Kaulana nā Kona

An Essay by Kīhei de Silva                                                                        << HMI MM preview 2014

Haku mele:  Mrs. Alice Aiu Kū, b. 2-17-1909, d. 1-28-1974.1

Date:  Probably in the 1930s or ‘40s. Alama-Keaulana says: “some three generations or so ago.”

Ka‘iliwai says: “Written in the 1930s.”

Sources: 1) “Kaulana Nā Kona,” Kimo Alama Keaulana Collection, MS Grp 329, 3.87, Bishop             Museum Archives.  2) Robert Keawe Lopes, personal communication, 9-8-2013.  3) Liner notes for “Kaulana nā Kona,” Kamakele “Bulla” Ka‘iliwai, Nā Hulukūpuna, Ululoa Productions.

Discography: 1) “Kaulana Na Kona,” Maile Ka and the Kona Serenaders, 49th State (45 rpm), 45138 (HRC 138-A); side B features Hana’s Heavenly Serenaders with “In Spite of it All.”  2) “Kaulana Na Kona,” Ka Piko o ka Lei Lehua o Keawe, O Ka Hua na ka ‘Uhane, Haku Mele Records, 03.  3) “Kaulana Nā Kona,” Lei Hulu, Songs for the Hula, Pua Records, 1006.  4) “Kaulana Nā Kona,” Kamakele “Bulla” Ka‘iliwai, Nā Hulukūpuna, Ululoa Productions.

Our Text: Kimo Alama-Keaulana Collection, Bishop Museum Archives. Translation: Kīhei de Silva.

At some point in the ten-year reign of 49th State Records, George Ching invited Maile Kā and the Kona Serenaders into his Mānoa living room and had them sing Alice Kū’s “Kaulana nā Kona” into his portable disc-cutter. Despite the low-brow nature of Ching’s at-home studio and the brief, 1948-’58 life of his record company, “so great was his output that, 20 years after it ceased production, more than 40 repackaged albums and 250 re-pressed 45 rpm singles still were commercially available.”2 

Many of Ching’s recordings, especially those featuring Genoa Keawe and Ching’s musical director Johnny Almeida, became classics that have never left our ears, but others like the quickly forgotten “Kaulana nā Kona” were relegated to a limbo described by George Kanahele as reserved for those artists who were “unprepared, only moderately talented, rarely paid…[and] virtually anonymous.”3

Lucky for us that Kanahele was not there to deliver his critique and shoo Aunty Maile from Ching’s doorstep. Were it not for Ching and – almost a half-century later – a handful of stubborn mele and record collectors (among them Kimo Alama Keaulana, Keawe Lopes, Harry B. Soria, Jr.) this beautifully composed and delivered legacy of the ladies Kū and Kā would have faded into something even less than the proverbial echo of a song. “Kaulana nā Kona” is the only mele we know of that was written by Alice Kū of Kona ‘Akau; it is the only mele we know of that was recorded by the Kā family (Maile and her Serenaders) of Kainaliu.4 Although it still hovers, today, on the brink of oblivion, it is, in every sense, a treasure.

Mrs. Alice Aiu Kū was a pōki‘i of the brilliant haku mele of early 20th century Kona: Lot Kauwe, Henry Waia‘u, and Lydia Kekuewa. She did not enjoy the same acclaim, nor did she have Kauwe’s extraordinary riddle-making vocabulary and flair for narrative (“uluhua wau iā ‘oe / kahi moa kani ahiahi), or Waia‘u’s rapid-fire, tongue-tripping, image-heaping skills (“Me Kona kai ‘ōpua / Ke kai mā‘oki‘oki / Ke kai malino a‘o Kona”), or Kekuewa’s graceful ease of expression (“No ke ake nō e ‘ike /I ka nani o ia wahi”), but she did share equally with them in the sine qua non of Kona’s best poetry: ke aloha ‘āina. The old land lives in her mele and she, in that land.

“Kū Hualālai kau mai iluna.” Hualālai rises, stands on high, and keeps watch over the Konas to which Mrs. Kū belongs and from which she inseparable. Kū-Hualālai is bathed in the fragrance of wind-wafted maile, in sweet, unforgettable connections to the land and its generations. Kū-Hualālai turns her gaze to the whispering sea of Kawaihae in the north, and then her eyes travel lovingly down the Kona coastline, lingering in succession on the famous landings of days past: on Kailua and Keauhou of Kona ‘Akau; on Nāpo‘opo‘o, Ho‘okena, and Ho‘ōpūloa of Kona Hema. The thoughts of Kū-Hualālai for these lands are, therefore, buoyant, uplifted, and hopeful. Her thoughts rest peacefully on (and because of) the calm, timeless sea of Kona.  

This mele is not composed from a western perspective; land and (wo)man are not separate. Mrs. Kū and her mountain are indistinguishable. Both bask in maile, both gaze upon land and people that are equally loved and undifferentiated. Nor does “Kaulana nā Kona” belong to the genre of mele in which western objects (trains, ships, carriages, mirrors, towers, hotels) are assimilated into the Hawaiian perspective. There is nothing “built” in this song, nothing imported. The mele de-constructs the landscape, removes the clutter and commodity. Places are given their proper names and are thereby cleansed and reclaimed. Indeed, “Kaulana nā Kona” is written as if all of Kona still belonged to its own people. This is an alternate world, but it is one that many of us deem more real, more true, than the one in which we park, visit, and shake our heads.

We know this kind of mele; it arises from the same sentiments as those that generated our own “Hanohano Wailea.” It names and it erases. It quietly asks for a shared conspiracy between songwriter, performer, and audience. It asks us to hold true to a vision of what is really there; it inspires us to not give up.

Kaulana nā Kona

Kaulana nā Kona i ke kuahiwi

Kū Hualālai kau mai i luna.

No luna ke ‘ala a‘o ka maile

Lau li‘ili‘i e moani nei.

Huli aku Hualālai iā Kawaihae

I ke kai hāwanawana.

Nānā iā Kailua, Keauhou, Nāpo‘opo‘o

Ho‘okena, Ho‘ōpūloa, nā awa kaulana.

Lana a‘e ka mana‘o o ia Kona

I ke kai mā‘oki‘oki.

Ha‘ina mai ka puana i ke kuahiwi

Kū Hualālai i kai malino a‘o Kona.

Famous are the Kona districts for the mountain

For Hualālai standing high above.

From above comes the fragrance of maile

Tiny-leafed maile carried on the wind.

Hualalai turns to Kawaihae

To the whispering sea.

It looks upon Kailua, Keauhou, Nāpo‘opo‘o,

Ho‘okena, and Ho‘ōpūloa, those famous ports.

Buoyant are the thoughts of this Kona

On the streaked sea.

Tell the summary of the mountain

Hualālai rising high over the calms sea of Kona.


1 Kimo Alama-Keaulana credits the song to Mrs. Alice Kū, as does the label of the 49th State recording of the song. Kamakele Ka‘iliwai assigns the words to Alice Kū but credits the song’s music to both Alice Kū and Kini Kā. Burial records for St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Honalo, North Kona, provide the birth and death dates given here. Alice’s husband Frank Gabriel Kū (1-29-1921 to 8-19-1978) is also buried at St. Paul’s. The 1940 census identifies Alice Aiu and Frank Kū as living in Aliceʻs uncle Charles Aiu’s residence in North Kona (no specific location is given); Frank Jr. is listed as their infant son. The online genealogy site hawaiianroots.yukn.com gives Frank’s final residence as Kealakekua, Hawai‘i and the Kū children as Frank Jr., Eli, Edward, Melvin, Harvey, and Shirley (Simiona).

2 George Kanahele, Hawaiian Music and Musicians, (1979), p. 329.

3 Ibid.

4 Māpuana asked Kona old-timer Aunty Elizabeth Malu‘ihi Ako Lee if she recognized the song’s title and composer, but she didn’t. When Māpu played the 49th State recording for Aunty and asked her to read the words as it played, she still didn’t know it, but she did comment on how beautiful it was, and she identified the singers as the Kā family from Kainaliu. Aunty knew them well because they – The Kona Serenaders – used to sing for her father at election rallies when he was a candidate for office. (Malu‘ihi Lee to Māpuana de Silva, personal communication, January 27, 2014). An obituary for Mr. Charles Kā in Ke Alakai o Hawaii (“He Leka,” 9-20-1934) was signed by members the Kā family including Miss. Hola Kā, Mr. and Mrs. Kini Kā, Mrs. Keaka Aiu, and Mrs. Charles K. Aiu. Keaka and Charles Aiu were Alice Aiu Ku’s grandmother and uncle. This strongly suggests that Alice and Maile were not just musical associates; they must have belonged to the same extended family.

© Kīhei de Silva, 2014.  All rights reserved.
This essay was first published in Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilimaʻs 2014 Merrie Monarch Fact Sheet. 

It is offered here in slightly revised form.