences the process of Hawaiian composition and vocal performance practice. This is an extension of a Hawaiian perspective toward geologic elements that differs from a western one: “The notion that a rock exists as an inanimate object, especially in its creative stages, is totally foreign to the Hawaiian. Rock, especially fresh lava flow, has a spirit, procreation is possible” (Kanakaʻole-Kanahele 1990:61-64). This is consistent with a Hawaiian proverbial saying that describes man’s relationship with the land: He aliʻi ka ʻāina; he kauā ke kanaka. (The land is a chief; man is its servant.) Pukui’s extended interpretation of this saying is, “Land has no need for man, but man needs the land and works it for a livelihood” (Pukui 1983:62). Handy and Pukui discussed how the unique physical environment of the Kaʻū district of Hawaiʻi Island influenced and possibly determined the nature of the family unit and the diverse community described in their study:

The physical environment conditions the functioning mechanism of adjustment. . . . The particular form which the Kaʻū community manifests, as a variant from the basic norm (if there be a norm) of an old Polynesian community as an aggregate or complex of families, cannot be brought into true focus except against the background of the Land ʻAina). The ʻOhana as a functioning social mechanism operates within the milieu of sea, shore, costal and inland slopes and uplands, subject to weather, sun and moon. (1958:18)

For example, singer/composer Kainani Kahaunaele described the spoken and singing voice of Margaret ʻAipoalani of Kauaʻi as rough and guttural, and believes that ʻAipoalani's voice reflected the rough and dry nature of her longtime home on the leeward side of Kauaʻi:

ʻAe, ʻano kalakala, kalakala ka ʻōlelo, ʻaʻole mālie, ʻaʻole nahenahe, ma muli o ka noho ʻana i komohana, ʻo ia hoʻi ka ʻaoʻao wela, hana nui, ʻeā? Hiki ke ʻoluʻolu ka ʻōlelo, akā, ʻaʻole… ke lohe aku, hiki ke lohe ʻia nui ka hana a kēia poʻe. (Kahaunaele, personal interview, 7/25/08)

[Yes, it's kind of rough, it's not gentle or soft, because of the lifestyle on the western side, that is, the hot side, the work is hard, yes? Her voice can be pleasant, but . . . when you listen, you can hear the great amount of work of these people did.]

In the metaphoric statement moʻokalaleo mele is kai, the sea represents the vast corpus of Hawaiian compositions, and includes those written by pre-contact Hawaiians through those written by contemporary composers. It also represents the many recorded performances of Hawaiian compositions that may be accessed by researchers and practitioners today. This metaphoric sea of compositions and recordings is not simply a collection of mele that have been composed and recorded up to the present day—it is the body of ʻike kuʻuna (traditional knowledge) that new composers are exposed to and may refer to as they create new compositions and record both new and older mele. It is important to note that Hawaiians and other Polynesians viewed the ocean not as a barrier, but as a path: “The only paths available to our Polynesian ancestors led out to open sea” (Buck 1959:43). The sea was the first vehicle by which foreign musical forms reached Hawaiʻi and intermingled with Hawaiian forms. It also is a vehicle by which Hawaiian language compositions and recordings have traveled and become exposed to audiences beyond of Hawaiʻi, as “exchanges of influence have traveled both directions” (Stillman 2005:74). Prior to the introduction of air travel, these exchanges were accomplished exclusively by sea.

These three metaphoric statements (manaʻo is wai, kaiaulu is ʻāina, and moʻokalaleo mele is kai) fit under the broad conceptual metaphor mele is ahupuaʻa by systematically representing the elements and products of Hawaiian composition as elements of nature. However, it is also necessary to examine the processes by which these elements interact. Timothy Rice's proposed model for ethnomusicology and the processes that it definessocial maintenances, historical construction, and individual experience and creationwill be applied and presented as the naturally occuring processes of the ahuapuaʻa and the hydrologic cycle. While Rice combines individual experience and creation in one part of his tripartite model (1987:480), they will be separated here in order to examine the distinction between individual experience and individual creation and placed at the beginning and end of this cycle:

  1. Social maintenance is interaction between water and land.
  2. Historical construction is evaporation.
  3. Individual experience is condensation.
  4. Individual creation is precipitation.6

This separation is crucial in this model. It differentiates the experience of hearing from that of creation. It has been argued that the origins of Hawaiian music can be found in the sounds of nature (the sounds of the ahupuaʻa) and that hearing these sounds inspired the development of musical culture:

The earth, the ʻāina, was the sacred source, and our ancestors honored the forms of nature every day. Here they found their rhythms, their instruments, and the inspiration for their chants, dances, and songs. . . . Musical expression was at the very center of early Hawaiian life. In their isolated island world, nature and culture were intertwined. They found music all around themin the wind, in the sea, in the rocks along the shore. (Hawaiian Legacy Foundation 2005)

Figure 3. Illustration by Mele McPherson. “Ke Ahupuaʻa and the Social Processes,” 2013.

The Metaphorization of Formative Processes as the Hydrologic Cycle

The first verse of “Ka Wai A Kāne” answers the question that is posed at the opening of each verse, and states that the water is at the place where the sun arrives–at Haʻehaʻe on the eastern tip of Hawaiʻi Island:

Aia i ka hikina a ka lā,At the Eastern Gate
Puka i Haʻehaʻe,Where the sun comes in at Haʻehaʻe,
Aia i laila ka wai a Kāne.There is the water of Kāne.

While not explicitly stated in Emerson’s translation, the hikina o ka lā is the rising of the sun in Haʻehaʻe near Kumukahi in Puna on Hawaiʻi Island. Hikina is also the Hawaiian term for “east,” and Kumukahi is the eastern-most point of land in the Hawaiian archipelago. The mention of the sun is also significant in the mele is ahupuaʻa conceptual metaphor, as it is the engine of the hydrologic cycle that is essential to the well being of the ahupuaʻa.

The second verse begins with the same question as the first, and then completes the thought and describes the sun setting in the west toward Nīhoa and Lehua:

Aia i kaulana a ka lā,Out there with the floating Sun,
 ka pae ʻōpua i ke kai.Where cloud-forms rest on Oceans breast.
Ea mai ana ma Nīhoa,Uplifting their forms at Nihoa,
Ma ka mole mai o Lehua,This side the base of Lehua;
Aia i laila ka wai a Kāne.There is the water of Kāne.

The kaulana a ka lā is the resting or setting of the sun. Nīhoa and Lehua are uninhabited islands to the northwest of Niʻihau, the northernmost and westernmost of the permanently inhabited Hawaiian Islands. The most important element in this passage is not the beginning of the day with the sunrise at Haʻehaʻe, nor the end of the day with sunset in the west near Lehua and Nīhoa, but what occurs in between sunrise and sunset, and between Haʻehaʻe, Lehua, and Nīhoa. The first and second verses of “Ka Wai A Kāne” have created the context and defined the temporal and spatial boundaries for the remainder of the mele that are inclusive, not exclusive in nature, and need to be examined further.

Rice notes that there are at least two ways to think about and discuss time, and therefore change, in music (2003:162), and both of these perspectives may be applied in the mele is ahupauʻa metaphor. In the first approach, which he describes as chronological and historical, the narrative provides a chronological depiction of events. The development of and changes in Hawaiian music has been described using this approach (Tatar 1979:xxv-xxvi; Donaghy 2011:23-41). In the second approach, which Rice describes as experiential and phenomenological, “musical experience in the present is partly conditioned by inveterate previous experience” (Rice 2203:162). Change in the mele is ahupuaʻa conceptual metaphor is neither chronological nor linear, but an ongoing process. The interactions between the formative processes of historical construction, individual creation and experience, and social maintenance are continuous and asynchronous. Indeed, the recognition of these ongoing processes (growth, change, and the transmission of knowledge) is one of the strengths of this conceptual metaphor for a deeper experiential and phenomenological examination of Hawaiian compositional and vocal performance practice.

Hawaiian music, like the music and practices of other cultures, “are no longer contained within local, isolated cultures or even within nation-states but are and have been shaped by regional, areal, colonial, and global economics, politics, social relations, and images” (Rice 2003:162). While many ahupuaʻa in Hawaiʻi represent physical spaces in the world and conceptually organized by native Hawaiians into this land division, the ahupuaʻa depicted in the metaphor mele is ahupuaʻa is not a physical space, but a conceptual one. It is not constricted by the location of the composer or performer, and therefore inclusive of the large native Hawaiian diaspora community and others who engage in Hawaiian cultural practices such as haku mele and vocal performance.

As the hydrologic cycle is continuous and has no identifiable beginning or end point, there are several points that could provide points of entry to the physical space identified within “Ka Wai A Kāne.” One could begin with the process of historic construction as described by Geertz (1975:363-364) and Rice (1987:469-488), and begin with the corpus of mele—metaphorically conceptualized as the ocean. However, the logic and structure of “Ka Wai A Kāne” will be retained here, along with its Hawaiian perspective that begins at the highest point of the ahupuaʻa. The third verse depicts the progression of water from the kuahiwi (mountain summit), to the kualono (area below the mountain summit), to the awāwa (valley), and finally to the kahawai (stream).

Aia i ke kuahiwi, i ke kualono,Yonder on mountain peak, on the ridges steep,
I ke awāwa, i ke kahawai,In the valleys deep, where the rivers sweep;
Aia i laila ka wai a Kāne.There is the water of Kāne.

As rain falls on the ahupuaʻa, water begins to flow from the uplands to the sea. Some of it will be absorbed into the ground, evaporate, be consumed by man, animals, and plants. However, much of it will continue the journey toward the sea. While it may vanish into underground caves, streams, tunnels, and lava tubes, making it invisible to the eye; its flow is continuous. The force of gravity influences the water as it begins its journey down the mountain. The water may take a path across the land that has been well–traveled and worn by the waters that preceded it. This influence is represented by the conceptual metaphor social maintenance is the interaction of water and land. Metaphorically, this represents individual composers and performers who follow a path that is also well-traveled—using the tools, poetic devices, and techniques utilized by previous generations of composers and performers. Their compositions are therefore socially maintained, as the physical environment influences the flow of water.

Many of the paths that the water takes as it flows to the sea—streams, waterfalls, ponds, and rivers—are clearly visible, though many are not. When viewed from the sea, the ahupuaʻa may appear to have remained unchanged for centuries. While ostensibly resistant to change, the face and features of land are indeed influenced by many physical processes—the wind, rain, flowing water, and the activities of humans and animals. These processes affect the land in much the same way that traditional knowledge today has been influenced by the arrival of foreigners to Hawaiʻi—their languages, activities, and perspectives—in addition to the changes that continually occur within the culture prior to the arrival of westerners and later immigrant cultures.

Paka is an example of social maintenance in the contemporary practice of haku mele. In paka, the haku mele will show a new composition to an experienced haku mele before the mele is performed or recorded to assure that no unintended or potentially dangerous meanings remain in the composition before it is performed or recorded. M. Puakea Nogelmeier believes in modern times this practice has changed, and more often paka addresses issues that involve grammar or word choice. He posits that in older times, the practice of paka addressed a cultural concern with correctness of thought, perspective, and avoiding negative consequences (personal interview, 2009). In the conceptual metaphor mele is ahupuaʻa, paka could be represented as man’s redirection of water into taro patches for irrigation, where it deposits nutrients and elements from the uplands, picks up others, and is returned to the stream so that it can continue its journey seaward. Like the water that has been diverted into the taro patch, the words and thought of the mele can be substantially changed through the process of paka.

The landscape can be viewed as an agent of stability—those elements of culture and tradition that resist change. The force of water influences the landscape through the process of erosion. Water then is an agent of change; it breaks down rock over time, carries dirt, nutrients, and other elements that also exert influence on the landscape. However, much of the change and accretion is that of materials brought from higher elevations to lower, changes that can metaphorically represent the richness of the culture as it grows from within. This creation of new pathways is representative of the creativity of individual composers to pick and choose their own experiences and expressions, whether they are part of the older compositional and performance practices or not. Whether the composer chooses the well-traveled path or a new one, each new composition is destined to join the plethora of ancient and modern mele that comprise the corpus of Hawaiian compositionsjust as the water flowing from upland joins the water of the sea.

The first line of the fourth verse locates the water of Kāne in the kai (sea or sea water), in the moana (deep or open ocean). The remainder of verse four describes the process of evaporation, and will be discussed in the section that follows.

Aia i ke kai, i ka moanaYonder, at sea, on the ocean

There are both ancient and modern compositions that have been and are still widely performed and recorded, and may be referred to as standards of the Hawaiian repertoire. There are also mele that are infrequently—if ever—recorded. Mele whose texts are easily accessible (those that have been previously recorded and well documented) could be expressed metaphorically as the waters close to shore. They are more accessible to composers and performers, much as fishermen more easily catch the fish that inhabit waters closer to the shore. Reaching the waters that are further from shore requires greater skill and tools. The same can be said for some compositions and recordingsthose compositions not published in books or the Internet, recordings which are no longer available commercially, or which are only physically accessible at academic institutions and sites such as the Bishop Museum (repository of a vast number of documents, recordings, and other source materials about Hawaiʻi) or university libraries. Sadly, access to many of these source materials remains a challenge to many in the Hawaiian community (Stillman 2005:77; Stillman 2009:86-109).

The intellectual depth and comprehensibility of mele and recorded performances may be expressed as the depth of the ocean. Those found in the shallows are more intellectually accessible than those found in deeper waters. Perhaps the use of metaphor in the composition is minimal; the language used in the mele is a more direct expression of language, or first-hand knowledge of the composer’s meaning is available. Deeper waters are found in the channels between the islands and the ocean that separates the archipelago from the Americas, Asia, and the rest of Polynesia. These depths are representative of mele whose means are beyond our comprehension because of lack of first-hand knowledge of the composition, or the extensive use of metaphor. Nogelmeier describes the difficult of understanding some original Hawaiian texts lacking knowledge of the time in which they were written:

Some of them, I think, are probably beyond full grasp, without some of those original contexts. So you can read texts that were written in a time and with reference to things that are just impossible to get your head around today. So you might be able to get some inkling, but you're not gonna get the details of it. (Wilcox and Nogelmeier 2009:9)

While some may lament our inability to look into the past and know the intended meanings of some mele, the inaccessibility of such knowledge may indeed pique our interest in and discussion of such compositions. Timothy Rice notes that historical construction of symbolic systems such as music is comprised of two important processes, both of which are represented in this metaphor, “the process of reencountering and recreating the forms and legacy of the past in each moment of the present” (1987:475). The process of evaporation may be used to represent the exposure of composers and performers to older compositions, performances, and recordings that become points of reference for new cultural expressions in the present. This process is expressed in the conceptual metaphor historical construction is evaporation. Lines two through five of verse four describe the movement of evaporated water from the sea into the atmosphere:

I ke Kualau, i ke ānuenue,In the driving rain, in the heavenly bow,
I ka punohu, a i ka uakoko,In the piled-up mist-wraith, in the blood-red rainfall,
I ka ʻālewalewaIn the ghost-pale cloud-form;
Aia i laila ka wai a Kāne.There is the water of Kāne.

The references to ānuenue, pūnohu, and uakoko are to various kinds of rainbows, and the other references to rains found near or over the sea. The evaporation of water into the atmosphere and its condensation there represents the performance and recording of the corpus of compositions. In the fifth verse, the water of Kāne is described as being found in various dark clouds. While not explicitly describing the evaporation of seawater, or its condensation in the clouds, it is implicit in the cycle that is described:

Aia i luna ka wai a Kāne,Up on high is the water of Kāne,
I ke ouli, i ke ao ʻeleʻele,In the heavenly blue, in the black piled cloud,
I ke ao panopano,In the black-black cloud.
I ke ao popolohua meaIn the black-mottled sacred cloud of the
a Kāne lā, ē! gods;
Aia i laila ka wai a Kāne.There is the water of Kāne.

The coolness of the atmosphere at upper elevations causes moisture in the atmosphere to revert to a liquid state. This metaphorically represents the individual’s exposure to older mele. This is expressed through the conceptual metaphor individual experience is condensation. While creative individuals in Hawaiian society have “been conferred prestige, fame, and reward,” such recognition is often dependent on their creativity fitting within accepted frameworks (Charlot 2005:338). This is consistent with the proverbial saying ʻO ke kahua mamua, mahope ke kūkulu (The site first, and then the building) (Pukui 1983:227), which supports the importance of historic construction to the process of creation. If a hale (building) is constructed on an inadequately prepared foundation due to lack of knowledge and/or experience, the building itself will not be structurally sound. The composer experiences the knowledge contained in the corpus of older mele through text, recordings, and performances. It is through exposure to and understanding of the legacy of the past that composers and performers of today strengthen their foundations and empower themselves to express themselves in composition and vocal performance.

Over two centuries after the arrival of westerners and following the systematic suppression of Hawaiian cultural practices, it is easy to understand why Hawaiians of today look to the past. Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa notes when ma mua is used to describe physical location, it refers to what is in front of a person; when describing temporal location, it refers to the past. Likewise, ma hope refers to what is located behind, but in terms of time, it refers to the future: “It is as if the Hawaiian stands firmly in the present, with his back to the future, and his eyes fixed upon the past, seeking historical answers for present-day dilemmas. Such an orientation is to the Hawaiian an eminently practical one, for the future is always unknown whereas the past is rich in glory and knowledge” (1992:22).

Such is the case with modern Hawaiian-language composers and performers. Like other musicians, they are influenced by their predecessors—both living and deceased—and seek knowledge, inspiration, and models by which their own compositions can be created. Having been exposed to previously created musical forms and influences by society, each individual can choose to reproduce older forms of music, create new ones or create hybrid forms that include elements of both.

The metaphoric statement individual expression is precipitation represents the final formative process: individual creation. The composer’s and/or performer’s exposure to the body of Hawaiian compositions, performances and recordings has coalesced with the individual’s own creative processes, and produced new mele and recordings. This process is represented metaphorically in the sixth verse of Ka Wai A Kāne as the water returns to the honua (earth), completing the hydrologic cycle, and again begins its trip toward the sea:

Aia i lalo, i ka honua, i ka Waihu,Deep in the ground. In the gushing spring,
I ka wai kau a Kāne me KanaloaIn the ducts of Kāne and Kanaloa,
He wai puna, he wai e inu,A well-spring of water, to quaff,
He wai e mana, he wai e ola.A water of magic power, the water of life!
E ola no, ea!Life! O give us this life!

The composer has completed his composition or the vocalist has completed his performance, and as the rain falls upon the land, new compositions and recordings find their audience in Hawaiian society. They are then exposed again to the process of social maintenance, becoming part of the corpus of Hawaiian mele that will be subsequently exposed to future generations.

Conclusion: E Ola Mau Ka ʻĀina, E Ola Mau Ke Mele (“Long Live The Land, Long Live The Song”)

This presentation of mele as an ahupuaʻa is not a traditional conceptualization for mele, but one that is representative of a Hawaiian perspective that allows human beings, their characteristics and activities to be depicted as the physical elements of nature, their characteristics, and processes. In the creation, development, and application of this conceptual metaphor, I experienced what Jeff Todd Titon has characterized as a moment of transcendental relativity that he labels a “subject shift” (1995:190-191). I had sought to identify an existing, indigenous metaphoric conceptualization of Hawaiian composition and vocal performance, as Feld had accomplished when he described how the form and performance of Kaluli vocal music is metaphorized as water and sound. Instead, I found an existing Hawaiian conceptual model—the ahupuaʻa—and have applied it to a new domain—Hawaiian music, using Timothy Rice's proposed model for ethnomusicological inquiry.

The individual metaphoric statements that fall under the broad conceptual metaphor of mele is ahupaʻa represent but a handful of metaphoric statements that could be applied to the composition and performance process, or provide a new means of viewing existing mele and recordings. While the use of metaphor is a prominent feature of Hawaiian language compositions, the conceptualization of Hawaiian compositional and performance practice as a division of land is one that was created in order to gain deeper insight into the processes of Hawaiian composition and vocal performance.

The movement of water and the interactions between the physical elements of the ahupuaʻa that are described in this model are unidirectional, whereas the processes described in Geertz’s and Rice’s models are bidirectional. The richness of the mele is ahupuaʻa metaphor does indeed allow for such bidirectionality, just as the movement of water and resources within the ahupuaʻa is not restricted to the movement of water as depicted in this paper. I plan to explore these movements and further expand the mele is ahupuaʻa metaphor in future writings, and develop methods by which composers may use this model to examine and strengthen their own compositions.

Some contemporary composers attempt to faithfully follow older compositional practices and perspectives, frequently using elements derived from the known corpus of compositions and well-explored compositional practices. Some have used introduced and original elements in their compositions, and others have incorporated elements of both. Likewise, vocalists may choose to follow established performance practices and use vocal qualities and techniques found in chant and later western-influenced recorded performance. Hawaiian-language composers, their compositions, and vocal performances have long been examined and scrutinized by listeners whose opinions are influenced by comparisons with composers, compositions, and vocalists of the past. The hydrologic cycle will continue to support and shape the ahupuaʻa as it has since the Hawaiian islands emerged from the sea, and will likely continue until such time as the islands disappear beneath the waves. Likewise, the formative processes of Hawaiian composition (based on historic construction, social maintenance, and individual experience and creation) will continue as long as individuals continue to compose and record mele in the Hawaiian language.

Appendix: Ka Wai A Kāne

He ui, he ninau,
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe,
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe,
Aia i hea ka Wai a Kāne?
Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?
Aia i kai, i ka moana,
Aia i ka hikina a ka lā,
I ke Kualau, i ke ānuenue,
Puka i Haʻehaʻe.
I ka punohu, a i ka uakoko,
Aia i laila ka Wai a Kāne.
I ka ʻālewalewa.
Aia i laila ka Wai a Kāne.
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe,
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe,
Aia i hea ka Wai a Kāne?
Aia i hea ka Wai a Kāne?
Aia i Kaulanakalā,
Aia i luna ka Wai a Kāne,
I ka pae ʻōpua i ke kai
I ke ouli, i ke ao eleele,
Ea mai ana ma Nīhoa
I ke ao panopano,
Ma ka mole mai o Lehua.
I ke ao popolohua mea a Kāne lā, ē!
Aia i laila ka Wai a Kāne.
Aia i laila ka Wai a Kāne.
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe,
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe.
Aia i hea ka Wai a Kāne?
Aia i hea ka Wai a Kāne?
Aia i ke kuahiwi, i ke kualono,
Aia i lalo, i ka honua, i ka Waihu,
I ke awāwa, i ke kahawai.
I ka wai kau a Kāne me Kanaloa.
Aia i laila ka Wai a Kāne.
He wai puna, he wai e inu,
He wai e mana, he wai e ola.

1 This article uses Hawaiian language terminology extensively, and definitions or brief explanations are given when the terms are first presented. The use of these terms is necessary, as it is often difficult or even impossible to accurately express the meaning of a Hawaiian word with a single English word. Some of these terms have also been incorrectly or incompletely glossed in prior academic writings (makaʻāinana as “commoner” and mele as “music,” for example). This paper provides an opportunity for such mischaracterizations to be corrected. All translations and glosses, except where noted, are by the author.

2 When I first considered the possibility that “Ka Wai A Kāne” displayed a pre-contact Hawaiian understanding of the hydrologic cycle, I contacted Dr. Samuel M. ʻOhukaniʻōhiʻa Gon, III, Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor at The Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi. He had come to the same conclusion several years prior to my own formulation of this hypothesis, and presented it to a conference of hydrologists around 2006.

3 Conceptual metaphors are commonly presented in small caps. For this online publication, they appear in italics, such as argument is war, linguistic expressions are containers, ideas (or meanings) are objects, time is money, and time is a commodity

4 Kawaihae and Waimea are not ahupuaʻa themselves, but signifiant land units within the ahupuaʻa of Kohala.

5 The text and translation of this mele as it appears throughout this article are from Unwritten Literature of Hawaiʻi (Emerson, 1909:257-57). The orthography of the text has been modernized to include the ʻokina (glottal stop) and kahakō (the macron that appears over some vowels and indicates increased duration). It should be noted that Emerson’s translation is not literal and reflects an English poetic aesthetic of his time.

6 As the terms and concepts that Geertz and Rice have applied to these processes come from a western epistemological perspective and would difficult to express accurately from a Hawaiian perspective and using a single Hawaiian term, they have not been translated into Hawaiian.


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Keola Donaghy's picture
Keola Donaghy

Joseph Keola Donaghy is a faculty member in the music department at University of Hawai‘i Maui College and assists with the administration of the Institute of Hawaiian Music. A very active member of the Hawaiian music community, he holds a PhD in Music (Ethnomusicology) from the University of Otago in Dunedin, Aotearoa (New Zealand). His thesis is “The Language Is The Music: Perceptions of Authority and Authenticity in Hawaiian Language Composition and Vocal Performance,” the result of an ethnographic inquiry that engaged seventeen practitioners of haku mele (Hawaiian language poetic composition) and vocal performance in discussions about recordings of their choosing. You may visit his web site at keoladonaghy.com.