[Photo: Mary Kawena Pukui making a kīkī basket of ʻilima twigs; Waimānalo, Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi. May 1939; SP_19704_5.]
Mary Kawena Pukui
“It is hoped that the chants obtained without music may also eventually be studied, translated, and published.” —Helen Roberts, Ancient Hawaiian Music
When Helen Heffron Roberts (1888–1985) began her one-year survey of mele as appointed by the Hawaiian Legend and Folklore Commission in 1923, she was faced with obstacles of many kinds. Despite many challenges including physical illness, financial deficit, and cultural barriers, Roberts was able to compile over 700 compositions from Hawaiian informants on the islands of Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, and Hawaiʻi. The culmination of her fieldwork was the 1926 publication of Ancient Hawaiian Music (Bishop Museum Bulletin 29).
Upon engaging in this extensive work, noted Hawaiian authority Mary Kawena Pukui (1895–1986) instantly recognized the inherent value of the Roberts Mele Collection as a primary resource for generations to come. Driven by the desire to make these mele comprehensible for a broad audience, Kawena devoted herself to the task of providing English translations and explanatory notes for thousands of pages of chants. She was deeply passionate about making these compositions accessible and believed that in doing so the mele could “be enjoyed and find new life,” as recalled by her hānai Pat Namaka Bacon.
Furthering this mission, the publication of Nā Mele Welo: Songs of Our Heritage added another layer of accessibility and simplified the process of navigating the mele. The vision for this undertaking was directly inspired by Kawena’s deep attachment to the Roberts Mele Collection. Spearheaded by Pat Namaka Bacon, with Nathan Napoka as the consultant, this book was published on April 20, 1995, commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of Kawena’s birth.
In celebration of her birthday, today’s #melemonday is simply dedicated to Mary Kawena Pukui. We honor her for establishing a strong foundation of cultural knowledge upon which we continue to build to this day.
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Mele are an invaluable primary resource for Hawaiian scholarship and cultural connection. The Welo Hou: Building Connections to the Roberts Mele Collection project, funded in part by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, will improve the digitization, indexing, and accessibility of a unique and treasured collection of mele dating from pre-Western contact to the early 1900s. This pilot project will serve as a model for improved access to and increased engagement with the Bishop Museum Library & Archives’ other mele collections.
Welo Hou, or to unfurl once again, aims to provide more opportunities for researchers of all levels of Hawaiian language and cultural fluency to access the Roberts Collection with ease, and honors the connections between Hawaiian voices of the past and our community of the present.