On Mele: The Heart of Hula
Completed poetic texts are the raw material for choreographic interpretation by kumu hula. While some kumu hula are also poets, and some poets are also kumu hula, poetic composition and choreographic interpretation are separate sets of skills and knowledge.
The term haku mele describes the process of poetic composition as weaving — haku — a poetic text. Poets are experts with deep knowledge of the Hawaiian language and its penchant for metaphor. A skillful poet is one who deftly weaves together metaphors of places and allusions to people, using images of nature. A mele, then, is a poetic text rich with kaona — multiple layers of meanings. Common techniques in love songs include referring to a person as a flower, and invoking water images — waterfalls, waves, streams, etc. — to describe lovemaking.
In hula, choreography is a very personal matter of individual kumu hula rendering personal interpretations of a poetic text visually. Individual dances depict a kumu hula‘s reflections on the poetry and perhaps the poet’s intent — when this can be known.
Take a closer look at some examples of mele, deconstructed by kumu hula Patrick Makuakane and Hawaiian scholar Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman. They explore the kaona or multiple meanings of the poetic texts.
Patrick Makuakane on “Kaulilua“
“Kaulilua” is a traditional mele that is included in the repertoire of many halau. It has always been a special and favorite part of our halau‘s repertoire. “Kaulilua” is part of the hula pahu tradition of dances accompanied by a pahu or a drum. Dances adhering to the pahu tradition usually follow strict traditional tenets and are performed within a narrow parameter of movement vocabulary. Today, many practioners of hula use the pahu to accompany a wide variety of dances. However, traditionally speaking, the pahu accompanied only a select number of mele that were considered of special significance and highly regarded.
The pahu, used in the context of the heiau or temples by kahuna (priests), were an important part of sacred ceremonies and rituals. It was believed that the sound of the pahu would alert the gods, while executing the ritualized movements would keep their attention. Sounding the pahu also conveyed messages to the general populace as to the birth of a high-born chief or other notable and significant events. In general, the pahu assumed a sacred and reverential role due to its close association with the gods and important religious services. Although the pahu used for hula is not the same as the one used for temple services, it still assumes and maintains a venerated and ceremonial nature.
Presently, I think it’s safe to say that I am still interpreting the mele and will probably spend the rest of my life interpreting “Kaulilua.” Its text is so rich in kaona and complexity, much of which I’m afraid is lost to antiquity. However, there is much to be said about the common interpretation, comparing Mt. Wai’ale’ale to a woman. The kaona (hidden meanings) inherent in the poem display a strong theme of injustice and redemption relayed throughout the text. The bruising of a flower, the cleansing and healing properties of rain and wind assume allegorical properties in relation to a woman who is never mentioned but alluded to. “Maui e ka pua, uwe ‘eha i ke anu.” “Bruised is the blossom, crying, moaning in the cold.” There is a tug of emotions, expressing hurt, yet forgiveness.
“Kaulilua” has always been imbued with a sort of enigmatic mysticism. Even after all these years of chanting and dancing “Kaulilua,” it still retains an esoteric nature. You could say that in terms of understanding its poetic complexities, it is at times cold and distant and at other times warm and embracing. There is a strong sense that “Kaulilua” is so much more than we really understand. The timeless beauty of the arcane poetry, coupled with the mystical sound of the pahu offer a glimpse into a time when man freely communicated with the gods in an environment supremely dedicated to the sacred and profound.
The pahu or drum accompaniment sets it apart from most dances, immediately setting the stage for something sacred to take place. It conjures a plethora of images of Mt. Wai’ale’ale and its surrounding natural elements, which are pervasively strewn throughout the poetry. It instills in me a deep sense of wonder, humility, pride, respect, reverence, gratitude and awe. I feel it is hula at its most profound incarnation.
Patrick Makuakane on “Everytime”
The repertoire in my halau covers an entire spectrum of hula, from the most traditional to some very contemporary renderings barely reminiscent of anything hula! Yet, even my most modern attempts in choreography in some way or another always pay homage to our traditions. This may be difficult for some people to see or agree with, but for my students and myself we understand this implicitly. In a way, it is our kaona.
“Everytime” is a song that came out of London on an import CD single, from a group called “Lustral” in 1997. It achieved a kind of cult status in underground dance clubs and I have always loved it. This is a savvy dance song that is brilliantly produced and executed. We performed it as a finale for one of our home seasons in San Francisco a few years ago.
“Everytime” has no kaona or hidden meanings in its text, and it is precisely for its straight-forwardness and simplicity that I so love and appreciate it all the more. The entire song is composed of three very short verses with a chorus in between. However, its simplicity should not belie its effectiveness in conveying such wonderfully articulated emotions. This is a rare commodity in the world of dance music vocals.
Although there is no kaona derived from the poetry itself, the complex layering of music and words offer a special, unique quality not found in traditional chant and drumming. “Everytime” allows my dancers and I the opportunity to tap into emotions and feelings from a very modern, yet equally viable and relevant source. And we can express these emotions through hula. One of the most valuable characteristics of the hula is its adaptability and flexibility as it struggles to retains its relevance through time.
“When I’m lonely, your voice is in my head, and my memory feeds my soul, with all the things you’ve said. Every time I close my eyes, I see your face.”
There is an interesting duality in this song, represented by the hard, syncopated break beats and lush vocals that serenely float over them, incorporating varying musical elements while expressing a very haunting, yet excruciatingly sweet quality. This kind of style is especially represented by the progressive sound that came out of the UK in the mid to late ’90s of which I am a big fan.
Non-mainstream dance music today in many cases is produced, engineered and mixed in a highly sophisticated manner that blurs musical genres and identities. I would say that all of the “club songs” used for our contemporary hula pieces employ this kind of progressive edge or sound.
Every time I hear “Everytime” an unmistakable grand sense of joy and happiness permeates my entire being and I am on an oh-so-satisfying groove! To watch this “groove” manipulated into a hula movement vocabulary seems quite astonishing, yet somehow very natural. As in traditional hula, the movement embellishes the poetry without overwhelming it.
It instills in me a deep sense of wonder and awe because of its absolute beauty.