I Mau Ke Aloha  'Āina: 100 Years of Song Contest

Feb. 17, 2020

Contributed by Kyle Galdeira

After countless hours of preparation that will soon give way to moments of anticipation followed by a collective sense of elation, relief and unity, high school haumāna are set to add to the rich tradition that is the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest.

The unique event, which blends performance with competition, camaraderie and a deep sense of pride for one’s school and Native Hawaiian heritage, is marking a historic anniversary this year. The 100th Annual Kamehameha Schools Song Contest will be held on Friday, March 20, at 7 p.m. at the Neal S. Blaisdell Arena, and will be broadcast live on Hawaii News Now (the event will be rebroadcast multiple times as well). The 2020 edition of Song Contest also carries a special theme to signify a recollection of incredible performances in the past, and what to look forward to as the competition evolves: “I Mau Ke Aloha ʻĀina: 100 Years of Song Contest.”

Song Contest through the years

Song Contest is unique to KS – a century-long tradition that involves all high school students engaging in musical competition. Laura Brown, who served as director of music at Kamehameha Schools from 1926-1947, stated that “the objectives of the Song Contest are to build up the repertoire of the best in Hawaiian music for the cultural heritage of any student who attends Kamehameha; to develop leadership, cooperation, and good class spirit; and to give students the use of their singing voices and to give them pleasure in singing as a means of expression.”

In its infancy, the girls held their song competition in front of the Assembly Hall, and the boys competed in front of Bishop Hall with the first Song Contest taking place in 1921. When the School for Girls’ campus on Kapālama Heights was completed in 1931, separate contests for boys and girls were held in the auditorium.

In 1952, the first combined contest of the School for Girls and School for Boys Senior Division took place in Kekūhaupiʻo, the newly constructed fieldhouse. Song Contest eventually moved to the Blaisdell (formerly known as the Honolulu International Center) in 1964 and has been attended by capacity crowds there ever since.

A highlight of Song Contest is the Hōʻike, a multi-faceted production designed to entertain and inform the audience while the judges complete the arduous task of tallying their score sheets. Hōʻike serves as an exhibition of the beauty of Hawaiian mele and hula, and also incorporates some contemporary flair as a balance to the more traditional Song Contest format.

A new approach to historic event

Looking back on a century full of indelible Song Contest memories, students, staff and alumni often pause to celebrate the beloved tradition’s evolution from its humble beginnings on the steps of Bishop Hall in Kaiwiʻula to the elaborate production staged at the grandiose Blaisdell Arena that can now be viewed live around the globe.

What originated as an acapella singing competition featuring voices of an increasingly-threatened native tongue has matured into a practice of mele and moʻolelo grounded in the revitalized ʻōlelo makuahine. Song Contest has delivered to those involved with KS and across the lāhui a renewed understanding of Native Hawaiian cultural identity – one that is no longer fading, but thrives in a constantly changing contemporary context. Over the course of 100 years, students have learned, appreciated and performed the songs of their kūpuna, while preserving invaluable data and traditions that have helped to revitalize Native Hawaiians and their culture.

Those hundreds of mele performed throughout the years echo on as the pages of history are kept alive by lingering notes that evoke a wide range of emotions. During the celebration of the 100th Annual Song Contest, current haumāna and those still to come begin to realize their importance in carrying on a truly world-class tradition; there will be more pages to this story that are still to be written, and more mele to be composed.

For the first time, this yearʻs competition will feature mele crafted by KS Kapālama High School students who had the rare opportunity to work with haku mele to create 10 new compositions commemorating important stories of the lāhui today. These stories are the kīpuka, the epicenter of a welcomed shift in tradition as students become engrossed in and aware of crucial concepts such as aloha ʻāina that are blossoming across the pae ʻāina. These mele, which will be performed at Song Contest 2020, capture and commemorate these kīpuka aloha ʻāina, and play a role in helping to guide the lāhui into the next 100 years.

To learn more about the mele that will be performed this year, and for more about Song Contest, visit ksbe.edu/songcontest/2020.

Awards perpetuate rich traditions

>>The first Song Contest was held at the Kamehameha School for Boys in 1921. A cup named for George Alanson Andrus, a former director of music at the school whose life’s work inspired the idea of an annual song competition, was offered as incentive in the competition.

>>The following year, both the boys and girls held Song Contests with their respective campuses. E.G. Scoville, a visitor to the Islands from Watertown, Connecticut, was so impressed with the girls’ singing performances that she donated the New England Mothers Cup for the winner of their competition.

>>In 1967, an additional trophy was offered by the Kamehameha Schools Trustees in honor of Charles Edward King, a 1891 graduate of the School for Boys. The trophy is awarded to the class that claims the combined competition.

>>The Louise Aoe McGregor Award, named for a member of the first graduating class of the Kamehameha School for Girls in 1897, was first presented in 1972. It recognizes the student director who has made the most significant contribution to the class in organizational ability, leadership, assistance to others, and persistence.

>>The Richard Lyman, Jr. ʻŌlelo Makuahine (mother language) Award recognizes excellence in the use of the Hawaiian language through song. Lyman, a KS trustee from 1959-1988, was particularly interested in the preservation of Hawaiian language and culture. 

>>The Helen Desha Beamer Award recognizes the best musical performance. Donated by the Kamehameha Alumni Association, the award honors the substantial contributions of Helen Desha Beamer KSK’1900 to the lexicon of Hawaiian music.