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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Hawaiian chants of life and death

 •  He Kanikau no Aniani (Lament for Aniani)

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

When a Hawaiian fisherman named Aniani died in 1875, his wife Maliakamalu grieved. Then she wrote his obituary.

Rainbow Falls, known as Waianuenue, is one of Hawai'i's beautiful places Maliakamalu refers to in the kanikau about her deceased husband.

Advertiser library photo

Not a modern English obituary, filled with names and facts. Instead it was a song of lasting love and a rich life together, filled with poetic images of the joys and sorrows that only a spouse can know and cherish: The times they huddled together on the reef to fend off passing rain squalls; the quiet moments listening to the peeling bell of a nearby church; the hours when they tramped together through the snow of Mauna Kea; the deep pain that endures when a loved one dies.

Once, hundreds of such mourning chants, called Na Mele Kanikau Aloha ("Songs for the Soul") appeared regularly in dozens of Hawaiian newspapers. When the Hawaiian language faded in the 20th century, so did the kanikau.

Now, more than 100 years after the kanikau peaked, a team of University of Hawai'i researchers is bringing them back from obscurity and preparing to share them with the world.

Alternately funny and sad, poetic and mundane, the kanikau research adds insight into the ways Native Hawaiians lived their daily lives, moved about the Islands, loved and cared for one another and mourned the loss of a loved one. The research also provides a new look at long-lost Hawaiian words, places and subtleties of meaning.

"They provide an amazing record of people's private lives in a very public context," said Ruby Kawena Johnson, a UH Hawaiian language professor and director of the kanikau research team. "They give a very intimate look at people's lives together and the rhythm of life in a developing Honolulu. It's an insight into a time when society could still afford to pay attention to the common people."

The researchers, working under the UH Committee for the Preservation and Study of Hawaiian Language, Art and Culture, unearthed, translated and annotated nearly 500 such life stories, all taken from nearly 100 Hawaiian language newspapers that thrived in the Isles from 1834 to 1900 and disappeared altogether in the 1940s.

Ultimately, the group hopes to publish several volumes of kanikau. "They represent a great source of information about the everyday life of Hawaiians in every walk of life from the common workers to the most well-educated people," said John Kaipo Mahelona, one of the researchers.

Re-reading the songs from the distance of 100 years, the details of ordinary life become extraordinary; every-day experiences become mysterious and romantic. In many case, the discoveries moved the researchers to cry or laugh out loud, they said.

"The words really reach right into your soul and touch the center of your being," said Kimo Alama Keaulana, a researcher and instructor of Hawaiian at Honolulu Community College. "You realize that Hawaiians back in the 19th century were facing many of the same basic concerns of life as we do today."

Hawaiians had other ways to mourn, too. There were designated times of grieving and public expressions that included wailing, beating of the breast, inflicting self-pain or sitting in a certain way.

There were also distinctive styles of mourning chants, including eulogies, dirges, special prayers, songs of sorrow and direct appeals to the dead.

Although some Hawaiian scholars feel the publication of chants lessens their power, many early Hawaiians took to publishing the kanikau and other works as soon as the first Hawaiian language newspapers appeared in the 1820s. That helped the kanikau tradition break free from the other styles and reach its height in the latter half of the 19th century, Johnson said.

In many ways, putting the project together was like reading a mystery book, researchers said. The clues are there, but you have to put them into context. Many of the words used in the kanikau refer to things, places, or nuances no longer recognized by most Hawaiian speakers today.

There are references, for instance, to many kinds of rain or wind, or valleys that no longer go by the same name. In time, too, the Hawaiians began to include more and more references to ideas and places mentioned in the Bible.

"We all carry around our little lists of words we're trying to learn or understand," said Noelani Arista, one of the researchers and a lecturer in Hawaiian studies at UH-Manoa. "The kanikau are filled with metaphors, allusions and references which were lost along the way."

The humanity remains, however.

"As you read more and more, you realize that every soul is special," Mahelona said. "Every spirit is unique. You really get to know an individual. Today's obituaries are so inadequate by comparison."

Sometimes, the kanikau are sweet and humorous. A kanikau for historian David Malo says, "Your fragrance exceeds that of the small leafed maile of Ko'iahi; in comparison, the water of Lutini (perfume) has no sweetness, neither myrrh nor aloe."

Many others speak of memorable travels or stolen moments of pleasure: "I remember many hard things on the pathway through the plain/The plain where we would dwell/to enjoy the coolness of the watermelon."

Other times, they are impossibly sad.

There are tales of haole doctors who can't cure Hawaiian loved ones, references to leprosy victims shipped heartlessly away to Kalaupapa ("Caught like chickens, like cattle herded ... Never again would we look upon this land of ours/this lovely harbor town"); times of starvation ("Only one kind of food: love, accompaniment to poi and tears") children who died young; loved ones who will never be seen again.

Ultimately, the kanikau are always about loss. Maliakamalu, the widow of the fisherman Aniani, wrote:

"I have been crying up until now for my husband/ Someone who has been my faithful companion night and day/A companion to huddle up with in chilly places/ ... Waka, return my husband to me/ I will pay you a million dollars."

The kanikau tradition began to fade away by the start of the 20th century, and the last ones faded in the 1940s with the end of Hawaiian language newspapers. All of the researchers on the project agreed that the kanikau could not have been continued in English.

"Hawaiian is just such an evocative language," Keaulana said. "English would be insufficient to express the depth of love and sorrow we found."

The researchers believe that publication of the collected kanikau will be a great resources to the academic and general Hawaiian communities.

The research, begun in 1998, was financed in part by Hawaii State foundation on Culture and the Arts. The Committee for Preservation and Study of Hawaiian Language, Art and Culture was formed in 1959 and has completed more than 250 separate projects related to culture, language and history, according to its executive director, Henry Iwasa.

The group hopes to have its first kanikau book, a primer, finished by next year, with another volume of kanikau in the original Hawaiian and translated English to follow a year later.

"In one sense, this is a great mother lode of Hawaiian poetry that could resonate with researchers for a very long time to come," Johnson said.

The sharing of the kanikau with a wide variety of modern-day Hawaiians could be equally important, others said.

"We always knew that Hawaiians were highly literate and really treasured knowledge," Arista said. "This will help people get a sense of just how important that is."