Ka Nani a‘o Hilo

An Essay by Kīhei de Silva

Haku mele:  Kinoiki Kekaulike II and Keahinuiokilauea (original chant); John Kameaaloha Almeida (revised and abridged text, music).

Sources:  1) Kuluwaimaka Collection, HI.M.51.1:52-54, Bishop Museum Archives. 2) Kalaniana'ole Collection, HI.M.30:298, Bishop Museum Archives.  3) Roberts Collection, MS SC 2.5:12b-16a, Bishop Museum Archives.  4) Mader Collection, (Fern and Silva), MS Grp 8,7.9, Bishop Museum Archives.

Select discography: 1) "Ka Nani a’o Hilo," John K. Almeida, 49th State Records 45212.  2) "Kāua i ka Nani a’o Hilo," George Nā’ope, Hawai'i's Golden Treasure, MDL Records 6405.  3) "Kāua i ka Nani a'o Hilo," Mango, Mango Season, Tropic Express TER 1001

Text below: Transcribed from Almeida's 49th State release. Translation: Kīhei de Silva.

Kāua i ka nani a‘o Hilo

Here we are in Hilo's splendor

In the midday rain of Hanakahi.

A "chill" has just come over me

And my hair is standing on end.

Perhaps you are reacting to the ‘i‘iwi

Chattering away in ‘Ōla‘a.

No, this flower is held in reserve here

Right here in my vase.

In that case, this is a net

No fish escape when it is drawn in.

Tell the summary of the song

In the midday rain of Hanakahi.

I ka ua lolokū a‘o Hanakahi.

‘Akahi ho‘i hou ku‘u manene

I ka me‘eu ho‘i a‘o ko‘u oho.

He ‘ūlāleo paha na ka ‘iwi

Ke wā mai lā i ‘Ōla’a.

Ua la‘a ia pua i ‘ane‘i

Eia lā i ko‘u kī‘aha.

He 'upena na'e mai kēia

‘A‘ohe i‘a koe ke hei mai

Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ka puana

I ka ua lolokū a‘o Hanakahi.

"Ka Nani a’o Hilo" is Johnny Almeida's re-interpretation of the considerably longer mele "Kāua i ka Nani o Hilo," a frequently appended and revised chant for Kalākaua that was probably first composed in the early 1880's by Princess Kekaulike Kinoiki II (the younger sister of Queen Kapi’olani) and Keahinuiokilauea (the first wife of Kuluwaimaka).[1]  Where the earlier composition consists of a spirited 36-line debate between two women over the various tools and techniques by which men are caught, Almeida's version allows us to eavesdrop on a flirtatious conversation between a man and woman who are caught for a time in Hilo's midday rain.

In the space of 12 lines (the original is three times that length), Almeida moves us from initial small talk to a quickly escalating, tongue-in-cheek courtship, and from there, to a mutually agreed upon midday tryst. The language of Almeida's song is ostensibly about goose bumps, a bird, a flower, a vase, and a fishnet; it is by these seemingly innocent references, however, that the man expresses his interest, that the lady tests his sincerity, and that the two agree upon a relationship.

Almeida's language is appropriately veiled, but his musical presentation is decidedly unambiguous. He clearly means for us to understand the song as a dialog between lovers-to-be: he sings the man's part, Julia Nui and her Kama’āinas take the woman's part, and all join in on the verses that set the scene and describe its outcome.

Verse 1: Almeida opens with a seemingly innocuous observation: "Here we are in beautiful Hilo, caught in a midday shower." Nui and the ladies respond by repeating his seemingly innocent patter.

Verse 2: Almeida sings alone. Our hero, perhaps less caught up in the splendor of Hilo than in the splendor of his new acquaintance, expresses tactful interest: "I just now feel an inner trembling, and it's giving me a tingling, creepy sensation all the way up my scalp." His language is poetic, couched in double meanings that convey intelligence, wit, and good manners. He could easily be referring to the effect of the rain, to a sudden chill that brings shivers and raises goose bumps. On the other hand, he could be referring to the first disorienting sensations of desire: he has never felt this way before, he is all a-tremble, his "hair" stands on end.

Verse 3. Nui and her chorus take this verse for themselves. Our heroine discerns the conversational drift and chooses to display her own skill at double-talk by purposely misinterpreting his initial advances. "Your creepy sensation is probably caused by the chattering of birds in distant ’Ōla’a." An ’ūlāleo is a spirit voice, an ’ula is a ringing in the ears that means "one is being talked of,"[2] and the chattering of birds is a frequently used metaphor of scandal.[3]  Consequently, the lady can be seen as both teasing her suitor ("It’s not love; it’s just vertigo") and subtly inquiring about his own commitments ("Should I be wary? Will this to lead to gossip and other unpleasantries?").

Verse 4. Almeida sings alone. Our hero, fully aware of the cautions and possibilities that have just been advanced, assures our heroine of his good intentions and unattached status. "This flower is reserved; it is kept here in my vase." He implies that he is not the subject of bird chatter, nor does he have a bird's interest in flitting from flower to flower. His flower has not been given before; it has been held in reserve for the occasion that now presents itself.

Verse 5. Nui and her chorus take this verse for themselves. The cards, so to speak, have been laid on the table. The lady approves of her companion and his suit. Their wordplay, their double entendre has been so enjoyable that she chooses to decorate her consent in a final metaphor: “He ’upena na’e mai kēia, ’a’ohe i’a koe ke hei mai” – if yours is a flower in a vase, then mine is a net from which no fish can escape."

Verse 6. Almeida, Nui, and the Kama’āinas sing this ha’ina verse together. The joining of male and female voices provides a musical commentary on the outcome of the courtship: the midday rain of Hanakahi has led our couple to a hana ho’okahi – to a single, enjoyable task. Almeida is too subtle to furnish further details; the man and woman have reached an agreement, and the rest is for us to imagine.


1. Kuluwaimaka’s short introduction to the mele is quite specific and authoritative: “Na ke kaikaina keia o ka Mo’i wahine o Kapiolani, oia ho’i o Kinoiki, o Kekaulike kekahi inoa. Oia ka makuahine o Kuhio and me Kawananakoa. Ka lilo ana a’e keia o Kinoiki i kiaaina no Hawai’i, a o Hilo kahi o noho ai. O wau [’o Kuluwaimaka] ka mea nana i kakau keia mele, a na ke ali’i a me ko’u wahine – o Keahi, no Hilo, na mea nana i haku.” (This is composed by the younger sister of Queen Kapi’olani, that is to say, Kinoiki: Kekakulike is another of her names. She is the mother of Kuhiō and Kawānanakoa. Kinoiki became governess of Hawai’i [island], and Hilo was her place of residence. I [Kuluwaimaka] am the one who transcribed this mele; the chiefess and my wife – Keahi of Hilo – were the ones who composed it.) The following excerpt from Kuluwaimakaʻs text demonstrates the enthusiasm, humor, and hyperbole of the original:

  1. He makau hala ole keia

    This is a fishhook that never fails
    It catches the large fish
    My bait has been swallowed
    By the big, lehua-eating moano
    It is held fast by an eight-ply line
    Held close here in a finely braided cord

    Ua lou ia e ka ia nui
    Ua moni ia ka’u mauna
    E ka moano nui ai ka lehua
    Ua paa i ka lina pawalu
    I maila i ke aho makalii

2. Pukui and Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary, 367.

  1. 3.Pukui, ’Ōlelo No’eau, #1304, #2921, #2350.

Kimo Alama Keaulana identifies the mele as having been composed “for King Kalākaua’s visit to the volcano on Hawai’i. Years ago, Uncle George Naope wanted a chant for the Merrie Monarch Hula Competition as the contest chant for the first time a contest chant was to be used. I gave him this chant. In the 5th verse, the 2nd line should be ‘’A’ohe i’a koe hei nei" (Personal communication, May 24, 1999). Since Kinoiki Kekaulike was governess of Hawai’i from 1880 until her death in 1884, I would suggest that she composed “Kāua i ka Nani o Hilo” in that four-year period.

© 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) 9-10. It is offered here in slightly revised and updated form.