Unwritten Literature of Hawaii, by Nathaniel B. Emerson, , at sacred-texts.com
In ancient times the hula to a large extent was a creature of royal support, and for good reason. The actors in this institution were not producers of life's necessaries. To the alii belonged the land and the sea and all the useful products thereof. Even the jetsam whale-tooth and wreckage scraps of iron that ocean cast up on the shore were claimed by the lord of the land. Everything was the king's. Thus it followed of necessity that the support of the hula must in the end rest upon the alii. As in ancient Rome it was a senator or general, enriched by the spoil of a province, who promoted the sports of the arena, so in ancient Hawaii it was the chief, or headman of the district who took the initiative in the promotion of the people's communistic sports and of the hula.
We must not imagine that the hula was a thing only of kings' courts and chiefish residences. It had another and democratic side. The passion for the hula was broadspread. If other agencies failed to meet the demand, there was nothing to prevent a company of enthusiasts from joining themselves together in the pleasures and, it might be, the profits of the hula. Their spokesman--designated as the po’o-puaa, from the fact that a pig, or a boar's head, was required of him as an offering at the kuahu--was authorized to secure the services of some expert to be their kumu. But with the hula all roads lead to the king's court.
Let us imagine a scene at the king's residence. The alii, rousing from his sloth and rubbing his eyes, rheumy with debauch and awa, overhears remark on the doings of a new company of hula dancers who have come into the neighborhood. He summons his chief steward.
"What is this new thing of which they babble?" he demands.
"It is nothing, son of heaven," answers the kneeling steward.
"They spoke of a hula. Tell me, what is it?"
"Ah, thou heaven-born (lani), it was but a trifle--a new company, young graduates of the halau, have set themselves up as great ones; mere rustics; they have no proper acquaintance with the traditions of the art as taught by the bards of * * * your majesty's father. They mouth and twist the old songs all awry, thou son of heaven."
"Enough. I will hear them to-morrow. Send a messenger for this new kumu. Fill again my bowl with awa."
Thus it comes about that the new hula company gains audience at court and walks the road that, perchance, leads to fortune. Success to the men and women of the hula means not merely applause, in return for the incense of flattery, it means also a shower of substantial favors--food, garments, the smile of royalty, perhaps land--things that make life a festival. If welcome grows cold and it becomes evident that the harvest has been reaped, they move on to fresh woods and pastures new.
To return from this apparent digression, it was at the king's court--if we may extend the courtesy of this phrase to a group of thatched houses--that were gathered the bards and those skilled in song, those in whose memories were stored the mythologies, traditions, genealogies, proverbial wisdom, and poetry that, warmed by emotion, was the stuff from which was spun the songs of the hula. As fire is produced by friction, so it was often by the congress of wits rather than by the flashing of genius that the songs of the hula were evolved.
The composition and criticism of a poetical passage were a matter of high importance, often requiring many suggestions and much consultation. If the poem was to be a mele-inoa, a name-song to eulogize some royal or princely scion, it must contain no word of ill-omen. The fate-compelling power of such a word, once shot from the mouth, was beyond recall. Like the incantation of the sorcerer, the kahuna ánaaná, it meant death to the eulogized one. If not, it recoiled on the life of the singer.
The verbal form once settled, it remained only to stereotype it on the memories of the men and women who constituted the literary court or conclave. Think not that only thus were poems produced in ancient Hawaii. The great majority of songs were probably the fruit of solitary inspiration, in which the bard poured out his heart like a song-bird, or uttered his lone vision as a seer. The method of poem production in conclave may be termed the official method. It was often done at the command of an alii. So much for the fabrication, the weaving, of a song.
If the composition was intended as a eulogy, it was cantillated ceremoniously before the one it honored, if in anticipation of a prince yet unborn, it was daily recited before the mother until the hour of tier delivery; and this cantillation published it abroad. If the song was for production in the hula, it lay warm in the mind of the kumu, the master and teacher of the hula, until such time as he had organized his company.
The court of the alii was a vortex that drew in not only the bards and men of lore, but the gay and fashionable rout of pleasure-seekers, the young men and women of shapely form and gracious presence, the sons and daughters of the king's henchmen and favorites; among
them, perhaps, the offspring of the king's morganatic alliances and amour--the flower and pick of Hawaii's youth. From these the kumu selected those most fitted by beauty and grace of form, as well as quickness of wit and liveliness of imagination, to take part in the hula.
The performers in the hula were divided into two classes, the olapa--agile ones-and the ho’o-paa--steadfast ones. The rôle of olapa, as was fitting, was assigned to the young men and young women who could best illustrate in their persons the grace and beauty of the human form. It was theirs, sometimes while singing, to move and pose and gesture in the dance; sometimes also to punctuate their song and action with the lighter instruments of music. The rôle of ho’o-paa, on the other hand, was given to men and women of greater experience and of more maturity. They handled the heavier instruments and played their parts mostly while sitting or kneeling, marking the time with their instrumentation. They also lent their voices to swell the chorus or utter the refrain of certain songs, sometimes taking the lead in the song or bearing its whole burden, while the light-footed olapa gave themselves entirely to the dance. The part of the ho’o-paa was indeed the heavier, the more exacting duty.
Such was the personnel of a hula troupe when first gathered by the hula-master for training and drill in the halau, now become a school for the hula. Among the pupils the kumu was sure to find some old hands at the business, whose presence, like that of veterans in a squad of recruits, was a leaven to inspire the whole company with due respect for the spirit and traditions of the historic institution and to breed in the members the patience necessary to bring them to the highest proficiency.
The instruction of the kumu, as we are informed, took a wide range. It dealt in elaborate detail on such matters as accent, inflection, and all that concerns utterance and vocalization. It naturally paid great attention to gesture and pose, attitude and bodily action. That it included comment on the meaning that lay back of the words may be gravely doubted. The average hula dancer of modern times shows great ignorance of the mele he recites, and this is true even of the kumu-hula. His work too often is largely perfunctory, a matter of sound and form, without appeal to the intellect.
It would not be legitimate, however, to conclude from this that ignorance of the meaning was the rule in old times; those were the days when the nation's traditional songs, myths, and lore formed the equipment of every alert and receptive mind, chief or commoner. There was no printed page to while away the hours of idleness. The library was stored in one's memory. The language of the mele, which now has become antiquated, then was familiar speech. For a
kumu-hula to have given instruction in the meaning of a song would have been a superfluity, as if one at the present day were to inform a group of well-educated actors and actresses who was Pompey or Julius Cæsar.
"Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue." Hamlet's words to the players were, it may be supposed, the substance of the kumu's instructions to the pupils in his halau.
The organization of a hula company was largely democratic. The kumu--in modern sense, the teacher--was the leader and conductor, responsible for the training and discipline of the company. He was the business manager of the enterprise; the priest, kahuna, the leader in the religious exercises, the one who interpreted the will of heaven, especially of the gods whose favor determined success. He might be called to his position by the choice of the company, appointed by the command of the alii who promoted the enterprise, or self-elected in case the enterprise was his own. He had under him a kokua kumu, a deputy, who took charge during his absence.
The po’o-puaa was an officer chosen by the pupils to be their special agent and mouthpiece. He saw to the execution of the kumu's judgments and commands, collected the fines, and exacted the penalties imposed by the kumu. It fell to him to convey to the altar the presents of garlands, awa, and the like that were contributed to the halau.
The paepae, also chosen by the pupils, subject to confirmation by the kumu, acted as an assistant of the po’o-puaa. During the construction of the kuahu the po’o-puaa stood to the right, the paepae at his left. They were in a general sense guardians of the kuahu.
The ho’o-ulu was the guard stationed at the door. He sprinkled with sea-water mixed with turmeric everyone who entered the halau. He also acted as sergeant-at-arms to keep order and remove anyone who made a disturbance. It was his duty each day to place a fresh bowl of awa on the altar of the goddess (hanai kuahu), literally to feed the altar.
In addition to these officials, a hula company naturally required the services of a miscellaneous retinue of stewards, cooks, fishermen, hewers of wood, and drawers of water.
Without a body of rules, a strict penal code, and a firm hand to hold in check the hot bloods of both sexes, it would have been impossible to keep order and to accomplish the business purpose of the organization. The explosive force of passion would have made the gathering a signal for the breaking loose of pandemonium. That it did not always so result is a compliment alike to the self-restraint of
the people and to the sway that artistic ideals held over their minds, but, above all, to a peculiar system of discipline wisely adapted to the necessities of human nature. It does not seem likely that a Thespian band of our own race would have held their passions under equal check if surrounded by the same temptations and given the same opportunities as these Polynesians. It may well be doubted if the bare authority of the kumu would have sufficed to maintain discipline and to keep order, had it not been reenforced by the dread powers of the spirit world in the shape of the tabu.
The awful grasp of this law, this repressive force, the tabu, held fast the student from the moment of his entrance into the halau. It denied this pleasure, shut off that innocent indulgence, curtailed liberty in this direction and in that. The tabu waved before his imagination like a flaming sword, barring approach to the Eden of his strongest propensity.
The rules and discipline of the halau, the school for the hula, from our point of view, were a mixture of shrewd common sense and whimsical superstition. Under the head of tabus certain articles of food were denied; for instance, the sugar-cane--ko--was forbidden. The reason assigned was that if one indulged in it his work as a practitioner would amount to nothing; in the language of the kumu, aohe e ko ana kana mau hana, his work will be a failure. The argument turned on the double meaning of the word ko, the first meaning being sugar cane, the second, accomplishment. The Hawaiians were much impressed by such whimsical nominalisms. Yet there is a backing of good sense to the rule. Anyone who has chewed the sweet stalk can testify that for some time thereafter his voice is rough, ill-fitted for singing or elocution.
The strictest propriety and decorum were exacted of the pupils; there must be no license whatever. Even married people during the weeks preceding graduation must observe abstinence toward their partners. The whole power of one's being must be devoted to the pursuit of art.
The rules demanded also the most punctilious personal cleanliness. Above all things, one must avoid contact with a corpse. Such defilement barred one from entrance to the halau until ceremonial cleansing had been performed. The offender must bathe in the ocean; the kumu then aspersed him with holy water, uttered a prayer, ordered a penalty, an offering to the kuahu, and declared the offender clean. This done, he was again received into fellowship at the halau.
The ordinary penalty for a breach of ceremony or an offense against sexual morality was the offering of a baked porkling with awa. Since the introduction of money the penalty has generally been reckoned on a commercial basis; a money fine is imposed. The offering of pork and awa is retained as a concession to tradition.