The bards and poets of old Hawai`i, not having a written language, composed mele to be committed to memory, narrating the events and history of their time. Mele wanana (prophetic chants) by celebrated kaula (prophets) revealed events and history to come.
Keaulumoku, the first, and perhaps the oldest known chanter to be inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, was born at Naohaku, Kohala, Hawai`i. From his youth he wandered among the hills and vast, desolate lava fields, communing there with the spirits. Human society seemed very small to him after daily contemplation of the ocean and mountain majesties and the nightly vision of the stars. As the future opened to him, he was always willing to read it for comfort or warning to his people. He was known on all the Islands and it was safe for him to travel anywhere.
The only physical description of Keaulumoku is the occasion of his last prophecy, when he was the advanced age of 62. His eyes were bright, but his form was bent and his white hair and beard swept his shoulders. He began his chant with tremulous tones, gaining strength as his voice rose like the wind sweeping through the mountain gorges singing the chant of Haui ka Lani. He foretold the union of the islands under Kamehameha, the extinction of the monarchy, the domination of the white race, the destruction of the temples, the probably extinction of the Hawaiian people.
Perhaps Keaulumoku would have a different conclusion to his mele, if he were alive today.
Chanting was a common form of communication among ka po`e kahiko (the people of old). The chants expressed their thoughts, desires and emotions.
Chant may be performed in one of two different styles: as oli or as hula.
Oli is chant not danced to, with prolonged phrases uttered in a single breath often with a trill (i`i) ending each phrase. Ke oli is the chant and mea oli is the chanter.
- O: to call for a thing desired; to answer to a call
- LI: spirit; that which is spiritual, pertaining to the spirit; the inherent spirit within the soul.
Mele is poem, chant of any kind, or song.
Chant was the basic form of musical expression prior to the arrival of Europeans to the Hawaiian Islands.
For traditional Hawaiians, chant continues to represent "deep physical and spiritual union in humankind and our relationship to nature." Its sacredness and power lie in the text of the chant, called `olelo.
Especially significant in pre-contact Hawai`i were chants that recounted the genealogy of an individual, and the Kumulipo, the Creation chant. These chants, passed down and sung from memory, were the only way in which history and mythology could be recorded and taught.
Before 1819, a chanter was a central figure in Hawaiian Society, chosen by birthright and by vocal quality, assessed by an intricate vocabulary of sound patterns unique to Hawaiian chant. Today, chants are more secular in nature; a chanter may be called upon to prepare and sing a mele inoa in praise of an individual bearing a certain name, rather than chanting a genealogy which covers a person's ancestry from the beginning of time. Celebrations of special events and historic meetings are often opened with chanted prayers and greetings.
With the resurgent interest in preserving Hawai`i's culture, the art and skill of Hawaiian chants are once more being learned by Hawaiian schoolchildren; many new mele oli and mele hula are being composed and performed.