On the evening of March 16, 2012, my wife and I traveled to Honolulu to attend the 92nd annual Kamehameha Schools Song Contest which was held that evening at the Neil Blaisdell Center. It was a night that Kenneth Makuakāne and I and our families had looked forward to for over four months. Back in the fall of last year, we had been asked to contribute a composition for this year’s song contest. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the founding of Kamehameha Schools. The theme of this year’s contest was “Ho‘ōla Lāhui, Ho‘oulu Pae ‘Āina — Vibrant People, Thriving Lands”. Ten composers and composer teams were asked to create new mele that honor significant parcels of land that comprise the Bishop Estate. Some of them help fund the Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop’ vision, and other are rich cultural resources.
Kenneth and I were asked to compose a new mele for Keauhou, Ka‘ū, on Hawai‘i island. This is a different area than Keauhou, Kona. It is situated just on the border between Ka‘ū and Puna, on the Ka‘u side of the entrance to Volcanoes National Park. I was aware of the place, but had no idea of the work that Kamehameha Schools is engaged in there. Previously, large sections of the ahupua‘a were covered with koa trees. Many years ago, many of the koa trees were felled, and subsequently much of the land was leased for grazing. The school later bought back the leases and began reforestation efforts. We were invited to spend a day in Keauhou, and because of work commitments we were unable to visit Keauhou together. We did visit on separate dates, and subsequently shared our experiences. We were both amazed at the efforts being made to reestablish the koa forests, keep out invasive plants and animals, and how dedicated the staff were to their task.
Over the course of the next two months we worked on the mele, sharing concepts, words, melodies, and verses, using the telephone, Skype, emails, instant messages, and occasionally (!) working face to face. The mele essentially documented the day of our first impressions, our experiences, and our hopes for Keauhou. As the group I traveled with moved through the ahupua‘a, we were followed by ‘io (hawks) that watched our every move. When cautiously entered the Kīlauea Forest Preseve (an area that escaped deforestation and remains a pristine habitat), we were observed by the ‘elepaio birds of the forest. I watch as one flew by me and missed my head by only about a foot. All of these experiences became part of the mele “Aloha Keauhou”.
In December, the mele and melody were complete, and turned over to Randie Fong at KS. Our understanding was that one of their regular arrangers would create the vocal arrangments for the students. Shortly thereafter they contacted Kenenth and asked if he would do the arrangment himself. I helped him by formatting the charts in Finale, but otherwise the arrangements were all his. Shortly thereafter, Randie informed Kenneth that the senior girls would be performing our mele.
We arrived at Blaisdell Arena on the evening of March 16 and met the other composers. I had heard that Kellen and Līhau Hannahs, Dennis Kamakahi and Keawe and Tracie Lopes were some of the composers, but didn’t know who else had been asked to contribute mele. Manu Boyd, Carlos Andrade, Ke‘ala Kwan, Nālani Choy, Kama Hopkins were the others. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I was the only composer there that wasn’t a graduate of Kamehameha. Of course Kenneth is a KS gradute, and since we collaborate together so frequently, they graciously allowed him to invite me to collaborate on the mele. Still, it was a humbling relevation.
I won’t go into a long description of the event, and would encourage everyone to watch the program on the KS website. I can only say that I was astounded by the mele and the variety and quality of the compositions. The composers of each mele were asked to stand and recognize the performance of their mele upon its completion. I couldn’t stand-I was simply numbed by the performance of the senior women. I’m certainly happy I did not have to judge the competition this year, because all of the classes were outstanding. Neither Kenneth or I heard the rehearsals, so we, along with the audience, were hearing it for the first time. And of course the feeling returned when the presenters announced that the senior girls had won the girls’ division, and tied for their Hawaiian language pronunciation.
As things were winding down and the emotions settling on the Blaisdell arena floor, Manu Boyd joined us. He started raving “My God, I could see the rain, and the birds, and the forest!” and I thought I was going to really lose it. What a compliment from one of the preeminent haku mele of this time.
When Kenneth and I began working together eight years ago, I had two things that I hoped to accomplish as a composer. I didn’t tell anyone, and only mention it to Kenneth after we finished the mele. But one of them came true on Friday night. The other? It has nothing to do with the Grammy or Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards. And I’m keeping it to myself until it happens. If it does, you’ll read about it here.