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The Chant


The Master of Song

WHETHER Kamehameha's favorite genealogist or an earlier poet is responsible for the composition of the Kumulipo as we have it today, the chant represents a master-work in the aristocratic art of song employed throughout eastern Polynesia in the families of chiefs to extol their family nobility.[1] This particular class of genealogical prayer chant is known in Hawaii as a Ku'auhau, a word referred by Parker to Ku(amo'o) meaning a "path way" and 'auhau, "lineage," the analogy belonging rather to the meanderings of a roadway trodden out by human feet than to the more familiar symbol of a tree and its branches.

The work of weaving genealogies into a hymnlike chant commemorating the family antecedents was the work of a Haku-mele or "Master-of-song," attached to the court of a chief, one who occupied also the special post of a Ku'auhau or genealogist. He held an honored place in the household. It was his duty to compose name chants glorifying the family exploits and to preserve those handed down by tradition, but especially to memorize the genealogical line through all its branches. Since writing was unknown in Polynesia before contact with foreign culture, a master of song usually gathered together two or more of his fellows to edit and memorize the lines or themselves to contribute passages. Especially must genealogies be memorized by more than one reciter. The oral recitation of a completed chant of eulogy required a special technique in handling the voice. Its utterance was

[1. Luomala, "Polynesian Mythology, introduction," Encyclopedia of Literature, Vol. II (1946).]

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in the nature of a charm. Evenness of voice was obligatory. A breath taken before the close of a phrase, a mistake, or even hesitation in pronouncing a word was a sign of ill-luck to the person or family thus honored. Kamakau writes: "The voice took a tone almost on one note and each word was enunciated distinctly. There was a vibration [kuolo] in the chanting together with a gutteral sound [kaohi] in the throat and a gurgling [alala] in the voice box. The voice was to be brought out with strength [ha'ano'u] and so held in control [kohi] that every word would be clear." Such a feat of memory as must have been involved in the composition and recitation of a sacred chant like the Kumulipo was hence common to the gifted expert in Polynesia.

The importance of such name chants in establishing a chief's claim of birth is illustrated in a legend of a certain exiled chief from the island of Hawaii who claimed asylum with a powerful chief of Oahu, unattended by any of his followers. Upon his name chant being demanded as proof of his title to rank, he is said to have escaped disgrace by gaining the favor of a visiting chiefess just come from Kauai and reciting as his own a new chant taught him by the complacent visitor. A similar story tells of a surfing competition where jealous rivals concealed from the winner the ruling that a surfing chant proving his rank must be recited before a contestant would be permitted to beach his board after the race, and how he was saved from drowning only by the impromptu composition of an old retainer, the famous "Surfing Song of Naihe" still chanted to extol the waves of Kona that comb the surfing beaches of the young chief's home.[2] In both cases it is clear that the chief himself would have been helpless to recall his family chant or to improvise one for himself that would have met the severe standard of expert court composition.

The Kumulipo as we have it today is popularly known as

[2. Pukui, Journal of American Folklore, LXII, 255-56.]

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the Hawaiian "Song of Creation," from its name Kumu(u)li-po, "Beginning-(in)-deep-darkness." It consists in sixteen Sections called wa, a word used for an interval in time or space. The first seven sections fall within a period called the Po, the next nine belong to the Ao, words generally explained as referring to the world of "Night" before the advent of "Day"; to "Darkness" before "Light"; or, as some say, to the "Spirit world" in contrast to the "World of living men," with whom the "World of reason" began. In the first division are "born" (hanau) or "come forth" (puka) species belonging to the plant and animal world, in the second appear gods and men. Of the over two thousand lines that make up the whole chant, more than a thousand are straight genealogies listing by pairs, male and female, the various branches (lala) making up the family lines of descent. Thus, although the whole is strung together within a unified framework, it may in fact consist of a collection of independent family genealogies pieced together with name songs and hymns memorializing the gods venerated by different branches of the ancestral stock.

The highly conventionalized form employed in poetic composition by court poets throughout marginal Polynesian groups has thus far discouraged an intensive study of so important a contribution to the oral literature of this isolated people. Each year the difficulty of editing and translating becomes greater. The Kalakaua text itself contains misprints, besides puzzling elisions in the manuscript due to oral memorizing. Since the chant has already died on the lips of a reciter, the absence of any sign for the unvocalized glottal catch makes it necessary to distinguish, by the probable meaning alone, words from quite different roots that are spelled alike in the text, The language is often. archaic, containing many words completely unknown to. modern Hawaiians. Little is known with any assurance of the court use

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of words once common to chiefs within their own inner circle.

Under the tension of court etiquette, moreover, poetic phrasing was purposely allusive, with elision and the play of fairly complex symbol obscuring the surface meaning and rendering doubly ambiguous the hidden and inner intention which was the real subject of the passage. It heaped up mythical or legendary allusions with which the modern reader can hardly be familiar. It used poetical devices of sound, such as repetition, assonance, and linked lines, often as a mnemonic device but also with a deeper implication, since an accumulation of words of like sound had power in determining the fates of men. Endless listing, arranged seemingly for sound even in genealogies, employed a constant parallelism, a balance in pairs, often of opposites such as male and female, above and below, plant and animal, sometimes perhaps with inclusive intent in order to take in the whole range between, lest the grudge of offended deities bring ill-luck to the family eulogized, but I think primarily for the rhythmic balance so noticeable in the formation of a line and especially of a pair of lines, although I have not myself detected any use of this parallelism in the management of the voice in recitation.

Most puzzling to the uninitiated today is the passion for puns together with a double court usage of words destined to land the translator in unexpected pitfalls as he ventures along unfamiliar ways obscured by so rich a verbiage of language. The use of a double meaning in a word extends to whole passages. A vivid description of natural scenes or activities, some mood of nature or inthrust of myth, may conceal an allusion recognized by the native listener but wholly misinterpreted by us of another culture who attempt translation. To the initiated such a passage attains value, sometimes even intelligibility as part of the context, only through such symbolic meaning. This is the "theme" or

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kaona called the dominant characteristic of native art--the more deftly hidden, the more delightful to those who catch the application.[3] The meaning of a separate passage must hence be referred for its interpretation to this double significance, often to the meaning of the chant as a whole, and this, as we shall presently see, is a subject for argument in the case of the Kumulipo even among Hawaiians themselves who are familiar to some extent with the requirements of old poetic style.

Nor is this trick of allusion confined to court poetry. It exists today among the most simple with a taste for the turning of verses. A mele given me by a countryman of the island of Maui recites the various scandals within his own family in similar cryptic terms but drawn from a completely banal sphere of allusion. A schoolteacher at Kailua, where we went ashore while our boat was taking on freight, entertained us with some verses he had just composed and was careful to point out the symbol contained within the charming natural scene which the words were ostensibly meant to portray.

One has but to study the rich and picturesque vocabulary of the Hawaiian proverbial saying to become aware of the fondness for indirect speech in the everyday language of the people. The feeling for analogy governs their wit, their gift of naming, their swift use of a concrete example rather than abstract definition. As instance, a Hawaiian in a remote seaside village, wishing to describe to me the character for niggardliness earned by the inhabitants of a neighboring village, picked up a bit of close-grained stone to illustrate his thesis.

Especially are sex and the natural bodily functions subject to conventionalized word-play. Whole passages lost in the literal reading are to he understood only through such application. This obscurity of language is why the Hawaiian taunts the foreigner who tries to interpret his lore. "Always

[3. Ibid., p. 247]

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keep something back" is the thought in the mind of every native informant, however helpful he may seem and really wishes to be in his relation with the foreign inquirer.

There is, moreover, a hesitation inherent in the character of the content in the case of a sacred chant like the Kumulipo that hinders frank explanation even when the meaning is clear to the one questioned. This is not necessarily because he knows that allusions which are to him the natural subjects of jest and story may be considered indelicate by a foreigner. It is also because of the sacred nature of such a revelation and the fact that knowledge has been intrusted to him as a kind of charm to be guarded for his own prestige in commanding the favor of the gods. So Bastian reports the bitter reply of the old man whom he was prodding with questions about the meaning of certain allusions in the chant, "Wollt ihr mir meinen einzigen Schatz rauben?" ("Would you rob me of my only treasure?")

Because of this dominant part played by symbolism in Hawaiian poetic style, it is important to know the theme or kaona of the whole composition in order to catch the drift of each part. In the case of the Kumulipo a number of such underlying meanings have been proposed, each sufficiently plausible in itself, but difficult of application in relation to the text as a whole.

The general and orthodox view has been to look upon the chant as an actual history of life on earth from its beginning (kumu) progressively up to the coming of man, and thence through the family succession in unbroken line to the birth of the child to whom it was dedicated. As a poetic composition it is thus to be compared with the Greek Theogony and the Hebrew Genesis.

Kupihea, however, thinks that the chant should be read for its immediate political implications. He thinks that King Kalakaua has changed and adapted the original source material

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in order to jeer at rival factions among the chiefs of his day and laud his own family rank.

Pokini Robinson was sure, for her part, that the first seven sections composing the period of the Po symbolize stages in the development of the divine taboo chief from infancy to adolescence, when there begins in the second division the symbolic rehearsal of his taking a wife, house building, and the rearing of a family.

Still another idea, put forward, I think, by Dr. Handy, is that the first division depicts, not stages in the growth of the child after birth, but those passed through while still dwelling in the spirit world as an embryo within the womb of his mother.

How decide among these diverse opinions? An informed young modern to whom I put the question replied, "Probably all are right"; and it is on this advice that I have acted, not holding rigidly to a single concept but allowing, as I think is justified by the obviously composite nature of the whole composition, a wider range of analogy. Passages still doubtful to myself and my Hawaiian helpers I follow with parenthetical question marks. These lines as well as others unquestioned specifically may be differently understood when new light is thrown on the matter. I believe, however, that the reading selected is at least true to Hawaiian poetic art and to the intention as I see it of the passage as a whole.

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