Ke ‘Ala Ka‘u i Honi

An Essay by Kīhei de Silva                                                        << HMI MM 11 preview

Haku Mele:  The song is commonly attributed to Mrs. Keala Carter (lyrics) and her son Tom Carter, Jr. (music), but four longer versions (two with music) appear in the Lili‘uokalani and Kapi‘olani-Kalaniana‘ole mele books. The two chant versions begin with “Auhea wale ana oe / Pua nani o Hawaii” and are credited to Kekapa Low and Kekapa Loa – probably the same person. The two hīmeni versions use “Auhea wale ana oe…” as their hui (chorus) but retain the rest of the mele in chant-version order.

Date:  A note attached to the Kekapa Low version of the song identifies the place and date of this (presumably) original composition as “Manaaiole, June 1868.” Manaaiole is in Nu‘uanu. This text predates Mrs. Carter‘s birth (1881) by thirteen years.

Sources:  1) Kekapa Low, “Pua Nani o Hawaii,” Mele book, Liliuokalani Collection, HI.M.7:32-34, Bishop Museum Archives.  2) Kekapa Loa, “Pua Nani o Hawaii,” Mele book, Liliuokalani Collection, HI.M.5:41-42, Bishop Museum Archives.  3) “Pua Nani o Hawaii,” Mele book, Liliuokalani Collection, fHI.M.28:24, Bishop Museum Archives.  4) “Pua Nani o Hawaii,” Mele book, Kapiolani-Kalanianaole Collection, HI.M.30:483, Bishop Museum Archives.  5) Keakaokalani and J.M. Bright (eds), “Pua Nani o Hawaii,” in Ka Buke O Na Leo Mele Hawaii No ka Pono a me ka Pomaikai O Na Home Hawaii…, Honolulu: Hale Pai Mahu P.C. Advertiser, 1888, p. 75.  6) “Pua Nani o Hawaii,” Mary Kawena Pukui Collection as shared with Kalihi-Pālama Culture and Arts, Inc. for the 1988 Queen Lili‘uokalani Keiki Hula Competition.[1] 7) Kimo Alama-Keaulana, “Ke ‘Ala Ka‘u i Honi,” Puke Mele Volume II; electronic copy at

Discography:  1) Linda Dela Cruz, Territorial Airwaves, Hana Ola 2008 (originally recorded on Bell Records 1945 when Dela Cruz was 16).  2) The Kahauanu Lake Trio, At the Halekulani Hotel, Hula 1966.  3) Ho‘okena, Thirst Quencher, Ho‘omau 1990.  4) Kawai Cockett, ‘O Ka‘ōhao Ku‘u ‘Āina Nani, Hoolokahi 1995.

Our Text:  As recorded and translated on the liner notes of Ho‘okena, Thirst Quencher, 1990.

Although “Ke ‘Ala Ka‘u i Honi” has long been thought of as a highly romantic, twentieth-century love song, it is, in fact, a much-abridged but still recognizable version of  “Pua Nani o Hawaii,” an honorific chant composed for the 29-year-old Mrs. Lydia Lili‘u Dominis by Kekapa Low (perhaps Martha Kekapaoka‘ahumanu Low, granddaughter of the founder of Parker Ranch) in June 1868. 

The original composition, itself part of a longer collection of mele entitled “He Inoa No Liliu,” apparently underwent a pair of modifications before it was first recorded by Linda Dela Cruz in 1945 and attributed there to Keala Carter (1881-1981) and her son Tom Jr. The first of these modifications involved the repackaging of the original chant into hīmeni format; what was a 28-line strophic composition became, by the 1888 publication of Ka Buke o na Leo Mele Hawaii, a musically notated, 6-verse song (4 lines per verse) with a 4-line chorus made up of the original pair of opening couplets. The second of these modifications involved the rendering of the 1888 hīmeni into a much shorter piece – one that was perhaps deemed more suitable for the music industry and the three-minute attention span of its 20th century audience. This modification occurred before the 1945 Dela Cruz recording and is presumably the work of the Carters; it eliminates the chorus and first two verses of the 1888 hīmeni (the first 12 lines of the 1868 original) and begins with the line that is now recognized as the song’s title: “Ke ‘ala ka‘u i honi.”


1888                                    Carter 1945

Ua lai no ke aloha

O ka lia ia a ke kino

Pau ole ko‘u manao

Ke ala o kanahele.


Auhea wale ana oe

Pua nani o Hawaii

Nani wale kuu ike ana

Na lehua o Hoolai

O ka noho a Robine

Iwa aulii o ke anu

Aole no e pakele

I ka liilii Iliahi

Ke ala ka‘u i honi                  Ke ‘ala ka'u i honi       

Auhea wale ana oe

Pua nani o Hawaii

Nani wale kuu ike ana

Na lehua o Hoolai.

Ua lai no ke aloha,

O ka lia ia a ke kino,

Pau ole koʻu manao

Ke ala o kanahele.

O ka noho a Robine,

Iwa aulii o ke anu,

Aole no e pakele,

I ka liilii Iliahi.

Ke ala ka‘u i honi

The 16-line Carter text (4 verses of 4 lines each), varies in only three instances from the corresponding verses of the 1888 hīmeni: “Hui mai nei ke aloha” replaces “Hu mai nei…” in v2 line 4 of the new text; “Ka liko o ka palai” replaces “ I ka lipo o ka palai” in v4 line 1 of the new text; and “Puana ku‘u lei i ke anu” replaces “Kuu lei iwa i ke anu” in v4 line 4 of the new text. 

Although it is not unusual for lengthy 19th-century chants to evolve into shorter 20th-century songs – “No ke Ano Ahiahi,” “‘Alekoki,” and “Iā ‘Oe e ka Lā” come immediately to mind – “Ke ‘Ala Ka‘u i Honi” provides a rare example of an edit that eliminates the opening verse (and with it, the title) of the original piece and begins, 12 excised lines later, in medias res. In the middle of things.

Lost in transition is the honorific foundation of the 1868 and 1888 texts. Hawaiian poetry, like Hawaiian sentences, regularly puts the most important thing in front. The important thing in the original mele is the protocol of request (“‘Auhea wale ana ‘oe”), address “(Pua Nani o Hawai‘i”), and admiration (“Nani wale ku‘u ‘ike ‘ana i nā lehua o Ho‘ola‘i”): Please listen to me / O Beautiful Flower of Hawai‘i, / Your appeal, in my eyes, / Is like that of the lehua blossoms of Tranquility.” This formal, carefully constructed opening sets up certain pai ali‘i expectations for the verses that follow: our ears are prepared for a mele that expresses respect and deep affection for someone of high rank and luxuriant beauty. For someone who embodies her people’s hope for a thriving, prolific lāhui. For Lili‘u, Ka Pua Nani o Hawai‘i.

In this mele pai ali‘i context, the seemingly romantic diction of the original mele’s fifth through twelfth lines (la‘i ke aloha, li‘a a ke kino, mana‘o pau ‘ole, and pakele ‘ole) are more appropriately viewed as expressions of veneration not concupiscence. These lines dress Lili‘u in metaphors of flower, forest, fern, and sandalwood. In an age of decimation and decline, hers is an irresistible ‘ala, an essence that soothes, excites, compels, and captivates.

These descriptions prepare us for the second ‘ala of the original piece, “Ke ‘ala ka‘u i honi / Pōhai nā mokupuni,” and for the extended sequence of fragrance-flower combinations that follows (mokihana, palai, and hala). All are metaphors of Lili‘u’s all-encompassing appeal; all are woven into a word-lei of beauty and promise. This lei is offered in tribute, at mele’s end, to the royal one of the cool heights of Lanihuli. And, as the name Lanihuli implies, she responds to the initial “‘auhea” and turns to receive our ho‘okupu of love, loyalty, and hope.

The truncated, Carter version of the mele removes the pai ali‘i foundation of the original and leaves us with a considerably more ambiguous text – one whose lush metaphors of fragrance and immersion encourage us to interpret “Ke ‘Ala Ka‘u i Honi” as a courtly mele ho‘oipoipo on the order of  “Pua Lilia” and “Ko Hanu Ka‘u e Li‘a Nei.” The long-term consequences of this revision have been as ambiguous as the revised text itself. On the one hand, we have a beautiful mele that has survived the centuries and that manages, still, to tug at our ears and hearts. On the other hand, we have a misrepresentation – a mele whose original and current sentiments are out of sync.

We have lost, in transition, the beloved ali‘i whose ‘ala was capable of uniting our islands. What, in 1868, was an expression of sweet speculation must have become, by 1888, an almost desperate plea for her ascension. How sad that Lili‘u would drop completely out of the early 20th-century rendition of her mele and that so many would continue to perform that mele today as a romantic love song for an unidentified woman.  

Our purpose, in the wahine ‘auana division of this year’s competition is to offer for reconsideration a pair of fragrant-flower mele whose apparently romantic sentiments serve to conceal their original, honorific intent. Our primary focus is on Manu Boyd’s “Ka Hanu Pua Mokihana,” a mele in which Robert Cazimero and Maiki Aiu Lake are the carefully hidden source of the poet’s admiration. But we have chosen to frame Manu’s updated piece with the opening and closing verses of “Ke ‘Ala Ka‘u i Honi” and to introduce the entire performance with the opening, ‘auhea lines of “Pua Nani o Hawai‘i.” We hope, in this way, to honor the subtle, multi-layered nature of the best Hawaiian compositions where the kaona of romance is often the veil for an even deeper devotion that spans the islands and its generations. Devotion to a teacher’s teacher and her legacy. Devotion to a queen and her never-to-be-forgotten promise.

Ke ‘Ala Ka‘u i Honi

The fragrance that I breathe

Surrounds the islands

And arrives with love

There lies my admiration.

The bloom of the mokihana

Permeates sweetly

I’ll forever enjoy its scent

Love has come to me

The stream of Ho‘ohila

Is well-known

The birds sip from it

Adorned is the upland region

The young shoots of palai fern

Entwined together with hala

I sing of my lei in the coolness

As I turn to face Lanihuli.

Ke ‘ala ka‘u i honi

Pōhai nā mokupuni

Hiki pū me ke aloha

I laila ko‘u mahalo

Ka pua o ka mokihana

Onaona māpuna hanu

A‘u i honi ho‘omau

Hui mai nei ke aloha

Kahi wai o Ho‘ohila

Kēlā wai kaulana

A ka manu e inu ai

Wehiwehi wale ia uka

Ka liko o ka palai

I wili pū ‘ia me ka hala

Puana ku‘u lei i ke anu

Huli e ke alo i Lanihuli



  1. 1. This undated transcript is 16 lines long with no versification. It begins with “‘Auhea,” skips verses two and three of the 1888 hīmeni, features recombined and elided lines of the remaining hīmeni verses, and concludes with: “No ku‘u pua laha ‘ole / Ke aloha mau loa / Ha‘ina mai ka puana / No Lili‘u nō he inoa."

  2. 2.Mele pai ali‘i: mele whose purpose is to praise and support a beloved chief.

© Kīhei de Silva 2011.  All rights reserved.
This essay was first published in Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilimaʻs 2011 Merrie Monarch Fact Sheet. 

It is offered here in slightly revised and updated form.