With no written language prior to Western contact in the 1800s, ancient Hawaiian language was spoken and signed. Hula was one of the earliest forms of sign language, and chanting (later, singing) and dancing were used to impart history, traditions and stories through the generations. The dance originated from traditional sacred rituals and is the essence of life itself. When one dances hula, they are linked with the universe, making them one with all creation.
There are two forms of hula, the hula kahiko, or the ancient form, and the hula ‘auana, the modern form.
Hula kahiko is performed in traditional costumes and accompanied by mele (chanting) and traditional percussion instruments such as the pahu (shark-skin drum) and the ipu heke (drums made from one or two hollowed-out gourds). There is a lead chanter—whose voice is crucial to setting the tone and the emotion of the dance—and sometimes a call-and-response. The earliest forms were usually performed as part of worship in the heiau (temple), under the direction of a kahuna (priest). These were done in conjunction with rituals and ceremonies, paying homage to specific temples or specific deities. Others also honoured the chiefs and ali’i (nobility/royalty), whom the Hawaiians believed to have descended from the gods.
In this year’s edition of A Tapestry of Sacred Music, experience hula kahiko performed by members of the Halau Nohona Hawai'i, a school for Hawaiian culture founded in 2014, hailing from USA. Together with the ceremonial dances, the group will also present mele (chants) such as the Hānau Ke Ali’i and Hole Waimea, which honours King Kamehameha The Great, as well as He Ma’i Nō Iolani and Ko Ma’i Ulu Hua, which are chants for fertility and prosperity.
History of the hula
Comprising eight islands across the volcanic belt in the Pacific Ocean, and active volcanoes that erupt ever so often, it is no wonder that gods and goddesses of nature are highly revered in Hawaiian mythology. The indigenous religion, or Hawaiian spirituality, is both polytheistic and animistic; followers believe in the many deities and spirits that are found in non-human beings such as animals, fire, sky, water etc.
Hula was an early form of sign language that originated from sacred rituals and the essence of life itself, used to impart history, traditions and stories down the generations. In the 1820s, Christian missionaries started arriving and they saw the Hawaiians as savages who would burn in hell if denied their moral and religious guidance. Hula was seen as a lewd, lascivious and indecent practice, and was banned. The native Hawaiians were not willing to lose a part of their culture and heritage, and kept up the practice in secret. Fortunately, the ban was lifted by King Kalākaua at his coronation in 1883.
Today, King Kalākaua's legacy lives on through the Merrie Monarch Festival, a large-scale hula competition held annually since 1964 and named in his honour. Hula halaus (schools) have also sprung up all over the world, educating both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians about the music, dances, and stories that gave meaning to ancient Hawaiian culture.