Kanikau like the two shared here, are chants we compose after the passing of a loved one. Though these laments come from moments of grief, these songs for the soul, as Hawaiian scholar Rubellite Kawena Johnson called them, were oli to aid the soul on its traverse from this world into the place of akua and ʻaumākua. Chants for aliʻi composed by other aliʻi, or those from kahuna lineages, would often use language that recognized and honored the mana of an important person and their lineage, words reserved for honoring the gods, or people of high rank, skill or knowledge.
A kanikau could be a spontaneous expression of grief heard at funeral gatherings, or an oli labored over by skillful chanters to later be performed in public – kanikau told stories, honored the deceased, and in more recent times, expressed the deep affection and aloha felt for a beloved member of the family or community.
While grief may be an emotion shared today with family and close friends, in 19th century Hawaiʻi, kanikau published in the nūpepa ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi reached a vast Hawaiian language newspaper reading public spread across the archipelago. A strikingly elegant oli for Kaʻahumanu composed by one of her chiefly counselors, Davida Malo, is the first kanikau published in newspapers (Ka Lama Hawaiʻi, August 8, 1834) a chant so exemplary of the genre that it was republished several times over the course of the 19th century.
Of all the chant forms, kanikau may be the most revelatory of the everyday lives of Hawaiian people who lived in the 19th and early 20th-century. Greater than chants of farewell, these oli are a form of Hawaiian biography filled with extensive place, wind and rain names from each island illustrating the inextricable tie between the lives of Hawaiians and their home places. Hawaiians who moved temporarily or settled in places like California, Washington, Oregon, Utah and New England also wrote kanikau and sent them back home to newspapers in the hopes of informing relations at home of the death of a family member. These chants too were filled with the names of nearby places, their winds and rains, indeed some waterways and natural features that were given Hawaiian names by settlers of that period still remain until to this day.
While some kanikau were as short as a dozen lines, others were hundreds of lines long, forcing newspapers to run continuations in back-to-back issues. Sometimes when a person passed away, several family members and friends would compose a short oli and these would run one after another, revealing ties of genealogy and society that make up the infrastructure of different communities in and across the island chain.
Kanikau also tell of the relationships between people, their affections for lovers, husbands, wives and children often through images of their home places. A skilled composer could evoke the ua kinakinai, a rain name that imagines death as extinguishing connection (kinai) and also a grief which will not abate – like a heavy steady rain that pelts relentlessly upon a person’s naʻau when a loved one passes. Perhaps unsurprisingly kanikau are chants of aloha, since the evocation of memories that trigger grief or loss as frequently conjured moments of affection, revealing a poignancy and intimacy to Hawaiian love that was shared publicly within a large – even then – virtual community through nūpepa.
From the 1830s until now, our people have shared thousands of kanikau with the community through our newspapers and newsletters, through our shared voices – we uplift and affirm our aloha for those who have shared their breath and given us life. I am able to write this short piece today because in the late 1990s Rubellite Kawena Johnson led a project to study kanikau as a genre. I was added later as an apprentice of sorts, someone who could “copy, stable and transcribe.” I spent years wide eared in a room filled with the voices of Kawena, Kumu Hula Kimo Alama and John Mahelona as they discussed the nuanced meanings behind words. I am an apprentice still.