Creating a Network of Knowledge Via Mele

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At just 28 years old, Zachary Alaka‘i Lum has already made a name for himself as a haku mele (songwriter). The Ha‘ikū, He‘eia, O‘ahu native is a founding member of the musical group Keauhou, along with brother, Nicholas, and friend, Kahanuola Solatorio. Keauhou took first place at Ka Hīmeni ‘Ana in 2008 when the men were still in high school. Their debut album took top honors at the 2017 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards, winning nine awards in nine categories. Their second and third albums earned another five Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards in 2018, and three awards in 2019, respectively. Lum is a graduate of Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, where he was a Song Contest director for his class. Today, Lum, who holds a master’s degree in Ethnomusicology from UH Mānoa, is the Director of Choral Music at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama and will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science in the Fall of 2020.

From where do you draw your inspiration?

“I think ‘āina is one of the most important inspirations, at least the most prominent for me. The mele allows you to encapsulate an experience in its context so that it can be revisited. Now you have these kīpuka of ‘āina right in your mele. To me, that’s aloha ‘āina; this song is going to allow me access to ‘āina, and access to the feelings that the ‘āina gives me, whether I’m home or wherever I may be. Now all of a sudden I’m taking my ‘āina with me. The ‘āina determines who we are. It’s a part of our identity and it’s a part of who we end up becoming.”

(L-R) Jonah Kahanuola Solatorio, Zachary Alaka‘i Lum and Nicholas Keali‘i Lum of Keauhou at the 2017 Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards where they won nine awards for their self-titled debut album. – Photo: Courtesy HARA

Can you give an example of your creative process in writing music?

“One very important process of haku mele is not necessarily to capture the haku mele’s experience, but rather what is happening around him or her, and to be a conduit for that. For example, there is a mele called, Nani Nā Pali Hāuliuli O Nā Ko‘olau about the beautiful Ko‘olau mountain range, and because of this, we have the epithet ‘nā pali hāuliuli,’ a set of words that are synonymous with that place. To utilize that, maybe ‘pali hāuliuli’ finds itself in another mele. And because of this, the same concept will likely be used elsewhere. Now, we’re creating a network of knowledge via mele. It’s about the haku mele’s skill to utilize that which is already known and already understood. So now I can just say ‘nā pali hāuliuli,’ and the listener knows we must be in Kāne‘ohe or Kahalu‘u or ‘Āhuimanu. That is the beauty of mele. In my mind, the haku mele is the gatherer of those flowers of knowledge, and those flowers, which already exist, becomes the lei, becomes the mele.”

How do you see your music affecting people?

“I think mele is an apparatus for experience. I might write about something, but someone else is going to experience it differently. Now all of those experiences are being stored in that mele. So for any song, the different mana (versions) of the mele go to different people, different experiences. Those collective experiences become a repository of ‘ike. The beautiful thing is that it’s not about what’s right or what’s wrong or what I intended; it’s about how you contributed to what that is. How did you contribute to the meaning of that song?”

What is the role of music in telling the stories of our lāhui?

“Haku mele is like an ancestral technology. When we think about preserving knowledge, we think about libraries and we think about books. Now we think about websites. The wonderful thing about mele is that it’s a repository of knowledge that only exists when it’s practiced. Because of that, this knowledge only exists in the experience of mele. That requires practitioners of mele to practice. In doing so, we become a part of that knowledge and caretakers of that knowledge. Mele is a technology that we have because of the way that our ‘ōlelo works; various meanings for the same word. So now I’m going to put that ‘ōlelo into the scaffolding of melodies and harmonies. That is the genius of mele.

“If the haku mele is the collector and the arranger of that which already exists, he/she can put into one place something that’s beautiful, accessible and singable. There’s something beautiful in being a conduit for that.”