For many Hawaiians and frequent visitors over the last 160 plus years, Kawaiaha`o Church is probably as familiar a landmark in Honolulu as Diamond Head. It was on July 21, 1842 when King Kamehameha III and 5,000 worshipers gathered to dedicate this "Great Stone Church".
During the days of the monarchy, Kawaiaha`o was known as "The Church of the Ali`i" , and today is referred to as "The State Church of Hawai`i."
Twenty years prior to the building of the "Great Stone Church", in 1822, the church was a humble group of four thatched huts. It was here that the first missionaries to the Islands brought the teachings and worship of a single loving God to the Hawaiian people. The sea change in Hawaiian song composition and singing took form when, in 1836, Reverend Hiram Bingham, first Kahu, led 24 singers in the 100th Psalm during Holy Communion.
How this must have caught the attention of the Hawaiian congregation! Up to that time, the only voice given to a poem (mele) about the beauty of the land, tribute to Hawai`i's leaders, genealogies, love, events, religion, and the like, was chant (Oli). Now the congregation heard singing in harmony. It caught on with both composers and vocalists. Thus was contemporary Hawaiian music born, as well as the burgeoning reputation of the Kawaiaha`o Church Choir.
Oliver P. Emerson wrote in Pioneer Days in Hawai`i "in full view of our pew, when (choir) members stood up to sing, we looked on rows and rows of men and women with big heaving chests and strong voices, who swayed forward and backward as they sang and made the church ring with a volume of sound." (Note: you will hear the same inspired singing today on any Sunday.)
Martha Poepoe Hohu (KS Class of 1926) wrote, in part "The hymnody of Hawaiians has been borrowed, yet the Hawaiian people have made that music their own. They have molded it to fit their own natures and filled it with their own spirit." She went on to say "Words and music originally may have come from the west, but in a very real sense the hymn has become truly Hawaiian."
The Kawaiaha`o Ministry of Music is steeped in Hawaiian history. In its 158 years, the choir has enjoyed the services of Henri Berger, Bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band, as it organist; Queen Lili`uokalani as both organist and director. Both are honored in the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. Stimulated by the choral harmonies learned from the Choir, composers and singers - singly and in groups - flourished, under the patronage of Na Lani Eha, (The Royal Four : Kalakaua, Leleiohoku, Lili`uokalani, and Likelike).
Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, founder of the Kamehameha Schools, sang regularly. David Kalama, choir director and composer translated much of the choir's English choral literature into Hawaiian. The Honorable Daniel K. Akaka, U.S. Senator from Hawai`i, served as Kawaiaha`o's Choir Director/Minister of Music.
Today, the distinguished and influential contribution of Kawaiaha`o Church's music continues under the leadership of Richard "Buddy" Nalua`i, Director of Music/Organist, and Nola A. Nahulu, its Choir Director. (Ms. Nahulu, Vice President of Hawaiian Music Foundation and chair of the organization's Education Committee, is also well known as artistic director of the Hawai`i Youth Opera Chorus.) A missionary descendant, Ella Hudson Paris, observed "the marked proficiency of Hawaiians, in both literacy and musical composition as well as in vocal expression, proves the existence of a talent undreamed of a century ago."
Historic information courtesy of Richard "Buddy" Nalua`i, Director of Music/Organist, Kawaiaha`o Church and Randie K. Fong, Director of Performing Arts, Kamehameha Schools