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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Scholar's debut CD pays tribute to her elders

I don't know what my destiny is, but my contribution for now is to describe the things of today in the old style."

— Kainani Kahaunaele

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Kainani Kahaunaele, 29, will perform at the Merrie Monarch festival. A lecturer at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo and is preparing to begin postgraduate work in the study of mele.

Photo courtesy Kainani Kahaunaele

Kainani Kahaunaele

Teacher, musician, composer, curriculum specialist

Age: 29

Hometown: Anahola, Kaua'i

'Ohana: Daughter of Kaua'i musician "Lady 'Ipo" Kahaunaele-Ferreira; raised by maternal grandparents David and Kanani Panui Kahaunaele and great-grandmother, the Rev. Margaret "Wawa" Panui

Graduate of: Kapa'a High School, 1992; University of Hawai'i-Hilo, bachelor's degree in Hawaiian studies, 1997

In her CD player: Norah Jones, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Country Comfort, Owana Salazar and Olomana

On her nightstand: "Na Wahine Kapu" by Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa

In her computer: Paperwork for seeking a master's degree in Hawaiian language and literature (with a focus on mele) at UH-Hilo's Ka Haka 'Ula O Ke'elikolani College of Hawaiian Language

When she's not working: She's bodyboarding, sailing on Makali'i, cleaning fish, cooking or hangin' with her girls, The Holoholo Queens

CD: "Na'u 'Oe," winner of Traditional Hawaiian Album in this month's Hawaiian Music Awards

Hear her: At Merrie Monarch

When she was a child, Kainani Kahaunaele was hanai'd to her maternal grandparents, David Kahaunaele and the late Kanani Panui Kahaunaele ("Grama"). She was raised in the family home in Anahola, Kaua'i, in the shadow of the highest mountain peak in the area, Kalalea.

Two songs extolling that peak — one written by two of her ancestors — are featured on Kahaunaele's debut album, "Na'u 'Oe." The work, released a year ago, is a tribute to the kupuna, the elders, as is Kahaunaele's life and choice of career as a modern-day scholar of old-style mele, melodic Hawaiian song.

One of the compositions on the CD, "Ka Hinano 'O Puna," has been chosen by last year's first-place winning Merrie Monarch hula festival competitor, Halau 'O Kamuela, as its 'auana number for the April 15-17 competition. She'll sing for the halau, as well as for Manu Boyd's Halau o ke 'A'ali'i Ku Makani.

"We didn't speak Hawaiian in the home, but we sang a lot," she recalls.

As soon as her small fingers could wrap around the neck of the instrument, she was trying to follow along on an 'ukulele. "Everybody knew how to play; you just picked it up," she says.

Those early kanikapila sessions led her to enroll in Hawaiian language classes in high school — she regrets that there was no immersion program when she was in elementary school — and later to transfer from Kaua'i Community College to the University of Hawai'i-Hilo in order to delve deeper into the language. Now, at 29, she is a lecturer at UH-Hilo, readying to begin postgraduate work in the study of mele.

Her upbringing among the elders was in keeping with the Hawaiian custom of placing the eldest grandchild with the grandparents, in order to learn the the old ways. It made her a bridge between generations.

"I'm like the eighth of my grandparents' seven children. That's when I'm a good girl. When I'm bad, then I'm the first of the next generation," she says, rolling her eyes and flashing a broad smile.

Although she lives a contemporary life — carrying a cell phone, storing her life on a computer, listening to Norah Jones on her CD player, bodyboarding on weekends — she fits in readily with the older folk, too. "I'd rather hang out with them than the younger people," she says.

Among the songs on "Na'u 'Oe" is one, "Uncle's Song," that hints at the reason for this: It's written about fish-net maker and mender Kaliko Lovell of Anahola, "such a simple man, but so esteemed to me."

Her sense of the importance of recording the elders' stories before they're gone is evident as she writes about this familiar figure, who seemed always to be sitting, mending nets, whenever she bicycled by: "But then the thought had crossed my mind/Of when I'd come home one day to find/That that weathered chair is unoccupied."

"I'm very grateful for being hanai'd," says Kahaunaele. "From the grandchild's perspective, that was probably the best gift my mother could have given me — to be raised by those who can really focus on you and teach you so much."

Her mother, Kaua'i entertainer "Lady 'Ipo" Kahaunaele-Ferreira, always was nearby, so she got the best of both worlds.

Kahaunaele's life still straddles different worlds, but she's clear about which one is most important to her, which one she will always choose when a choice has to be made.

It's the one where she learned the values of the elders, whose lives were their lessons. "It was just by example that they showed you the values: respect for the elders, love of the 'ohana, discipline, the different responsibilities that everyone has in the family, your role in the family system," she says. "That's my foundation."

So it is that, while she is a captivating performer with a voice that commands attention, she doesn't think of herself as an entertainer.

Smiling out from the cover of her first recording, "Na'u 'Oe," she appears to be a mere musical hopeful, just another among the dozens of Islanders who release CDs each year in hopes of becoming a star.

But she is not that at all.

Sit down with her over a plate of fish and rice at Nori's, the popular Hilo local-style eatery, and within minutes it's clear that this is a very serious woman with a mission planted deep in her na'au, her gut (to Hawaiians, the seat of the emotions).

"I want to contribute to my people," she says, her tone matter-of-fact.

Between greeting aunties, uncles and classmates, Kahaunaele — in a tank top that shows of her surfer's shoulders, a long braid down her back and sunglasses perched on her forehead — talks about language, poetry, composition, education, history, genealogy and the future of the Hawaiian culture. Anything but herself. The interviewer has to probe for the personal details. This is not the behavior of a celebrity wannabe.

And the CD?

First of all, Kahaunaele has made not a penny from it; proceeds support 'Aha Punana Leo, the Hawaiian-language immersion program in Hilo where Kahaunaele used to work. And as entertaining as it is, the CD, too, has a serious purpose: to encourage others to follow the path Kahaunaele is taking, studying traditional Hawaiian poetry, songwriting and composition.

"The goal is learning and teaching the language. The music is only the tool," she says.

The project wasn't even Kahaunaele's idea: An associate at 'Aha Punana Leo suggested it as a way to raise money for the program and a subtle method of luring new blood into the rather narrow world of Hawaiian-language songwriting.

Kahaunaele began working at 'Aha Punana Leo in 1995, helping to create classroom materials for the Hawaiian-language immersion program. Among her duties was the composition of little songs — "Schoolhouse Rock," Hawaiian-style — to dress up video productions.

In school, she was poring over old manuscripts, studying the various devices that characterize Hawaiian mele: kaona (hidden meanings), referential material (images that hark back to earlier chants, songs or stories), linked assonance (a device by which the last part of one line uses the same or similar words to the first part of another — "when you have a 2,000-line chant to memorize, hopefully there's something in there to help you," she says, drily).

"I want to learn because it offers me a glimpse of their perspective, what was important to them" she says.

"Na'u 'Oe" is her own songbook, "a documentary of my life," she says. Most, but not all, are her own compositions; most, but not all, are in Hawaiian.

Alongside her are many of the people dearest to her, including her mother, "Lady 'Ipo"; composer Kaipo Frias, one of her teachers; and singer/songwriter/kumu hula Manu Boyd, who is featured on a name song Kahaunaele wrote for a friend.

Having English-language songs on the CD was a bit controversial in the immersion-language community, but it was a calculated move to make the recording more mainstream and give it more appeal to the young.

"We can argue about it, but I think it's been effective. The young children are singing the songs, the teens are enjoying the music," she says. "I'm started on my journey and I'm really enjoying it," she says. "I don't know what my destiny is, but my contribution for now is to describe the things of today in the old style."

Even the title, "Na'u 'Oe" — which means, variously, "you are mine" or "you are for me" or "I love you" — is indicative of the multilayered depth of Hawaiian mele that so interests her: "Maybe I can say it in a whole sentence, but my ancestors could say it in two words."