How the music of Hawai'i’s last ruler guided the Island's people through crisis A Queen Lili?uokalani commemorative statue in Honolulu. (Beth Py-Lieberman/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
How the music of Hawai'i’s last ruler guided the Island's people through crisis

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Oahu, Hawai'i, 1877. Queen Lili`uokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands, prepared her party to leave for Honolulu. This was after spending time at the country ranch of Col. James Harbottle Boyd. As she mounted her horse and looked back to ensure everyone was ready, she saw Boyd pull one of her friends into a tender embrace. 

She was moved by this declaration. The romantic Hawaiian monarch began humming as the group set off on their journey. Soon, the entire party was swept away by the haunting melody, singing the wordless tune along with her.  She returned home. And Lili`uokalani began to write the lyrics for her song.

One fond embrace,
A ho?i a?e au, (ere I depart)
until we meet again.

The song, known as "Aloha 'Oe," was published in 1884. It became the best known of Queen Lili`uokalani's verses, but it's just one of more than 200 works she composed during her lifetime. Born in 1838, Lili`uokalani began her musical training at around age seven as part of her schooling. She was taught by missionaries, and was an adept sight-singer who developed perfect pitch. She was proficient in playing the guitar, piano, organ, autoharp and zither. Lili`uokalani's early years encompassed a unique time in the Hawaiian Islands that saw a cultural blending of indigenous Hawaiian traditions with that of Western cultures. This came after the arrival of pineapple farmers and sugar plantation owners.

As a member of the Hawaiian aristocracy, Lili`uokalani was exposed equally to both worlds. Her first language was Hawaiian, and she was well-versed in Hawaiian legend and poetry. However, the bulk of her musical training was in Western styles, like hymnody and waltzes. These would form the compositional backbone for the majority of her pieces.

Though she is remembered in the Western historical canon as a stateswoman, her musical legacy stands alongside her political career. Her melodies and poetry are widely celebrated in the Hawaiian Islands.

"She was a leading composer in crafting a combination that resulted from all these different influences engaging in the islands," says John Troutman, the American music curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. One of her records is there among the collections. 

"Her melodies reflect influences from hymns and other Western musical ideas. But the storylines, the emphasis on place and the emphasis on the people of the islands are so grounded in native Hawaiian traditions."

Lili`uokalani is best known for her love songs, like "Aloha 'Oe," but her less popular tunes are quite political. In 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by a group led by U.S. Government Minister John L. Stevens. Queen Lili`uokalani was put under house arrest at the 'Iolani Palace as a result. During her time there, she composed many pieces mourning the treatment of her homeland and people.

One such song was "Mai Wakinekona a Iolani Hale." Lili`uokalani anonymously wrote the song's lyrics and published them in a weekly Hawaiian language newspaper, subversively messaging how she came to be imprisoned. The following week, someone published a response in song lyrics. "We have heard you, oh heavenly one, our ruler, and we support you." Lili`uokalani followed with: "My love for you will never be broken. I will always be grateful for your support." This anonymous correspondence went on for three months and was eventually set to music in 1895.

This piece was only recently discovered. Many of the Queen's lesser-known compositions are now being newly appreciated. This comes as the Hawaiian language is making a comeback after years of oppression. 

"The Hawaiian history we learned [in school] was that the overthrow was a good thing and annexation was a good thing," says Amy Stillman. She is a native Hawaiian and a professor in the departments of American culture and musicology at the University of Michigan.

But now that the Hawaiian language is beginning to thrive again and historians are starting to see song lyrics as legitimate sources for understanding history, many of Lili`uokalani's forgotten songs are resurfacing. 

Most of all, her songs speak to a strong sense of justice and her overarching desire for peace. This can be seen in "The Queen's Prayer," written during her imprisonment. "Although she protested the overthrow, she was adamantly insistent that her people would not engage in violence or bloodshed in opposition," Stillman says. "In [The Queen's Prayer], she's [writing] about the wrongs that she and her people have suffered. But, remarkably, in the third verse she comes around to saying, "Despite these wrongdoings, we must forgive them." 

"This was her Christian heart, and this was also her aloha. She lived aloha, she led with aloha. She modeled aloha for her people and she continues to model aloha for us."

This sense of "aloha"-the traditional Hawaiian greeting that encompasses love, compassion and peace-led Lili`uokalani and her followers to use her music. They used it to protest the annexation of Hawai'i by sharing its culture with the world.

Later, the Queen's music was used in the Broadway play "The Bird of Paradise" in 1912. It toured the theater circuit throughout the continental United States. The play succeeded in popularizing Hawaiian music in the United States and led to Tin Pan Alley mass producing many of the songs used in the show.

"Lili`uokalani really recognized the power of music from the very beginning," says Troutman. "Her work demonstrated she was interested in reaching out and sharing many of these musical ideas and cultural ideas to non-Hawaiians. She became, in some ways, a bit of a musical diplomat."

Hawai’i never regained its sovereignty and Lili`uokalani died in 1917. This left her people to face decades of cultural oppression.

Nobody can rewrite history, and no one can right the many wrongs the Hawaiian Islands have suffered. But the future is still malleable. And Hawaiians across the United States are working to ensure Hawaiian culture and the legacy of Queen Lili`uokalani is passed on to future generations.

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