Hawaiian Hula Essay

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Hawaiian Hula

As ideological practice, hula was a form of social representation that maintained relationships of power and difference by expressing and legitimating the authority of the religious-political system(Tatar 19). The most heavily ritualized hulas were institutionalized within overlapping power structures of the ali’i and the priesthoods. Supported by high chiefs were halau under the direction of kumu hula (teachers of hula) in which selected individuals (ali’i and maka’ainana) were trained in the ritual and art of chant and hula.

It was the responsibility of the halau members – the priests, the kumu hula, the chanters, the dancers – to compose, maintain, and perform the chants of the ali’i, particularly chants about their genealogical and chiefly qualities that legitimized power. For instance, Malo reports that preceding the birth of a new ali’i, the haku mele would compose a mele inoa for the new chief-to-be. The mele would be committed to memory, a hula choreographed to accompany it, the hula then taught to those who would perform it until the child was born (Tatar 23).

The rules and conventions that organized the practice of religious ritual prescribed and maintained the formalism if hula. To be a member of a halau required special education and arduous training. In short, the production of hula was institutionalized at the center of the most important of the ideological apparatus, an apparatus that fused divine kingship and the supporting priesthood. Captain George Vancouver’s description of a hula he observed in 1794 at a ceremony to honor the coming birth of an ali’i child shows the care and precision accorded to such ceremonies:

The entertainment consisted of three parts, and was performed by three different parties consisting of about two hundred women in each, who ranged themselves in five or six rows, not standing up, not kneeling, but rather sitting upon their haunches. . . . The whole of this numerous group was in perfect unison of voice and action, that it were impossible, even to the bend of a finger, to have discerned the least variation.

Their voices were melodious, and their actions were as innumerable as, by me, they are undescribable; they exhibited great ease and much elegance, and the whole was executed with a degree of correctness not easily to be imagined (Barrere, Pukui, and Kelly 23). The narrative content and forms of hula expressed the dominant representation of human and sacred relationships. Hula gave coherence and continuity to the Hawaiian social structure, containing and interpreting events and social relations in a way that generalized, extended, and crystallized the dominant view of an idealized past, present, and future.

By the eighteenth century, chant and hula constituted what Northrup Frye calls “myths of concern”: “They are the stories that tell a society what is important for it to know, whether about its gods, its history, its laws, or its class structure. . . . They thus become “sacred” as distinct from “profane” stories, and form part of what the Biblical tradition calls revelation” (Northrop 33) Within this culture, chant and hula were the ideological center and the primary reservoir of social knowledge and history. Their content, form, and production were integral to the reproduction of the hierarchical social structure.

Along with Western forms of entertainment came still-developing Western ideas about performance and culture in a capitalist context (Attali 34). With paid-for entertainment and performers working for wages, musical and other forms of performance became commodities and observers became consumers. As a result, the relation between creation, reception, and meaning of symbolic production underwent a major change, from a patron system supported by the ali’i or communal practice among maka’ainana to one paid for by an audience.

Only when hula became a marketable commodity for tourists in the late nineteenth century did Western commercial entertainment try to appropriate Hawaiian culture for profit. The structural transformation of Hawai’i during the nineteenth century resulted in changes in Hawaiian music. Traditional chant was displaced as the primary form of symbolic creation and performance and became an accompaniment for hula; and hula was transformed from an accompaniment of chant to a form independent of chant (although almost always accompanied by song).

New forms of hula developed that combined Hawaiian and Western musical forms; and new forms of Hawaiian music evolved from Western music, first from missionary-introduced hymns and later from various styles of Western popular music. Eyewitness accounts by visitors in the late 1700s and early 1800s indicate that chant and hula were widely performed in various social contexts (Costa 62). But with the arrival of the missionaries and their strong objections to the “licentious” hula, there was a rapid decline in its public practice–at least around missionary stations in the late 1820s and through most of the 1830s.

At this time the regent, Ka’ahumanu, a fervent Christian convert, was consolidating political power. After Ka’ahumanu’s death, there was a brief period of resistance by Kauikeaouli, which took the form of drinking and traditional Hawaiian pastimes, including hula festivals -actions the missionaries labeled “deviant behavior. ” “Mission rule” resumed under the new regent, Kina’u, and hula was danced primarily in rural areas, where it was possible to escape the penalties of the edicts that banned it.

After the 1840s, hula was performed again in the courts of the more independent Kamehameha kings, Alexander Liholiho (IV) and Lot Kamehameha (V), and particularly Kalakaua. These leaders encouraged hula for their own enjoyment and as a symbol of Hawaiian sovereignty. At Kalakaua’s coronation, chant and hula were prominently featured, to the consternation of some foreigners as well as some converted Hawaiians. Kalakaua’s actions were criticized as a waste of money and a sign of backwardness – “a retrograde step of heathenism and a disgrace to the age” (Thrum 65).

By the mid-1800s, the rapid and tragic decline of the Hawaiian population had to have been an important factor in the infrequency of chant and hula performance. In the nineteenth century, hula was divorced from its traditional context. Even more than chant, hula was an abomination to the missionaries. For them, the spiritual was bodiless; there was no way that hula, a celebration of the body, could be reconciled with their Christian religious beliefs, certainly not the hula ma’i that honored the genitals of an ali’i and his procreative mana.

The nearnaked Hawaiian body was an affront to the missionaries’ notions of decency and civilization; their first offensive was to conceal its limbs and torso in clothing; the second was to prescribe and limit its movements. Ethnomusicologists have traced changes in hula and the new music that accompanied it during the nineteenth century, noting the incorporation of European harmony, instrumentation (primarily ‘ ukulele and guitar), and even ballroom dance steps. New forms, called hula noa (free hula) because they were no longer restricted by the rituals and kapu of traditional Hawaiian practice, became increasingly popular.

Older, more demanding forms fell into disuse without the structure of hula halau, the creative and religious leadership of composer priests, and the support and inspiration of ali’i. Hula ku’i (ku’i meaning to “join,” a term for the new genre of hula and its accompanying music) was a conscious effort to combine old Hawaiian forms with Western forms. In current practice, hula is divided into two major categories: hula kahiko (“ancient” hula), which is performed to chant and accompanied by traditional instruments; and hula ‘auana (modern hula), which is performed to the accompaniment of Western-influenced melodies and instruments.

For more than twenty-five years, during the spring in the city of Hilo on the Big Island, practitioners and lovers of Hawaiian chant and hula have gathered for the Merrie Monarch Festival. The three-day event holds great emotional and cultural significance for many Hawaiians, uniting performers and audience in the celebration of hula. That hula is a symbol of Hawaiian pride and identity is as evident in the controversies that erupt from time to time over the interpretations of ancient hula as it is in the execution of the dances.

For many Hawaiians, but particularly for the participating halau, the festival is the high point of the year, the climax of year-long efforts of preparation, practice, and fund raising by the kumuhula, their students, friends, and families. Competition has become an important part of the practice of hula in Hawai’i. In addition to the Merrie Monarch Festival, the annual King Kamehameha Hula and Chant Competition started in 1973 is a major event. Like its better-known counterpart on the Big Island, it has competition in both hula kahiko (ancient styles) and hula ‘auana (modern styles).

In 1987, more than thirty dance performances were performed in male, female, and combined categories within the two styles of hula. The annual Prince Lot Hula Festival on O’ahu is the third major annual event for hula. Since the 1970s, the study of Hawaiian music has been brought into the cultural politics of the Hawaiian renaissance. As the production and performance of chant and hula have been politicized by Hawaiian musicians and scholars, it is no longer possible to ignore the meanings of Hawaiian music – past or present.

Ethnomusicologists now focus on the interaction of history, form, and aesthetics in their analyses of the complex styles and forms of hula, old and new, as well as newer forms of Hawaiian music. There were three major transformations in the meanings of chant and hula in the nineteenth century. The first occurred when Liholiho and his ali’i abolished the kapu system in 1819, one year before the missionaries arrived. This undercut the traditional religious-political significance of chant and hula, but did not detract from their aesthetic, cultural, and entertainment values.

The second transformation in meaning came with the discourse and actions of the missionaries that inserted guilt and shame into the performance of hula. The third was the explicitly political significance given chant and hula by Hawaiian nationalists, who used them to symbolize Hawaiian power before Western penetration and mobilize Hawaiian resistance to further Western encroachments after the mid-1850s.


Barrere, Dorothy B. Mary Kawena Pukui, and Marion Kelly. (1980). Hula: Historical Perspectives, Honolulu: Bernice Puahi Bishop Museum.

Costa, Mazeppa King. (1951). “Dance in the Society and Hawaiian Islands as Presented by Early Writers, 1767-1842,” master’s thesis, University of Hawaii, 62. Frye, Northrop. (1982). The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Jacques, Attali. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Tatar, Elizabeth. (1982). Nineteenth Century Hawaiian Chant, Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum. Thrum. (1885). Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1884, Honolulu, 65.a

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