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Left: Haku mele Eleanor Wright Prendergast – Hawaiian Journal of History (1890). Right: The Royal Hawaiian Band – courtesy of the Hawaiʻi State Archives (1889).

Kūkahekahe: ‘Mele ‘Ai Pōhaku’

Jan. 18, 2023

January 17, 2023 marks 130 year since the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. In this Kūkahekahe, we share the history of the beloved mele, “He Inoa no na Keiki o ka Bana Lahui,” known today as “Mele ‘Ai Pōhaku” and “Kaulana Nā Pua.”

In the weeks after Queen Liliʻuokalani was deposed in a coup d’etat orchestrated by American businessmen on January 17, 1893, the state of shock that gripped many citizens of the kingdom quickly transformed into protest and action. People resisted the sudden loss of the kingdom government in large and small ways.

In the weeks immediately following the overthrow, the self-proclaimed “provisional government” sought to ensure that the functions of the nation continued unimpeded by the change in power by mostly retaining kingdom employees in their posts. Salary and continued employment were made conditional; people would only receive their payment if they signed an oath of allegiance to the new government.

Members of the Royal Hawaiian Band members refused to sign the oath. The band had been an important part of the kingdom’s state functions since 1836 and was well-known worldwide after winning competitions abroad. They were forced to relinquish their jobs on February 1, 1893.

Eleanor Kekoaohiwaikalani Wright wrote a song about the band members and the loyalty of the people of Hawaiʻi to the Hawaiian Kingdom and Queen Liliʻuokalani. Twenty-eight-year-old Eleanor was a lady in waiting and close confidant of the queen. She was also a recognized haku mele or composer. When the Hawaiian government was overthrown on January 17, 1893, protests and resistance continued. Eleanor composed and published at least 10 mele aloha ʻāina – patriotic songs – in the following months. 

She composed a mele for them in her father’s rose garden at Puahaulani Hale in Kapālama on February 10, 1893. It was published as “He Ohu No Ka Poe Aloha Aina,” (“An Adornment for the Patriots”) in Ka Leo o ka Lahui on February 24, 1893 and as “He Inoa no na Keiki o ka Bana Lahui,” (A Name Song for the Boys of the Hawaiian National Band”) in the Hawaii Holomua, on February 25, 1893. The melody for the song was not published widely and several versions may have been sung.

Hawaiʻi became a U.S. territory without a treaty of annexation in 1900 but love for the kingdom and Queen Liliʻuokalani remained among many. Music ethnologist Amy Stillman has researched this mele and its melody. According to Stillman, in the 1950s, Eleanor’s daughter, Ellen, asked musicians Maddy Lam and Milla Yap to compose a melody for the mele. Maddy completed it and filled out a copyright for the song in Eleanor’s name. The song became known as “Kaulana Nā Pua (“Famous are the Descendants”).

In the 1990s Stillman uncovered sheet music and notation from 1895 which matched Maddy’s melody. It is likely that band member Jose Libornio composed the melody; he and other members who had resigned from the Royal Hawaiian Band began touring the United States to raise awareness of arguments against annexation of Hawaiʻi. Eleanor had passed away on December 5, 1902 and Lam was born in 1910; she had likely heard and remembered the melody for this beloved mele which was still being sung by poʻe aloha ʻāina during her childhood. 

Today, we still sing “Mele ʻAi Pōhaku” to tell the story of resistance and aloha ʻāina, patriotism for the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Kaulana nā pua aʻo Hawaiʻi, kūpa‘a ma hope o ka ‘āina. Famous are the children of Hawaiʻi, ever loyal to the land.

To read more about the Royal Hawaiian Band and some of their performances, visit this Google Arts and Culture "From Honolulu To San Francisco With The Royal Hawaiian Band" by the Kealakai Center for Pacific Strings!

To read more about Kaulana Nā Pua and the history surrounding this mele aloha ʻāina, read “Kaulana Nā Pua: A Voice for Sovereignty” by Eleanor Nordyke and Martha Noyes in the Hawaiian Journal of History!

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