‘I‘iwi a‘o Hilo

Kīhei de Silva


Haku mele: Alice Ku‘uleialohapoina‘ole Namakelua (1892-1987).
Sources: 1) Kawai Cockett, who learned it from Aunty Alice Namakelua. 2) Jean Kini Sullivan, on the liner notes of Kawai Cockett's Beautiful Kaua‘i, Hula Records HS-541.
Discography:  Kawai Cockett, Beautiful Kaua‘i, Hula Records HS-541
Text below: As given and translated on the liner notes to Beautiful Kaua'i. Kini Sullivan indicates that there are two additional verses to the song; these I have yet to locate.*


Ha'aheo Hawai'i moku o Keawe
'Ohu'ohu i ka pua a'o ka lehua
Ka lehua 'ula me ka lehua kea
Pua ho'ohihi a nā manu.

'I'iwi e ka manu kau i ka 'iu
Ho'ola'i i ka lau lā'au
'O ka 'ūlili a ka leo o ke kāhuli
Honehone i ke ahiahi.

Cherished with pride is Hawai'i, island of Keawe
Adorned with lehua flowers
With red lehua and white lehua
Flowers fancied by the birds

The 'i'iwi is the bird that perches high
Poised in the trees leaves
The whistling voice of the tree shell (answers)
Sweet and soft in the evening.









Jack Jeffrey Photography
From The Newspaper Kuokoa
May 23, 1863

The 'i'iwimakapōlena is like the mamo, the 'ō'ō, and the 'ō'ū in that its beak is a beautiful yellow, long, and finely curved and that its head is compact and nicely tapered. The 'i'iwi’s body feathers are a ruddy, bright red; its wing feathers are dark black, as are its tail feathers; its legs are a fiery yellow, as are its feet all the way to the claws; its eyes are intensely yellow. Like the mamo, the 'i'iwi feeds on the nectar of the lehua as well as on a variety of other items.

The 'i'iwi is a merry-voiced bird; when it is ready to break into song, its heads goes up, its neck puffs out, and its tail feathers rise and stand straight up – then it sings. It sounds like this: “ko-koki” and “ko” again.

The 'i'iwi is a very alert bird; its liveliness and constant attention to searching far and wide for food is extraordinary; it does so with great interest and unhesitating speed. Because of its industry and devotion, it seems to alight here, there, and everywhere in defiance of the lazy, the immovably comfortable, the apathetic, and the sleeping.

[This is a somewhat liberal translation of the opening paragraphs of a longer, Hawaiian-only article that appeared in the already cited 1863 edition of Kuokoa. These three Hawaiian paragraphs are reproduced on the “Aia i Hilo One” page of the first volume of our Kaleinamanu, along with a link to the full article.]


Listen to the first verse of Kawai Cockett’s “'I'iwi a'o Hilo” from the CD Beautiful Kaua'i.

Visit the Hula Records website for more information about this recording. >>

The 'i'iwi is a spectacular, orange-red bird with black wings and a long, curved, salmon colored bill. It was once common in the forests of all the islands but is now limited, for the most part, to the 4,000-7,000 ft. elevations of the forests of Hawai'i, Maui, and Kaua'i. The red feathers of the 'i'iwi were a favorite of Hawaiian featherworkers who used them extensively in capes and helmets. The 'i'iwi was also a favorite bird of Hawaiian composers of the last century who saw them as symbolic of attractive, eager, and sometimes indiscriminate human lovers. As Andrew Berger reports in Hawaiian Birdlife, 154, this symbolism might have been inspired by the bird's feeding antics ("…visitations to the flowers seem to exhilarate the birds and they become visibly excited as they fly about.."), its love for 'ōhi'a lehua ("…many thousands…could be seen in a very small area when the great Ohia trees were covered with flowers…"), and its friendliness ("…it is very tame; all its movements can be examined…at a distance of two or three paces…" The 'i'iwi's place in Hawaiian kaona (hidden meaning), however, was not limited to that of eye-stopping flirt. Because the bird was also a noted singer whose cheerful voice and enthusiastic, head-up, chest-out posture (Kepelino, in Listen to the Forest, 23) endeared it to the Hawaiian listener, the nickname 'i'iwi was sometimes given to much-loved and appreciated Hawaiian vocalists.

Alice Namakelua composed "'I'iwi a'o Hilo" on May 5, 1950, for the Big Island float of that year's Kamehameha Day Parade. By then, Aunty Alice had completed 15 of her 24 years of employment at the City and County of Honolulu's Department of Parks and Recreation (George Kanahele, Hawaiian Music and Musicians, 294). Over the course of a career that began as a teacher of Hawaiian crafts and ended with her retirement in 1958 as a playground director, Aunty Alice found herself in charge of ten Maui and ten Hawai'i Island floats in a succession of Parks sponsored Kamehameha Day Parades (Don McDiarmid Jr., liner notes for Auntie Alice Ku'uleialohapoina'ole Namakelua, Hula Records, HS-552). "'I'iwi a'o Hilo" is one of at least four mele that she composed for those occasions; her parade-mele include: "Kuahiwi Nani" (also known as "Haleakalā Hula") for the 1941 Maui float, "'I'iwi a'o Hilo" for the 1950 Hawai'i float, "Aia i Hilo E," for the 1956 Hawai'i float, and "Hanohano nō 'o Hawai'i" for the 1958 Hawai'i float. When asked how these songs were received by parade participants and spectators, Aunty Alice is said to have responded with characteristic wit; "Now they all want me to ride float so I will make a new song for it" (Sullivan, Auntie Alice…, Hula Records HS-552)."

According to Jean Sullivan (liner notes to Beautiful Kaua'i), Aunty Alice wrote "'I'iwi a'o Hilo" as a tribute to the sands of her birth; I wonder, then, why the song was not entitled "'I'iwi a'o Honoka'a" since Honoka'a, Hawai'i – not Hilo, Hawai'i – was the district in which Aunty Alice was born and raised. I suspect that the answer lies in the song's biographical nature: Aunty Alice may well be the song's 'i'iwi, and the bird's Hilo home may well be a reference to her second marriage.

Ku'uleialohapoina'ole Kanakaoluna (a teacher who could not pronounce the child's name elected to call her Alice) was born in Honoka'a in 1892 and was raised in a home filled with Hawaiian music and dance; she started learning to sing at age five, began studying slack key guitar at eight, took up the steel guitar shortly afterwards, and was "constantly tutored by her adoptive father (the brother of her mother) in Hawaiian language and singing" (Kanahele, 263-264). She moved to Honolulu in 1901, and her skills at food preparation, massage, and singing soon made her a favorite of the elderly Queen Lili'uokalani who "would sit on a favorite chair while I sat on the floor and lomilomi …her feet and sing beautiful songs like 'Hi'ilawe,' 'Waipi'o,' and 'Ka Makani Ka'ili Aloha'…" (Kanahele, 264). At 16, Alice was "the most beautiful girl" her cousin Mary Kawena Pūku'i "had ever seen" (McDiarmid); her looks probably helped to attract her first husband Kaluhiokalani, who she married at that tender age, but looks may also have forced her to put aside her love for music and dance. From their marriage in 1908 to Kaluhiokalani's death at the close of World War I, Alice complied with her husband's request to give up both: no more singing, no more hula, just to make him happy (McDiarmid).

1919 found Alice single and full of music (it was then that she composed her first songs, "That's the Wish I Wish to You," and "You are my Rose Bud;” more than 180 Hawaiian language compositions would eventually follow this haole pair). In 1920, she married again, this time to Solomon Namakelua, and moved to Waiākea-Waena, Hilo, where they lived for the next seven years. Aunty Alice's marriage to Namakelua and their residence in Hilo seems to mark her happy return to the lifestyle in which she was raised. Although her biographers are sketchy at this point, Alice's new husband apparently placed no restrictions on her musical interests, and she resumed her practice of entertaining "wherever and whenever asked" (McDiarmid).

At some fairly early point in her singing career, I don't know when, Alice's sweet voice earned her the nickname 'I'iwi a'o Hilo (Kanahele, 263). It is reasonable to assume that she acquired the name and songbird reputation as a result of her seven year Hilo residence with Namakelua. It is also reasonable to assume that there was nothing accidental about Aunty Alice's use of her own nickname as the title of "'I'iwi a'o Hilo." I suggest, then, that her Big Island mele was more than an upbeat song for the Kamehameha Day Parade. The composition seems to have been inspired by memories of her second marriage, her Hilo residence, and her rededication, there, to things Hawaiian. It was in Hilo that Aunty Alice found the freedom to sing again; she may well be the beautiful, irrepressible songbird of "'I'iwi a'o Hilo;" the singing tree snail that answers her may well be her second husband; and the soft, evening-time exchange of 'i'iwi and kāhuli may well reflect the harmony of their marriage.

Alice and Solomon Namakelua moved to Honolulu in 1927. He died in 1929, leaving her to care for two children. For five years, she supported her family by performing "casuals and odd jobs" (Kanahele), and in 1935 she joined the Honolulu Parks Department. Fifteen years later, she composed a parade-float tribute to a bird of the island of her birth; my guess, however, is that the kaona of "I'iwi a'o Hilo" lies less with actual Big Island birds than with Aunty Alice herself, and less with her birth in Honoka'a than with her rebirth in Hilo.



The essay above was written by Kïhei de Silva and published in his book He Aloha Moku o Keawe: A Collection of Songs for Hawai'i, Island of Keawe, Honolulu, 1997, pps. 6-8. It is offered here, in slightly revised and updated form, with his express consent. He retains all rights to this essay; no part of it may be used or reproduced without his written permission.

* Kini Sullivan has recently – and very generously – shared these verses with me (personal communi-cation, Nov. 7, 1998). They shift in setting, in a manner reminiscent of Lili'uokalani's "Ninipo, Ho'onipo," from Hilo to Puna, and from flower infatuation to liquid immersion. Although the final two lines of both "new" verses reflect the Big-Island-float context of the song's composition (verse 2 praises Kamehameha Pai'ea; verse 3 boasts of Hawai'i's supremacy), the early, personal undercurrent of ebullience and love continues to run here unabated.

'Ike i ka wai welawela a'o Puna
Me ke kumu kukui a nā 'li'i
Auhea 'oe Hawai'i e ō mai
'Āina hānau o Pai'ea

Hōpoe ka wahine lewa i ke kai
Ho'oipo ana ho'i me Lohi'au
Luana 'ia ko'u mana'o
Hawai'i nō lā e ka 'oi

Know the hot springs of Puna
And the founding light of the chiefs
Please take heed, Hawai'i, respond
Land of Pai'ea’s birth

Hōpoe is the woman who sways in the sea
Romancing with Lohi'au
I am content with the thought
Hawai'i, indeed, is the best [Translation: KdS]