Significance of Oli (Chants) in Hawaiian Society
Since the beginning of time, every culture has developed means of passing on important information to its people. For Hawaiians, there was no written language per se until the 1820s. The missionaries introduced the alphabet which made it possible to represent Hawaiian language in the written form. Until then, all information was passed orally through the use of songs, chants, and poems.
Hawaiians devised various methods of recording information for the purpose of passing it on from one generation to the next. The oli was one such method. Elaborate chants were composed to record important information, e.g. births, deaths, triumphs, losses, good times and bad.
In most ancient cultures, composing of poetry was confined to the privileged classes. What makes Hawai‘i unique is that poetry was composed by people of all walks of life, from the royal court chanters down to the common man.
Within the overall category of oli there are 1) genealogies, 2) tales of powerful chiefs, 3) stories of the beauty of various lands, and 4) expressions of love to woo a potential lover.
All poetry contain layers of "hidden meanings," sometimes understandable only to those who are sensitized to different levels of subtleties. Hawaiian chants are no exception. A skilled chanter would oftentimes weave kaona or double-meaning creating three (3), four (4), or five (5) different levels of possible translation. So while some may hear the mele and think it means one thing, others more familiar with the context would understand a very different interpretation. It is often said that it is nearly impossible to fully understand the meaning of a chant because of this use of kaona. Only the intended recipient of the composition would be able to grasp its true meaning. This practice took on a deeper cultural meaning after the arrival of the missionaries.
The strict religious beliefs of the American missionaries considered things like oli and hula to be akin to demonic practice. Unwilling to see that oli and hula was a means of preserving the rich fabric of cultural knowledge, the missionaries shunned it and attempted to put an end to the practice of oli and hula. However, through the use of kaona, Hawaiians were able to compose mele that would sound plain and innocent on the surface, but carried a much deeper meaning that only fellow Hawaiians would be able to understand. It was a means of communicating our most heart-felt emotions and thoughts.
We are fortunate that our kūpuna had the foresight to preserve and perpetuate those traditions through times of great adversity so that we would be able to understand the world through their eyes. Although there aren't many master chanters alive today, the tradition lives on through the resurgence of hālau hula or hula schools and the intimate study of Hawaiian language being done by Hawaiian scholars today.
The beauty of the world of oli is that it is a very individualized effort. Each chanter has his or her own different voice quality and technique. Even the way a chant is chanted can differ depending on each individual’s past training and genealogy in chanting. It is said that chanting is a very "lonely" art. It is usually done as a solo performance by a chanter without any kōkua (help) from others. As such, the performance of an oli may sometimes be done differently by the chanter at each occasion.
Jonah La‘akapu Lenchanko