How the Music of Hawaiʻi’s Last Ruler Guided the Island’s People Through Crisis | At the Smithsonian
Oahu, Hawai’i, 1877. Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands, prepared her party to leave for Honolulu after spending time at the country ranch of Col. James Harbottle Boyd. As she mounted her horse and looked back to ensure everyone was ready, she saw Boyd pull one of her friends into a tender embrace. Surrounded by the verdant flora of the island, the lovers passionately kissed farewell, then with longing separated.
Moved by this declaration of amour, the romantic Hawaiian monarch began humming as the group set off on their journey. Soon, the entire party was swept away by the haunting melody, singing the wordless tune along with her. When she returned home, Liliʻuokalani began to write the lyrics for her song:
One fond embrace,
A hoʻi aʻe au, (ere I depart)
until we meet again.
The song of the lover’s embrace, known as “Aloha ‘Oe,” was published in 1884, and became the best known of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s verses, but it’s just one of more than 200 works she composed during her lifetime. Born in 1838, Liliʻuokalani began her musical training at around age seven as part of her schooling. Taught by missionaries, she was an adept sight-singer who developed perfect pitch and was proficient in playing the guitar, piano, organ, autoharp and zither. Liliʻuokalani’s early years encompassed a unique time in the Hawaiian Islands that saw a cultural blending of indigenous Hawaiian traditions with that of Western cultures after the arrival of pineapple farmers and sugar plantation owners.
As a member of the Hawaiian aristocracy, Liliʻuokalani was exposed equally to both worlds. Her first language was Hawaiian, and she was well-versed in Hawaiian legend and poetry. However, the bulk of her musical training was in Western styles, like hymnody and waltzes, that would form the compositional backbone for the majority of her pieces.
Though she is remembered in the Western historical canon as a stateswoman, her musical legacy stands alongside her political career, and her melodies and poetry are widely celebrated in the Hawaiian Islands where she remains one of the most popular songwriters to this day.
“She was a leading composer in crafting a combination that resulted from all these different influences engaging in the islands,” says John Troutman, the American music curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where one of her records is among the collections. “Her melodies reflect influences from hymns and other Western musical ideas, but the storylines, the emphasis on place and the emphasis on the people of the islands are so grounded in native Hawaiian traditions. She was one of the most successful composers in demonstrating the potential of combining all these different musical elements together, so much so that her repertoire remains at the forefront of those performed by Hawaiian musicians today.”
Liliʻuokalani is best known for her love songs, like “Aloha ‘Oe,” but her less popular tunes are quite political. In 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by a group led by U.S. Government Minister John L. Stevens, and Queen Liliʻuokalani was put under house arrest at the ‘Iolani Palace as a result. During her time there, she composed many pieces mourning the treatment of her homeland and people.
One such song was “Mai Wakinekona a Iolani Hale.” Liliʻuokalani anonymously wrote the song’s lyrics and published them in a weekly Hawaiian language newspaper, subversively messaging how she came to be imprisoned. The following week, someone published a response in song lyrics, “We have heard you, oh heavenly one, our ruler, and we support you.” Liliʻuokalani followed with: “My love for you will never be broken. I will always be grateful for your support.” This anonymous correspondence went on for three months and was eventually set to music in 1895.
This piece was only recently discovered. Many of the Queen’s lesser-known compositions are now being newly appreciated as the Hawaiian language is making a comeback after years of oppression. Amy Stillman, who is a native Hawaiian and a professor in the departments of American culture and musicology at the University of Michigan, says her parents’ generation had the Hawaiian language “beat out of them” and that her generation was denied access to their ancestors’ language; Stillman didn’t learn Hawaiian until late in her undergraduate career. Once she had a firm grasp of the language, she says a completely different history began to emerge.
“The Hawaiian history we learned [in school] was that the overthrow was a good thing and annexation was a good thing,” Stillman says. “We read the work of historians, who wrote there was no opposition to the annexation. You will find no opposition to the annexation if you’re reading in English. The minute you go into Hawaiian language sources, it’s nothing but opposition. Because of our language loss, we were cut off from the sources.”
But now that the Hawaiian language is beginning to thrive again and historians are starting to see song lyrics as legitimate sources for understanding history, many of Liliʻuokalani’s forgotten songs are resurfacing. The Queen’s Songbook, published in 2014, is the first authoritative published compilation of Liliʻuokalani’s works, Stillman says, and provides insight not only into the history of the Hawaiian Islands but also the personality of the queen herself.
Though Liliʻuokalani was in a loveless marriage, she never lost her romantic zeal. “A great thing is love, When it comes to me here. It is like my diamond necklace, the adornment of my person,” she wrote in the song “Nohea I Muʻolaulani.” Her whimsy permeates a song she wrote while watching a rotating lawn sprinkler—“such a wondrous thing, which has quietly mesmerized my thoughts.”
Most of all, her songs speak to a strong sense of justice and her overarching desire for peace, as seen in “The Queen’s Prayer,” written during her imprisonment. “Although she protested the overthrow, she was adamantly insistent that her people would not engage in violence or bloodshed in opposition,” Stillman says. “In [The Queen’s Prayer], she’s [writing] about the wrongs that she and her people have suffered. But, remarkably, in the third verse she comes around to saying, “Despite these wrongdoings, we must forgive them.” This was her Christian heart, and this was also her aloha. She lived aloha, she led with aloha, she modeled aloha for her people and she continues to model aloha for us.”
This sense of “aloha”—the traditional Hawaiian greeting that encompasses love, compassion and peace—led Liliʻuokalani and her followers to use her music to protest the annexation of Hawai’i by sharing its culture with the world. While in Washington, D.C. in 1897, to petition President Grover Cleveland to restore sovereignty to the Hawaiian Islands, Liliʻuokalani finished compiling He Buke Mele Hawai’i, the most comprehensive collection of her music at that time. She sent one copy to Queen Victoria and donated another to the Library of Congress.
Later, the Queen’s music was used in the Broadway play “The Bird of Paradise” in 1912, which toured the theater circuit throughout the continental United States.
“Liliʻuokalani really recognized the power of music from the very beginning,” says Troutman. “Her work demonstrated she was interested in reaching out and sharing many of these musical ideas and cultural ideas to non-Hawaiians. She became, in some ways, a bit of a musical diplomat. She was able to find a way to celebrate the multidimensionality of music that engages both the traditions of the islands, new ideas they were incorporating into their own notions of sovereignty and importance of place for the Hawaiian people that remain so powerful today.”
The play succeeded in popularizing Hawaiian music in the United States and led to Tin Pan Alley mass producing many of the songs used in the show. One such record, a 78 rpm of the Hawaiian Quintette performing “Aloha ‘Oe,” is housed among the 100,000 other records held by the National Museum of American History. Distributed in 1913, it’s one of the earliest recordings of the tune. Though “Aloha ‘Oe,” was composed as a love song, the distorted warbling of the ukulele and steel guitar and the plaintive harmonies of the men’s voices crooning make the secondary themes of loss and longing resonate most clearly. Hawaiʻi never regained its sovereignty and Liliʻuokalani died in 1917, leaving her people to face decades of cultural oppression.
Nobody can rewrite history, and no one can right the many wrongs the Hawaiian Islands have suffered. But the future is still malleable, and Hawaiians across the United States are working to ensure Hawaiian culture and the legacy of Queen Liliʻuokalani is passed on to future generations.
Manu Ikaika is head of the Halau Hoʻomau I ka Wai Ola O Hawaiʻi cultural school in Alexandria, Virginia. Earlier this month, he and his students performed at a day-long event with Stillman at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to share the music of Queen Liliʻuokalani with museumgoers. Some of the youngest participants were around 10 years old, and proudly marched before the crowd in their floral yellow dresses, hair and necks bedecked in greenery.
As Ipu gourds pounded out a resounding beat, the reedy voices of the little ones strained to yell the chants they had practiced so hard to perfect. Incanting in sync, their chorus brought out the natural rhythm of the Hawaiian language as it danced and tumbled over the echoing gourds.
The program closed with “Aloha ‘Oe,” with all of the participants dancing the hula and singing the beloved words of Hawai’i’s final queen. Women young and old gently swayed their hips and poised their arms to represent the islands’ rain-swept cliffs in the song’s lyrics while younger generations watched on and followed, absorbing as much tradition as they could.
“As important as history is, as important as it is for us to know history so that we know where we come from and we know who we are, it is equally, if not more important to look ahead to our future,” Stillman said at the end of the program. “And for that, we must look to our children. They are the future, they are the ones who will take these stories and carry them forward, they are the ones who will take all our knowledge and carry it with them, they are the ones who will speak our language so that that language and those thoughts will be heard again.”