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‘Lei ʻIlima’ – A KS Musical Tradition

Oct. 5, 2021

Contributed by Communication Group Staff

In this Kūkahekahe, Cultural Consultant Manu Boyd KSK’80 reflects on a beautiful mele with connections to Kamehameha Schools.

Lei ‘Ilima
Music and lyrics by Charles E. King, translation by Manu Boyd KSK’80

ʻO ka ‘ilima nō koʻu lei
The ʻilima is my lei

Ka liʻa ia a nei puʻuwai
It is the desire of my heart

He wehi ia no kuʻu kino
It is an adornment for my body

Lei hoʻohihi a ka manaʻo
A lei that has captured my thoughts

ʻIʻini au lā i kou nani
I desire your beauty

He hiwahiwa i kaʻu ‘ike
Precious, in my opinion

ʻO wau kou hoa e kohu ai
I am your suitable companion

E lei ʻilima ē, lei ʻilima
O lei ‘ilima, my ʻilima wreath

“Nā Mokupuni o Hawaiʻi nei,” The Islands of Hawaiʻi, was the theme of Kamehameha Schools Kapālama Song Contest in 1977. In this competition, Kauaʻi was honored by the freshmen, Hawai‘i by the sophomores, Maui by the juniors, and Moloka‘i by the seniors. A mele Oʻahu was included in the contest as a mass number sung by all students. Charles E. King’s “Lei ‘Ilima” was arranged by then Girls Concert Glee Club Director, Zillah Young, KSK’63 and led by senior Randy Ngum. For more than four decades, those lyrics have remained clear in my mind.

Leila Hohu Kīʻaha KSK’44 taught that mass number song to the novice freshmen in the upper campus auditorium with her characteristic energy and insistence on music and language accuracy. She was also the arranger of the freshman co-ed number, Jacob Maka’s “Ua Nani Kauaʻi,” and her own daughter belonged to that class. After rehearsal, I nervously approached the piano where she was sitting with a yellow plumeria rosette in her hair and a lauhala purse at her side. “I think you know my Mom,” I nervously said, “Marian Lake Boyd.” She quickly exclaimed, “Lakie!” That moment was the beginning of a long relationship with Auntie Leila where mele and moʻolelo were recalled and shared. But this story is redirected back to the King classic, “Lei ‘Ilima.”

In 1938, the girls in the class of 1944 were seventh graders, and that class included my mom, Auntie Leila, and my mom’s best friend and boarding roommate, Ione Rathburn Ryan. In those days, the Kamehameha School for Girls was located up ma uka at the new Kapālama campus and included grades 7 through 12 in their annual Song Contest. The seventh grade girls were assigned “Lei ‘Ilima” as their song. They were led by Laura Sabey and taught by musical instructors who had  life-long influences on these young Hawaiian girls; decades after their 1944 graduation, they continued to gather and sing, under the direction of Aunty Leila Hohu Kī‘aha.

Not too long ago, Auntie Ione, one of the few KSK’44 classmates remaining, shared a story about their first Song Contest in 1938. She noted that Charles E. King, the composer of their song hailing the beauty of the ‘ilima wreath, was among the panel of judges. When the competition held in the auditorium was pau and the awards were given, Mr. King met with Ione Rathburn, who was the president of the seventh grade class. With a gracious smile, King told her, “Never have I heard my ‘ilima song sung so beautifully, and I think you should have won.” King’s aloha-filled gesture is fondly recalled by Auntie Ione to this day!

Referred to as “the Father of Hawaiian composers,” Charles E. King directed the Royal Hawaiian Band, and was on the Kamehameha music staff for a time. He is also remembered as a Territorial Legislator, music publisher, and businessman. He is considered a protégé of Queen Liliʻuokalani, and after his birth in 1874, was taken as the godson of Queen Emma. He was a member of the first graduating class of Kamehameha School for Boys in 1891, the same year Lili‘uokalani became queen.

One more thing about Mr. King. In the 1920s, he undoubtedly had some influence when the golden ‘ilima blossom lovingly remembered in “Lei ‘Ilima” was named as Oʻahu’s official lei and floral symbol. Perhaps in the solitude of his legendary coral house at Kualoa, this classic mele with its haunting counter-melody – perfect for duets – and so many others well-known to Kamehameha haumāna, were inspired.

King’s Blue Book of Hawaiian Melodies and Charles E. King, legendary musician and Kamehameha School for Boys graduate (1891).

Ione Rathburn Ryan’44, Ka’upena Wong’46 and Marian Lake Boyd’44, mother of KS Cultural Consultant Manu Boyd KSK’80.

Ka pua o ka ʻilima.


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