Aia i Hilo One

An Essay by Kīhei de Silva

Haku mele: Unknown. The song is widely recognized as having been written for Emalia Kaihumua, one of Kalākaua's court dancers and the author of "He Aloha Moku o Keawe." Since that mele was composed in 1894, when Sweet Emalia was a young woman, we can guess that "Hilo One" also belongs to the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

Sources: 1) Vickie Ii Rodrigues, as given on the liner notes of Nā Mele 'Ohana, Hula H 50. 2) Kimo Alama-Keaulana, Puke Mele, I:36-37; MS Grp 329, 2.53, Bishop Museum Archives.

Select Discography: 1) Vickie Ii Rodrigues and Family, Nā Mele 'Ohana, Hula H501. 2) Hui 'Ohana, Hui 'Ohana, Paradise SLP 920. 3) Mākaha Sons of Ni'ihau, Puana Hou, Poki SP 9041. 4) Ho'okena, Choice of the Heart, Ho'omau HI 1002.

Text below: As given on the liner notes of Nā Mele 'Ohana. Translation: Robert Lokomaikaʻiokalani

Snakenberg and Kīhei de Silva.

Aia i Hilo One ka 'eha a ka mana'o

There in Hilo One is the ache of memory.
Sweet Emily is my beloved.

The mischievous one looks, fetching the liko
He is an 'i 'iwi-pōlena, a bird of the uplands.

"He is not what they say he is
Here with me is Henry the 'i'iwi."

Tell the refrain, there in Hilo
Is sweet Emily, my beloved.

'O sweet Emalia, ‘o ko‘u aloha ia.

Nānā ke kolohe ki'ina i ka liko
'I'iwi-pōlena, ‘o ka manu o ka uka.

Kohu 'ole 'o ia ala i ka 'ī 'ana mai
Eia me a'u, ka 'iwi a'o Heneri.

Ha'ina ka puana, aia i Hilo One
'O sweet Emalia, o ko'u aloha ia.

Hilo, Hawai'i, is traditionally divided into three sections: Hilo Palikū (Hilo of the Upright Cliff) lies east of the Wailuku River at the Hāmākua end of Hilo town; Hilo One (Sand Hilo) identifies the ma kai section of Hilo bordered by the wide, black sand beach that once ran the length of Hilo Bay; and Hilo Hanakahi (Hilo of the Chief Hanakahi) refers to the inland section of Hilo near Keaukaha.[1]

According to Jean Sullivan's liner notes for Vickie Ii Rodrigues' Nā Mele 'Ohana: "'Hilo One,' the story of the lovers Emily and Henry, is of unknown origin. It's been sung by the trio of sisters for many years, and is a favorite of theirs." Manu Boyd's introduction to Ho'okena's Choice of the Heart recording of the same song identifies Henry as the love-haunted composer "who remarks that a particular statement of Emalia's is silly." I find the song to be considerably more difficult than these liner notes indicate. The diacritical ambiguities of nānā (look) and nāna (it is he/she; for him/her) in the second verse; the apparent change of speakers and the additional ambiguities of 'iwi (the bird), iwi (deep attachment), and a'o (of; subject marker) in the third verse, and the gender uncertainties of bird, bud, and 'o ia ala (that one over there) in verses two and three make it difficult to identify the characters, voices, and context of the mele.

Several years ago, with the assistance of Lokomaika'i Snakenberg, we arrived at the following interpretation: "Hilo One" describes a lovers' triangle involving 1) Emalia, 2) the jilted songwriter, and 3) lucky Henry. The song's first and last verses describe Emalia from the unhappy composer's point of view: he aches when he thinks of his sweet, beloved Emalia. Verse two provides the reason for his heartache: "an unprincipled, flower-flitting 'i‘iwi has taken Emalia from me." In this context, the third verse makes no sense if spoken by our anguished, heterosexual composer ("He is not what they say he is; Henry-the-'iwi is here with me"); it is Emalia that he loves, not Henry his rival. The verse does make sense in Emalia's mouth; she responds to her former lover's accusation by defending the loyalty of Henry, her new beau. "Henry," she argues, "is not the flirt that they say he is; right here with me is 1) ka ʻiwi ʻo Heneri (the bird named Henry) and 2) ka iwi o Heneri (the deep affection of Henry). In our view, then, the song has three characters: the sweet but gullible Emalia, the honest but jilted composer, and the attractive but indiscriminate Henry. The composer speaks his mind in verses one, two, and four. He quotes Emalia's defense of Henry in verse three; her gullibility is the cause of his heartache.

Although Kimo Alama-Keaulana's Puke Mele explanation of "Hilo One” runs contrary to our own personal preference for an innocent Emalia, he does provide a second, equally valid point of view. He sees Emalia as the song's unprincipled flirt (ke kolohe) whose interest in other young men (liko) leaves the 'i'iwi-pōlena composer – "a man who is a better suited companion" – out in the cold. In Alama-Keaulana's eyes, this ideal-but-lovelorn composer is Henry; the other suitors are unnamed. Poor Henry finds no truth in flirtatious Emalia's assurances that she holds in her heart an iwi, "a profound love of Henry”; Emalia's promiscuity is the cause of his heartache.[2]

"Hilo One" illustrates the tendency of many older compositions to lose specific meaning over time: contexts grow cloudy; language becomes enigmatic when words are misheard, misunderstood, or incorrectly transcribed; references and allusions are lost; authors and principals are forgotten. Conversely, these compositions tend to gain additional, ambiguous meanings over time: as text is altered and lost, as it drifts free of specific referents, then whole vistas of potential (and potentially inaccurate) interpretation are opened to successive generations of performers and audiences. The specifics of "Hilo One" are not quite lost to us, but they are certainly open to question. The maxim "'A'ole pau ka 'ike i ka hālau ho'okahi" (Not all knowledge is exhausted by a single school) seems particularly relevant here: when we can no longer confirm the authenticity of a particular 'ike, then we must honor those who conscientiously arrive at 'ike of their own.



1. Mary Kawena Pūkui, Place Names of Hawaiʻi, 46; John Clark, Beaches of the Big Island, 14-18.

2. Kimo Alama-Keaulana, Puke Mele, I:36-37. Alama-Keaulana has since provided me with the text and translation of "Ho'oheno no Pu'uhale,” an older mele whose “lyrics were later revised into what we now know as ‘Hilo One’” [personal communication, May 24, 1999]. This “parent” composition places Emalia in Pu’uhale, not Hilo; it offers two additional verses of heartache; and it introduces three enigmatic proper nouns – Mauna Tamara, Rosalia, and the previously-mentioned Pu'uhale – whose identities/meanings/locations serve to further confound, rather than illuminate, my already tentative understanding of the mele.

© Kīhei de Silva, 1997. All rights reserved.
This essay was first published in
He Aloha Moku o Keawe: A Collection of Songs for Hawai‘i, Island of Keawe, (Honolulu: Lelepali Productions, 1997) 4-5. It is offered here in slightly revised and updated form.