The Lili‘u Project
The Biography of Lili‘uokalani’s Life in Music
In 1838, Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha was born into one of the highest
ranking aliʻi (royal) families in Hawaiʻi. Growing up in Honolulu, she attended the Chief’s Children’s School alongside the future kings of her country, but she herself was not considered a probable candidate to inherit the throne. As a young student, “Liliʻu” (as she was known) was immersed in Christian education, taught by her missionary teachers. While these colonial instructors discouraged Hawaiian beliefs, her family simultaneously nurtured her Hawaiian identity. Thus, from an early age, she developed a unique synthesis of Hawaiian and Western cultural values, which were not always in alignment. This conflict in identity would follow her throughout her life.
In the 19th century, the Hawaiian Kingdom was struggling to hold onto its
standing as a sovereign nation, as other more powerful countries were eyeing its strategically valuable placement between East and West. Partly out of necessity, Western culture was embraced in order to solidify the Kingdom’s identity as a rightful government on the world stage. Honolulu prided itself as a cosmopolitan port of entry, welcoming the most current artistic voices from around the world. Indeed, new innovations in Western music were quickly embraced by the Hawaiian aliʻi and their people, who already possessed strong cultural traditions of poetry, chant and dance. Hawaiians had a natural predilection for music, which immediately gave them the ability to synthesize Western traditions with their own. As a result, learning to play newly introduced instruments and song composition organically blossomed in Hawaiʻi, and the ritual of after-dinner parlor music quickly evolved into what we refer to today as kanikapila. Indeed, during this era, it was not uncommon to hear music filling the streets of Honolulu in the evening.
Lydia Liliʻu Loloku
Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha
At an early age, Liliʻu gravitated to this new music and exhibited
virtuosic talent. Privileged to have access to the most current Western instruments and compositions of the day, she mastered the piano, guitar, zither and autoharp (among others). In her early twenties, she found her voice as a composer, and immediately positioned herself at the center of a new 19th century Hawaiian musical renaissance. But she was not alone. Along with her brothers and sister, they each formed glee clubs and would often compete with each other, performing their compositions in friendly musical contests. Together, she and her royal siblings were known as Na Lani ʻEhā. During this time, Liliʻu composed some of her most well-known romantic compositions, including Nani Nā Pua Koʻolau, Ahe Lau Makani, and her most famous song Aloha ʻOe. In these works, Liliʻu demonstrated her profound gift for incorporating kaona, or veiled meaning, into her song texts, and she was the first Hawaiian composer to copyright and publish her music in the West. As a result, she helped validate Hawaiian culture on the world stage, as her songs gained in popularity. Indeed, Alohe ʻOe would go on to become one of the most recorded songs in history. Liliʻu’s world-class poetic artistry made her compositions stand out amongst her peers, and defined her early-on as a respected haku mele – a composer of chant or song.
At the request of King Kamehameha V, Liliʻu composed the
Kingdom’s first National Anthem, He Mele Lāhui Hawaiʻi, in an attempt to help define Hawaiʻi as a sovereign nation. Furthering that goal, the highly accomplished Prussian bandmaster Henri Berger was retained by the King to serve as new conductor for the Royal Hawaiian Band. Berger immediately formed a close relationship with Liliʻu, helping to orchestrate many of her compositions. With Liliʻu’s help, Berger created a new Royal Hawaiian Band, which included juvenile delinquents from the Honolulu Reform School. This band nurtured a new generation of notable Hawaiian musicians, namely David Nape and Mekia Kealakai. Both would go on to impact music on a global scale, by developing new forms of ensembles and evolving instrumentation, including the steel guitar (the first electric guitar) and the slack key genre. As these new Hawaiian ensembles traveled across the continental United States, their musical innovations would profoundly impact the future of country music, bluegrass, and indeed rock and roll.
Bandmaster Henri Berger standing before
the Royal Hawaiian Band
Liliʻuokalani & King Kalakaua
honor Robert Louis Stevenson at royal luau
During the 19th century, foreign diseases decimated the
Native Hawaiian population. Numbers dropped from over a million to between thirty and forty thousand, and as a result, the Kamehameha dynasty unexpectedly came to an end. Liliʻu’s brother, David Kalākaua, was elected King, and because he was childless and their siblings had died, Crown Princess Liliʻuokalani became the heir to the throne. In order to retain power, Kalākaua was compelled to surround himself with haole (Caucasian) missionaries, and in 1897, was forced to sign the “Bayonet Constitution”, which limited his power. Thus, when Kalākaua died without warning, Liliʻuokalani inherited a deeply flawed Kingdom. The Hawaiian government had gone into serious debt, and foreign powers were aggressively knocking at its door. Most notably, Liliʻuokalani was a woman of color, and she was surrounded by white supremacists. Her grip on power was precarious, but she was bold and led with strength, attempting to overturn the Bayonet Constitution and restore power to the monarchy in an effort to protect her people. Unfortunately, her attempts failed, leading to her eventual overthrow and imprisonment in ʻIolani Palace by the haole elite.
Members of the Royal Hawaiian Band were compelled to sign loyalty
oaths to the new government, but an overwhelming majority refused, forming a new national band with allegiance to the Queen. In response to the overthrow, Ellen Kekoahiwaikalani Wright Prendergast composed Kaulana Nā Pua for the new band. This song became a rallying cry for the Queen and her followers, and launched a new genre of Hawaiian activist songs that continue to this day. While imprisoned, Liliʻuokalani wrote some of the most sublime compositions of her life, including Ke Aloha O Ka Haku and Kuʻu Pua I Paoakalani. Continuing to personalize her lyrical poetry with deep metaphor, these songs contained veiled messages for her disheartened people. Smuggled out, her lyrics were anonymously printed in Hawaiian newspapers to send her followers covert communications, while maintaining compassion and forgiveness for her captors. These songs stand out as some of the best examples of Liliʻuokalani’s use of music to reconcile her own contradictory concerns. She strongly desired to protect her fragile Native Hawaiian population from the seduction of violence in the face of a prevailing military advantage supported by the U.S. Government. Yet this in no way reflected her lack of resolve to restore the monarchy. Indeed, her motto of ʻonipaʻa (to be steadfast in one’s determination to overcome obstacles), was born out of this period. In striking this balance between resolve and compassion, Liliʻu positioned herself as one of the strongest examples of non-violent resistance in the modern era. To be sure, respecting the queen’s example of ʻonipaʻa remains a central tenant in contemporary Hawaiian activism.
Liliʻuokalani being escorted to her imprisonment in ʻIolani Palace
Queen Liliuokalani surrounded by her family and staff in Washington Place on the day Hawaii was annexed to the United States
Following her release, Liliʻuokalani traveled to Washington
D.C. several times in an effort to restore her Kingdom. During these trips, she would often perform her songs for dignitaries. Additionally, she began composing Mohailani, a Gilbert & Sullivan inspired comic-opera based on her experiences during her nation’s overthrow. Although her attempt to reclaim sovereignty for the Hawaiian Kingdom proved fruitless, Liliʻu spent the rest of her life in service to her people. By establishing the Liliʻuokalani Trust, the Queen ensured that the wealth from her lands would be used in perpetuity to protect Hawaiian children, and this Trust remains one of the most powerful philanthropic institutions in Hawaiʻi. Most significantly, Liliʻuokalani continued to compose songs. Her legacy of using music as a peaceful means of communicating messages of steadfast loyalty to the Hawaiian Kingdom continues to inspire and lead the Hawaiian people to this day.
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