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New album highlights Hawaiian language song composition as a vital cultural practice

"Ka Haku Mele" features award-winning artists Kealiʻi Reichel, Cody Pueo Pata, Kainani Kahaunaele and Zachary Alakaʻi Lum.
Kāhuli Leo Le‘a
"Ka Haku Mele" features award-winning artists Kealiʻi Reichel, Cody Pueo Pata, Kainani Kahaunaele and Zachary Alakaʻi Lum.

Zachary Alakaʻi Lum composed a special song for his son. The first letter of each line in the mele spells his son’s name – Kuaola Kamaleiokauhale.

“It reminds me of lei making… I’m thinking of wili lei making, where you have a base, like a cord perhaps made of braided ti leaf or rafia. And then you would put flowers or leaves or things that are beautiful onto this base,” he said. “His name is the base, and then we fastened these very intentional and specific words to this lei.”

His song is part of the new album, “Ka Haku Mele,” which was released earlier this month. It highlights the importance of haku mele, or Hawaiian language song composition, as a cultural practice.

There’s a video for each song featuring the composers explaining their haku mele process. Lum, who is part of the award-winning band Keauhou, joins renowned artists Kealiʻi Reichel, Cody Pueo Pata and Kainani Kahaunaele.

Lum said it’s important to utilize mele as a way to pass on knowledge to future generations.

“We are encoding data into a language that quintessentially is made to hold a lot of meaning in a little amount of words,” Lum said. “I think of it like a zip file. You want to try and compress a lot of information into a single file, or in this case, a word or phrase.”

Pata, a kumu hula, comes from a lineage of composers, studying under Eleanor Kaʻupu Makida. He remembers his last assignment from her – to compose a trio of mele.

“I remember I was driving down Haleakalā Highway… the final thing that I needed to finish just came to me after days of thinking about this,” Pata said. “So I called her, and I chanted to her the three mele. And then she said, ‘Baby, now you no need call me anymore. He haku mele nō ʻoe – you are a composer now.’”

Lum learned about haku mele through teachers at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, printed resources and other cultural practitioners.

“It’s important in my perspective that we work toward a fluency in mele vernacular as a next step of our Hawaiian language revitalization,” he said. “Now there’s a critical mass of people who know the language, and there’s even a bigger amount of people who want to learn the language.”

“Ka Haku Mele” is streaming on Apple and Spotify and is a project of the nonprofit Kāhuli Leo Leʻa. Videos featuring the composers will be released throughout September on Kāhuli Leo Leʻa’s Facebook page. For more information, click here.

Jayna Omaye was a culture and arts reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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