Behind-the-scenes moʻolelo of the 103rd annual Song Contest paniolo theme

Mar. 7, 2023

For KSK haumāna, Song Contest is undoubtly one of the most treasured and memorable experiences during their time on campus.

Each year features mele around a chosen theme. “Maybe it's a 100-year celebration of somebody's birth, maybe some celebration of a declaration or some kind of big thing that happened within our lāhui,” explains Kalua Leong KSK’85, kula kiʻekiʻe assistant choral director. This year, emerging from the seriousness of the pandemic, Leong says the feeling was, “let's do something fun. So we went with cowboy and paniolo.”

The theme, “Nā Mele Paniolo: Songs of the Hawaiian Cowboy,” is a nod to the rich cultural heritage of paniolo as well as a recognition of those traditions continuing today. Selah Fronda is directing the women in her class for the second year in a row. After some research, she chose “Honesakala” as the mele for nā wāhine o ka papa ʻumikūmākahi. “There's just a feeling about that song that I was attached to…it's kind of like a love song that goes through the phases of heartbreak.”

“We actually got to speak with generations of paniolo and it showed me that we're not just representing people that go around riding horses, but the heart that they have, and the love that they have for their home and ʻohana.” As a song director, she recognizes her responsibility for teaching classmates and the audience about this way of life. “I feel that we have the blessing to share about these special people because they're not always talked about - and they're like Hawaiʻi in a person.”

Last year, Fronda won the Louise Aoe McGregor Award, which recognizes the student director who has made the most significant contribution to the class in organizational ability, leadership, assistance to others, and persistence. Will she pull off a repeat in 2023? “It's hard to keep that reputation but it's pushing me to not be complacent. I can always know my song better. I can always be more connected to my class and do more for them,” she says. This year she’s grown into her role. “I think it's taught me that leadership is more about building relationships and pilina with the people that you're with because then they trust you more and they respect you more.”

Choral kumu Leong has a unique perspective on Song Contest, having been a song director herself back when she was a haumana. Now she’s in her ninth year guiding students through their Song Contest journey. “I really love the work. The students are so diverse,” she says. “We have the athletes and we have the people who are academically excelling, people from other islands, people from small families, single-parent families and blended homes - but the only thing that they have in common, really is that they're all Hawaiian. And they all have mele Hawaiʻi that they can relate to. Song Contest is really a cohesive factor because it's the one thing that everybody can share. And there's also aspects of every song that you know you can apply to yourself.”

Memories of Song Contest last long after students leave campus. Leong jokes when she runs into KSK alums, “They always bring up their contest experience. And the ones who won - they can't get over themselves, they tell everybody they won,” she laughs. But she also knows the experience teaches them lessons to live by. “I want them to remember Song Contest. But it really is mele Hawaiʻi that I want them to know, that aloha really is the path everywhere. Even if you don't sing one note, ever - know that you can learn how to get along with 200 other strangers, know that you can trust one director, know that people are going to know more than you everywhere you go.”

The Kamehameha Schools 103rd Annual
Song Contest Nā Mele Paniolo:
Songs of The Hawaiian Cowboy

Friday, March 10, 2023
7-7:30 p.m. Pre-show
7:30-10 p.m. Live event

Watch it live on K5 Hawaii News Now
or catch the livestream at


Friday, March 17, 2023
7 to 10 p.m.

Saturday, March 18, 2023
2 to 5 p.m.

Friday, March 24, 2023
7 to 10 p.m.