Pacific Postcards

Connecting Indigenous Hawaiian Music to Western Civilization (Michael Groner)

Despite the criticism of superior attitudes held by the West towards indigenous societies in the Pacific, the impact that Western civilization had on establishing the roots of a modern and postmodern world are undeniable. Although Native societies have yearned to break the grip of the West fueled by economic and political ambition, its control in dictating a “dominant” culture is seen not only in the discouragement of much of indigenous culture, but also in the surprising acknowledgement by indigenous societies of the power of the West. Epeli Hau’ofa in his essay “Our Sea of Islands” urges the notion of Pacific islands having their own power to express their independence; however, he fails to recognize how the development of Pacific island culture itself created boundaries to their own capabilities in a Western-dominated world. A prominent example is the Hawaiian song “He Mele Lahui Hawaii,” composed by Queen Liliuokalani who became the last ruling monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Known as the “Song of the Hawaiian Nation,” “He Mele Lahui Hawaii” is a choral work that depicts the culture of indigenous Hawaii through a clearly Western influence, becoming the first national anthem of Hawaii. As a song that represents Hawaii’s presence on the global stage, “He Mele Lahui Hawaii” provides a clear example for how Hau’ofa’s argument of promoting the autonomy of Pacific countries without reliance on the West is flawed, particularly in failing to recognize the contradiction in how indigenous culture has developed from its ties to Western civilization.

In the essay, “Our Sea of Islands,” Hau’ofa makes the case for how imperialism allowed misconceptions of Pacific societies such as those in Fiji, Polynesia, and Micronesia to persist in Western stereotypes. He believes that Pacific societies must stop viewing themselves as a part of colonial confinement, when their own resources, people, and cultures are located across the globe, not exclusively within the national boundaries of their countries. He emphasizes how “the idea that the countries of Polynesia and Micronesia are too small, too poor, and too isolated to develop any meaningful degree of autonomy is an economistic and geographic deterministic view of a very narrow kind that overlooks culture history” (151). Although Hau’ofa argues that indigenous Pacific societies have the power to assert themselves and effectively claim independence from Western civilization, Liliuokalani’s work and its influence from Western classical music suggests the Pacific Natives’ desire to prove that they can be independent within the cultural standards that the West has set. While Hau’ofa claims that the Pacific islands must condemn Western views of superiority, Liliuokalani’s work provides a clear example for how the indigenous communities acknowledged these views. The most striking details of her choral work include the structure of the song which is written in ternary form, where each section lasts eight bars, and the fact that she writes the song in the form of a SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) four-part chorus, clearly writing which lines belong to which parts (2). Liliuokalani also uses strictly conventional harmonic progressions as accepted by Western classical standards (i.e. I-IV-I or I-vi-V) and seen in Kostka et al.’s diagram and discussion of normative harmonic functions (105). These details of Western influence highlight how Liliuokalani was trying to prove the autonomy of Pacific islands by showing how they too could practice elements of Western culture, contrary to Hau’ofa’s perspective that Pacific islands can and should reject all association to views of dependency on the West.

Throughout the essay, Hau’ofa also asserts how notions of inferiority must be broken by the will of Pacific Natives to fight against it themselves. For example, Hau’ofa makes the case for how Pacific Natives as part of the global economy do not show “dependence but interdependence, which is purportedly the essence of the global system. To say that it is something else and less is not only erroneous, but denies people their dignity” (157). The idea that Hau’ofa emphasizes “interdependence” and only discusses the role of Pacific islands in economics and not culture is flawed, since Liliuokalani’s work highlights how impactful the West was in shaping modern Hawaiian culture. While “He Mele Lahui Hawaii” borrows many apparent and clearly Western classical elements in the music, the West borrowed overgeneralizations of indigenous ways of life to use for entertainment purposes, such as hula. This unequal exchange suggests the absence of cultural “interdependence,” in that indigenous communities rely more on the West culturally than the West relies on indigenous communities. Although Liliuokalani provides support to how Pacific Natives have the power to prove their own capabilities, Liliuokalani indicates what Hau’ofa fails to mention – how Pacific island communities will go about determining their own future against powerful Western societies. In “He Mele Lahui Hawaii,” Liliuokalani also uses Hawaiian lyrics as well as English translations to show that the audience consists of both indigenous Hawaiians and Westerners. Liliuokalani writes in Hawaiian: “Ka Makua Mana Loa, Maliu mai ia makou [. . .] E mau ka maluhia” (2). These same lyrics are offered in English: “Almighty Father bend thine ear, And list a nations prayer [. . .] Grant thou peace thro’out the land” (Liliuokalani 2). This song reveres a figure, “Almighty Father,” which references God from Christianity, pointing to the widespread influence of the Western religion in Hawaii during the nineteenth century. Considering that this was the first national anthem of Hawaii, the lyrics and the allusion to a Western religion prove that Hawaiian culture is undeniably linked with the West, in a way that suggests how indigenous societies use the powerful influence of Western culture to prove their own autonomy to a dominant, “cultured” civilization. While Hau’ofa may believe that Pacific Natives can experience a sense of “interdependence” with powerful nations such as those along the Pacific Rim, Liliuokalani highlights how indigenous societies rely more on adopting Western cultural practices, by nature of how they have more to prove on a global stage controlled by the West.

Near the end of his argument, Hau’ofa claims that Western influence hurt indigenous Pacific societies, because it contributed to the “belittlement” of Pacific Natives, contributing to a mentality of subordination to the West. Hau’ofa states, “I saw in it the future of Oceania, our sea of islands. That future lies in the hands of our own people, not of those who would prescribe for us, get us forever dependent and indebted because they can see no way out” (159). The idea that Hau’ofa emphasizes “in the hands of our own people” specifically denotes how Pacific island communities must use their own abilities and strengths to determine how the world views them, disproving Western stereotypes of Pacific islands as incapable or powerless. Although the song “He Mele Lahui Hawaii” supports the idea of Pacific island autonomy from Western societies, creating published written scores for indigenous music and using Western classical notation to record appropriate notes and rhythms as Liliuokalani has done, highlights more of how Western traditions have influenced indigenous culture (2-3). The use of written scores, Western harmony and structure, and the influence from Christianity combined with indigenous Hawaiian language and sounds demonstrate the hybridization of cultures, suggesting the acceptance of Western influence. These details demonstrate Hawaii’s acknowledgement of how Hawaiians proving themselves as an independent nation to the world is equivalent to Hawaiians proving themselves to Western civilization. Of course, this does not imply that Hawaiians are “forever dependent and indebted” as Hau’ofa mentions. Rather, to prevent contradicting their own history and culture, Hawaiians must recognize that the world they live in is dominated by the West and that cultures around the world, including Hawaii’s, are becoming more hybridized. It is this mix of cultures that helps create the modern Pacific society, restricting Pacific Natives from reaching the full autonomy that Hau’ofa claims can be achieved.

Although Liliuokalani’s “He Mele Lahui Hawaii” suggests the impact of the West in creating a distinct indigenous culture, Hau’ofa makes the assertion that Pacific Natives still have the responsibility to break their ties to the West, since the West has only hindered the abilities of Pacific Natives. Hau’ofa makes it clear at the end of his essay that “We are the sea, we are the ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth and together use it to overturn all hegemonic views that aim ultimately to confine us again, physically and psychologically” (160). Hau’ofa’s use of “we” and “us” suggest that Western views of domination have only led to a loss of hope, confidence, and will by Pacific Natives as a community to make a difference in their own nation. Although racism and imperialism has led to inferior attitudes held by Pacific island communities, Liliuokalani’s work highlights her own reverence of Western culture, while also acknowledging the greatness of Hawaiian traditions. For example, in the performance of “He Mele Lahui Hawaii” as part of the album “Nā Mele Hawai'i: A Rediscovery of Hawaiian Vocal Music,” the Rose Ensemble establishes the distinctly Hawaiian sound by singing the first verse with only two voices (soprano and tenor) and disregarding the ridigness in its key, trying to disassociate itself from the generalizations with Western classical music (0:02 – 1:14). Even though Liliuokalani wrote in the form of a strict key with Western classical notation, adding a sense of Hawaiian identity by not singing to exactly what is written demonstrates how Hawaiians want to not only explore the outside world, but also establish their own voice in a Western-dominated world. This hybridization of cultures points to acknowledgement of the impact of the West in addition to the connections drawn between indigenous Hawaiian music and Western traditions. This creation of a new modern Hawaii is direct opposition to Hau’ofa’s view that indigenous societies were internalizing their own “belittlement” by the West and must reject any “hegemonic views” (160). Rather than advocating for complete independence from the West, Liliuokalani’s addition of Western classical elements and teasing Hawaiian musical ideas highlights how the West did not only contribute to views of inferiority, but also spurred the enrichment of culture of Pacific island communities, a key idea that Hau’ofa overlooks.

Overall, the essay “Our Sea of Islands” by Epeli Hau’ofa has flaws in not recognizing how the culture of Pacific island communities is tied to the power of Western civilization, and that trying to find independence from the West is contradictory in indigenous history and culture. “He Mele Lahui Hawaii” by Queen Liliuokalani perfectly points out the ability of Pacific island communities to express their independence in hybridized forms of Western ideas and indigenous traditions. It not only is a Western-influenced composition, but also acts as the first national anthem of Hawaii. Liliuokalani’s harmony, form, and structure from the Western classical genre makes clear that despite “He Mele Lahui Hawaii” being a distinctly Hawaiian work, there are still ties to the West that Hawaii must accept, whether it be the introduction of Christianity or the idea of creating written published scores. Although Hau’ofa may believe Pacific island communities have the power to refute ideas of dependence, Liliuokalani’s influence and significant role in Hawaiian music demonstrates that this desire for autonomy is possible only within the bounds of accepting the dominance of Western civilization and understanding that modern indigenous culture are blends of Western and Pacific Native traditions.

Works Cited
Hau’ofa, Epeli. “Our Sea of Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 6, no. 1, 1994, pp. 148-161. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Apr. 2021.

Kostka, Stefan, et al. Tonal Harmony with an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music. 7th ed., New York, McGraw-Hill, 2013.

Princess Liliuokalani, composer. He Mele Lahui Hawaii. 1866. The Pacific Music Co., 1884, UC Berkeley Library Digital Collections 100625#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&r=0&xywh=-548%2C-84%2C2209%2C1666. Accessed 4 Apr. 2021.

The Rose Ensemble. “He Mele Lāhui Hawai'i.” YouTube, NAXOS of America, 2014. 10 Aug, 2018. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.

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