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Lei Nahonoapi’ilani: New Project Bringing West Maui Songs Back To Life

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa
Hawai'i Public Radio
View following Honokowai stream to the back of the valley, West Maui mountains.

Maui is famous for its beaches and other natural features, and in the old days, Maui people really knew the land they lived on. Now, a project to collect the songs of West Maui has uncovered a treasure trove of cultural and environmental knowledge embedded in music.  A new project is bringing the old songs back to life as a book, an album, and a concert.

Lei Nahonoapiilani
Credit Lei Nahonoapiilani
West Maui community groups commissioned Nicholas and Zachary Lum to find, document, transcribe and translate as many songs about West Maui as they could. They found over seventy which are now compiled in a songbook. in addition, a new album features contemporary renditions of old songs by Maui's contemporary musicians. The songbook and music album will be debuted November 3, 2019. A second album is in the works, of new compositions written today, for and about West Maui.

Lei Nahonoapi’ilani, Songs of West Maui, live concert is set for Sunday, November 3, at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. 

On the new album, Lei Nahonoapi’ilani, Maui Kumu hula Cody Pueo Pata brings contemporary life to a song that could have been lost in history.  Pata says the song, Eleile, is about a swimming hole at the back of Waihe‘e valley. It was called Eleile, after the Mo’o or lizard that lives there. Pata says if a t? leaf tossed out, is drawn down into the water, the mo‘o is in attendance, so best to stay out. If the leaf just swirls in circles, the Mo‘o is not there.

Lei Nahonoapiilani
Credit Lei Nahonoapiilani
Kumu Hula Cody Pueo Pata

“So in the song it says that’s the companion you should be like,” says Pata, “Swirling around in the same pond as opposed to being drawn down into the depths or being released into the stream to go into the next pond and the next pond, and the next pond… Until maybe the last decade you could access Eleile, but now there’s a gate and landowners there who are asserting their rights. ”

Pata’s uncle lives in Waihe‘e valley, one of Na Wai ‘Eh?, Maui’s Four Great Waters.

“He tells stories about how they used to go to Eleile a lot, the same pond, and now it’s out of bounds for us.”

Changes, changes, recorded in song. Zachary Lum, music educator and member of Keauhou, says several years ago, some West Maui community groups approached him and his brother about a research project.  They were asked to find, collect, transcribe, and translate all the songs of West Maui.

“There’s so much information packed in just one mele, and the fact that we have seventy for West Maui. Equipped with the right tools, the right linguistic capabilities, there is information waiting for us. Old enough to be extremely valuable so that we can understand where Maui especially is coming from.”

What strikes me about the songs is the amount of environmental information and the things that people back then deemed important to memorialize in song. Especially the songs that we don’t sing anymore or that aren’t as common place today, there are environmental observations that are included int ehses osngs that tell us how the healthy system looke.d so today when we sing the same songs or we look at the text, we can see Oh this plant no longer grows here, or this rain no longer visits this area perhaps because the forest was denuded.

Lei Nahonoapiilani
Credit Lei Nahonoapiilani
(l-r) Zachary and Nicholas Lum, members of the music group Keauhou, were asked to collect all the songs of West Maui. The project became a songbook, a concert, and two CD's, projecting West Maui pride into the future.

"Environmentally this is a baseline for how things should be," says Pata, "And as far as composing techniques and the type of music that is put to these songs, this is what Maui music sounds like."

Some of the songs in this first compilation date back to the monarchy, without the jazz, reggae, and other influences so common today. A second album will feature songs about West Maui by contemporary Maui artists, and is due out in 2020.

The title track on the first album, Lei Nahonoapi’ilani, is going to sound familiar---Lum says composers across the islands used the tune of Hawai‘i Aloha to extoll the beauties of their own locale.

Lum recounts that Mima Apo, a rather well known and well-connected musician, wrote Lei Nahonoapi’ilani for the Lei Nahonoapi’ilani Club, which transitioned into the Lahaina chapter of Aha Hui Ka‘ahumanu. The song was their club anthem at the time.

Lei Nahonoapiilani
Credit Lei Nahonoapiilani

“The beautiful thing about the song,” says Lum “Is that it calls out specific places in West Maui and when you look at Hawai‘i Aloha and everybody feels, like, this is our anthem, this is the place we love. Imagine channeling all of that to very specific places in West Maui so that we’re saying, yeah Hawai‘i’s my home, but you know what? West Maui is my home.”

A live concert debut is set for the MACC November 3, 2019, with Maui’s contemporary best performing newly compiled songs of West Maui. About 200 keiki will close with a group sing of this song--it’s the new Project Kuleana release as well.  The Lei Nahonoapi’ilani songbook includes lyrics, music transcriptions, chords and translations.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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