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Chants reflect a 'zest for life'


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POSTED: Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mele ma'i, or procreation chants, are an integral part of hula, and among the most entertaining in the art form because of their often playful nature.

Literally, they encourage or celebrate the fertility of a specific subject, often an ali'i, to encourage continuation of a royal bloodline. In a broader context, they reflect the need to perpetuate the Hawaiian people as a whole.

In a series of dances, mele ma'i often are performed at the end, so that the final message the audience receives is one of Hawaiian continuity.

“;That's the last thought you want to leave: To continue, to persevere, to thrive. Many times the ma'i were for the ali'i because they were the leaders for the people, so through their continuation the people will thrive,”; explained Maile Loo, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Hula Preservation Society.

“;Sometimes they were written when the person was a baby, so it was like a wish for them, encouraging the ali'i line to procreate,”; said kumu hula Sonny Ching, whose female dancers won the kahiko portion of this year's competition with a procreation chant. “;Words are very powerful to Hawaiians. We say 'in the word there is death, in the word there is life.' So there's this idea that by chanting these things we can cause this action to happen.”;

The Hawaiian language provides poetic metaphors, many based in nature, to get the point across. So while Merrie Monarch TV viewers not well-versed in hula might have wondered as an English-language announcer introduced a “;genital chant,”; those fluent in Hawaiian heard lyrical tales of birds' nests, ferns and eels, and understood the deeper meaning.

“;It's never in-your-face,”; said Ching. “;That's the beauty of the mele ma'i, that we can express these delicate subjects in such a beautiful manner. It's not lustful, it's about a zest for life.”;

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By Christine Donnelly