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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 28, 2001

A collection of chants reflect life of a Hawaiian monarch

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

This is not a biography. There is no chronology or sense of a lifespan. But there is a much more immediate, almost emotional reaction to the character ... It is the story of how Emma was reflected in the eyes of her people."

Puakea Nogelmeier

Author, "He Lei no 'Emalani:Chants for Queen Emma Kaleleonalani"

When the late George S. Kanahele was writing his biography of the beloved Queen Emma Kaleleonalani, he employed Hawaiian language students as researchers to scour the state's archives for information about his subject. Among the bits and pieces they brought him were many chants written for Emma.

"He knew this was valuable material, not to be thrown away, but it didn't fit into his needs, so it just kept collecting," recalled Hawaiian language teacher, writer and translator Puakea Nogelmeier, whose students were among those who aided Kanahele. Nogelmeier hardly thought he'd end up translating many of these chants and editing a book in which they would be collected.

"He Lei no 'Emalani/Chants for Queen Emma Kaleleonalani" was released earlier this month by the Queen Emma Foundation. It is a beautifully designed volume that has a queen's dignity in its gray-and-red palette and period black-and-white photos. It contains 204 chants for and about the queen — by no means an exhaustive list — each one in Hawaiian with side-by-side English translation and layman-friendly footnotes that help bring the work into context for modern readers. It is the first work of its kind, the first effort to draw together and translate a large body of chants with a central theme, and to make it widely available.

Nogelmeier, 48, says he hopes the book will be an aid to kumu hula and others who wish to use the chants in cultural performances, and enjoyable for those interested in Emma and Hawaiian culture and language in general.

But his fervent desire is to see the book serve as a template for others to come. "Even though it's rough, it could be a role model for greater achievements," said Nogelmeier, whose first mentor in the language was an elderly scholar who had recorded the works of the last royal chanter. "Do you know how many chants there are out there? There must be 1,000 for Kalakaua and as many for Lili'u in just her short reign. What a body of material!"

After Kanahele's own book was published, he couldn't let that stack of papers gather dust. At his urging, the Queen Emma Foundation board asked Nogelmeier for his recommendations as to what should be done with the documents.

Nogelmeier, who leads a busy life as a University of Hawai'i professor, a writer of contemporary 'oli and mele who has worked with Keali'i Reichel and others, and as a consultant on many projects, innocently replied, "You should make clean translations of all of them, and make an archive for the Queen Emma Foundation."

Fifteen minutes later the irrepressible Kanahele, who was always full of ideas, was on the phone to Nogelmeier asking, "Will you do it?" Nogelmeier said no, but he did agree, just as a favor, to put the papers in some order and give the Foundation an estimate as to what it would take to create the archive.

Shortly after that, Nogelmeier was staring at almost two reams — 900 pages — of loose, wrinkled, smudged and dusty papers jammed in a big box. At which point he called for clerical help. Not long afterward, that archive for the foundation became the idea for a book for the broader public.

Emma was the object of much sympathy and love among her people because of the many dramatic events of her life: the death of her young son, the prince Andrew, followed closely by the loss of her husband Alexander Liholiho, King Kamehameha IV; her later bid to run the kingdom; and her many adventuresome trips around the Islands.

In the 30 years during which these chants were written — 1856 to 1885, a span covering Emma's adult life — Hawaiian culture still thrived here in a way that is difficult for us to imagine now, Nogelmeier said. It is foreign to our thinking — he could not conjure a contemporary analogy — to learn that chant-making was an everyday occupation, often carried out on the spur of the moment. For example, a famous hike Emma took up to Mount Wai'ale'ale on Kaua'i generated more than 100 chants, and some of these appear to have been composed while they trekked through the mud.

People composed chants or songs spontaneously to recognize special occasions, to celebrate births, to commemorate deaths, to extol the virtues of their heroes (and heroines) and to lament the deeds of their enemies.

These chants were routinely composed without the aid of pen and paper, and they were remembered, repeated and passed on without being written down. After printing became available, and Hawaiian became a written language, many were recorded in Hawaiian-language newspapers and other publications of the day, or preserved in private papers or by researchers.

For the Hawaiians, life was a little like a Broadway musical; it was perfectly natural to break unabashedly into song, and to share those songs with others informally, as well as in more formal settings. Blocks of chants exist that were all created at the same time, with similar structures, by groups of friends sitting around, composing on a common theme just for the joy of it. There are, for example, about 10 poems about Emma's hair that appear to have been composed in this manner.

From a scholar's viewpoint, the challenge of the Emma book was two-fold: first, figuring out how to honor the texts with proper translations, given that some mele had eight different versions, with widely divergent line counts; then determining how to organize the material. Nogelmeier also had to be aware that he was working for an unscholarly audience that would need annotation but be put off by too much information and too many footnotes.

Nogelmeier and the team who helped him decided to divide the chants up into segments that relate to Emma's different roles and life stages: praise chants, travel chants, political chants, genealogical chants and chants of lament (for Emma, her husband and her son).

It was in exploring these themes that Nogelmeier got caught up in the material. "This is not a biography. There is no chronology or sense of a lifespan. But there is a much more immediate, almost emotional reaction to the character — not to her, but to her character as seen by her people. It is the story of how Emma was reflected in the eyes of her people," he said.

Even though the chants are widely disparate, written by many different people at different times, he began to see the themes that ran through and resonated in the words and images they chose — to the point where, in looking at some chants about which they weren't sure, he felt he could tell which ones were actually about Emma, and which were not.

The people saw her as warm, heroic and high-minded, and both ideas reoccur, Nogelmeir said: "While she is doing heroic deeds — marching up a mountain or challenging the throne, there is always an embracing side that says, 'Come, crouch near the fire, be warm, hold fast the hands.' They hiked up places so treacherous they had to hold hands. People apparently really responded to that — their queen among them."

'Flight of the Heavenly Ones' ... a chant of praise

This chant, from the Helen Roberts Collection in the Bishop Museum, was translated by Puakea Nogelmeier. It is a mele ho'ihi, a chant of praise, for Queen Emma, who is addressed by the name she adopted later in life, after the deaths of her husband and son, Kaleleonalani, "Flight of the Heavenly Ones." The la at the end of each sentence in Hawaiian is a poetic decoration and untranslateable.

He kaua hina ka ke aloha la
Kualono 'o kahi 'oka'a la
Komo i ka nahele wehiwehi la
I ka ulu 'ohia, mokihana la
Kuha'o ke lehua makanoe l
Ponaha i ka wao la'au la

Noe wale mai no ka lehua la
Ne'ene'e papa i ke kohekohe la
Ua poni ka maka o ia pua la
Noho hiehie i ka la'au la
Kaleleonalani he inoa la.

Love, indeed, is a tumbling battle
Mountain ridge, a place turning to and fro
the groves of 'ohi'a and mokihana
Extraordinary is the misty-eyed lehua
Encircled by the forest trees
the lehua is delicately dotted with mist
Spreading through the kohekohe grass
The face of that flower is anointed
To dwell in elegance amid the trees
Kaleleonalani, this is a name song.