This Hawaiian Storytelling Chant Is Great Literature Without the Written Word

The oli connects me to my childhood, and to the history of indigenous Hawaii

When I was much younger, every autumn I would join my mother and other healers from the Hawaiian cultural tradition to celebrate Makahiki, commonly known as the Hawaiian New Year. We collected at the ruins of an ancient fishing village on the Big Island. The once-thriving settlement is outlined by walls of lava rocks, tattered grasses, and maʻo, Hawaiian cotton trees. At each turn of the New Year, we would gather for a few days, to close the work of the last year, and open the work of the year ahead. We would prepare special meals, sing old melodies, build grass-roofed huts, and pray to welcome the coming year. Such a ceremony has been held there for centuries.

During the opening ceremonies, everyone gathered at the shoreline to the call of the pu or conch shell. We prayed, we sang songs, to honor the place and the coming year. At one point, my mother would walk to the water’s edge, standing on a raised gravel platform, the paepae. From her abdomen, deep vibrations rumbled, and were carried up into the wind: a chant, the oli. The chant is to acknowledge the presence of the elements, living things past and present, to give thanks and to gather strength for the year ahead. It is to mark the place of threshold where we stand.

The oli is an indigenous Hawaiian chant. It’s usually performed alone, unaccompanied by musical instruments or dance. Rhythm begins and ends with the chanter, who controls her voice through balance, repetition, and metaphor.

The purpose behind an oli varies. Sometimes, it’s an invitation. Sometimes, a story about bygone times, to honor chiefs or a special place. Other times, an announcement. The oli is usually chanted at a time or place of threshold, such as when entering a new location, or a rite of passage like a wedding.

It is a way to honor the listeners, to give respect, but also to deliver your emotion, your purpose. This is who I am, this is what I intend. When travelers enter a new space, they chant for permission, declaring their identity and their intentions there. In old days, before Captain Cook’s arrived to Hawaiian shores, as voyagers would arrive at a distant island by canoe, they would chant an oli to introduce themselves. A second chanter would traditionally be on the land, to receive them with an oli in response.

The oli is a way to honor the listeners, to give respect, but also to deliver your emotion, your purpose. This is who I am, this is what I intend.

My uncle and aunt live on a small beach on the west coast of the Big Island. Between the white coral sidewalks and broken pavement, it is a challenge to navigate; our car often pulled askew. So my mother and I walk along the coral-strewn shoreline. Stray dogs whine from behind screened doors. At the border between Kahauloa and Keei, we suddenly stop. My mother’s voice lifts, carried by the wind from her abdomen, up to the sky, and down again. Months would have passed since our last visit, and the chant was necessary to gain permission to enter. There is no one we can see who can hear us, yet we know the place listens.

“Experience — personal, familial, national — is the natural source of orature,” writes Haunani-Kay Trask in her article “Decolonizing Hawaiian Literature.” “The immediate experience shared by creator and listener but also the collective experience of the poʻe, the lahui, the nation.”

How the oli is delivered largely depends on its intended purpose. The rapidity, drama, pitch, and vibration are all elements that fluctuate by circumstance. Often, each prolonged phrase will be chanted in one breath. There are many variations on style. Lengthy chants, such as prayers, are usually delivered in rapid, rhythmic kepakepa style without sustained pitch. Olioli uses sustained pitch, with a touch of ʻiʻi, a trill-like vibrato tapering the end of each phrase, whereas the hoʻāeae style is very melodic, with short drawn-out vowels and heavy use of ʻiʻi vibrato phrases. Then there are the laments, ho‘ouwēuwē, which uses a heavy voice with protracted vowels, and the genealogical chants, koihonua, which employs distinctly pronounced words. Because anyone can potentially compose a chant, they vary between regions, schools, and individuals.

The rapidity, drama, pitch, and vibration are all elements that fluctuate by circumstance.

I have never heard as powerful a voice as my aunt’s. I remember her chanting oli at weddings, at funerals, at Makahiki. She would stand draped in kikepa, a traditional wrap cloth covering one shoulder, decorated with inked designs made with ohe, bamboo stamps she had carved herself. When she began a chant, it was as if the Earth itself shook inside her abdomen. Her voice said strength, love, connection. It was a gift. Everyone who heard it was united by the sound, as if vibrations linked us all together. I would close my eyes, and hear the waves undulating, and it was as if all the Earth felt this one emotion.

When you’ve been away from home for a while, as I have, sometimes the only memories that have any color or reality come from your childhood.

I remember my grandfather’s funeral as if it were only a few months ago. When he passed away, his four children came together to write a family chant of our own. It was a way to honor him, his memory. To assure him (and ourselves) that the wisdom of our clan would carry on through generations. At his funeral, his children and grandchildren lifted their voices in his honor. Here we are, and we will continue. Our voices reverberated in the church halls and every face on my relatives sitting in the pews was painted in joy.

Written language didn’t come to the Hawaiian Islands until the 1820s. Before then, our oral-based storytelling tradition was almost the only way Hawaiians could stay connected to our history, genealogy, folklore. These oli were passed from generation to generation. There was even a class of professionals known as haku mele, skilled in the art of ‘apo: the ability to receive the spoken word, memorize it verbatim, and recite it word for word. Oli could communicate important events, or express stories of places, of romance, of powerful chiefs. It was a way to keep track of births, deaths, losses and triumphs. “Hawaiians are a profoundly oral people,” writes Trask, “whose major transmission of feeling and thought occurs not through the isolated practice of writing but through the instant act of living speech, chant, and song. The form of this kind of communication is thus inseparable from its meaning.” The traditional dirge, for instance, is all about feeling the sounds of loss that resonate in the grieving chanter. It is a performance of emotion, a gift to all that hear.

Before the 1820s, our oral-based storytelling tradition was the way Hawaiians could stay connected to our history, genealogy, folklore.

Hawaiians believe that words have a sort of power. An old proverb says: “I ka ʻolelo ke ola, i ka ʻolelo ka make” — in the word is life, in the word is death. In Hawaiian culture, words and their underlying kaona (hidden meaning) have power — the ability to heal as well as hurt. The language is rich in wordplay, metaphors and hidden meanings. The power of the oli lies in the multiple meanings in each turn of phrase, meaning that a single oli might have three, four, or even five different interpretations within each listener.

In “A Legendary Tradition of Kamapua’a: The Hawaiian Pig-God,” Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa writes that kaona are a necessary element of any Hawaiian prose. “There is the [Kamapua’a] tale at its face value; boy meets girl, falls in love, falls out of love, and so on. An additional level is introduced by innumerable allusions to ancient events, myths, Gods and chiefs that have become metaphors in their own right. This includes the use of place names and the symbolism attached to the names of winds, rains, plants and rocks, evoking a certain emotional quality on many levels.” There may even be a deeper hidden meaning, known only to the raconteur and the intended listener.

Kameʻeleihiwa gives an example of an oli chanted by the pig god himself, as he calls out to his sweetheart, Anianimakani. Anianimakani o lalo o Kahiki e… Pāheahea mai ana kona leo ioʻu nei…” (“O Anianimakani below there at Kahiki… Her voice calls out invitingly to me here”). The name Anianimakani means “refreshing wind,” and also is used metaphorically as “gently and quickly moving,” and also, at times, “to travel swiftly.” She is both a woman and a breeze, always welcome on the hot shores of Kona.

The most well-known chant in Hawaii is the Kumulipo, the cosmogonic myth. Though nobody knows when it was created or by whom, it was passed down through centuries by oral storytellers. In old times, elders would always recite the Kumulipo at the Makahiki. “At the time when the earth became hot, when the heavens turned inside out when the light of the sun was weakened causing the moon to shine, the time of the rise of the Pleiades, the time of night darkness, the realm of Gods, the time of Po…” First there was nothing but darkness, then the first life: seaweed, sea urchins, fish, all types of flying creatures, creepy crawly creatures, mammals from the rat to the dog to the human. Then light and reason come to pass, and the world of humans explode. In 1779, when Captain James Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay for the first time, the elders chanted the Kumulipo to greet the ship.

When Christian missionaries arrived from the Americas in 1820 to convert Hawaiians, they sought to suppress cultural activities like music, dance, and oli. As a result, the practice of oli dwindled, but has experienced a revival in recent decades, thanks in part to the Hawaiian cultural revival that began in the 1960s. Growing up on the Big Island, I remember oli were most often recited during rites of passage like weddings or the New Year.

In the summertime, I would visit my aunt’s house to learn traditional skills. How to dye cloth with turmeric or tree bark. How to weave baskets from palm trees. How to plant bananas. Hawaiian names of the fruits, the ferns, the sun, the night. I remember sitting at sunset on the grassy beach, singing the Hawaiian alphabet in time with the waves. It was one wave per syllable: A e i o u… ka ke ki ko ku… la le li lo lu… with the last “u” syllable tapering off into a deep, low note. That is how I learned that waves come in patterns.

When Christian missionaries arrived from the Americas in 1820, they sought to suppress cultural activities like oli.

I left Hawaii 13 years ago, and have only been back once. For me, the islands represent my childhood, a time and place I’m at once a part of and separate. But I never learned how to do an oli. And somewhere along the line, between aunts and mothers chanting for ceremonies, I began to associate singing oli with “Hawaiianness.” I remember listening to my little 9-year-old cousin chant an oli once. I marveled at the strength she demonstrated, even through her slight body, and I felt envious. I remember thinking: despite my lineage, I’ll never be as Hawaiian as she.

I wish I could tell you I’m fluent in Hawaiian. I wish I could tell you I don’t get mistaken for a tourist when shopping at Ala Moana Center. I wish I could say I know all the meanings of the words I sung to my grandfather on his death bed.

The truth is, Hawaii to me is both familiar and foreign. I only spent half of my childhood there, and none of my adulthood. As a result, there are only so many ways I can feel connected to the islands — one of which is through my family. Thanks to these memories, oli, like woven baskets or the nurturing of a fern tree, is one way for me to feel a sense of belonging.

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