James Ka‘upena Wong Jr.
Aug. 21, 1929 – Sep. 24, 2022
By Kalena Silva, Ph.D.
Considered by many to be the foremost Hawaiian male chanter of his generation, James Kaʻupena Wong Jr. passed away at his Mākaha home on Sept. 24, 2022 at the age of 93.
The only child born to Emily Kanoelani Sharpe and James Kaʻupena Wong, Kaʻupena Jr. was exposed to Hawaiian performing arts from an early age – his mother was a hula kuʻi dancer and his father a musician and singer.
Kaʻupena’s interest in Hawaiian culture was encouraged while he was a student at Kamehameha School for Boys until his graduation in 1948.
After graduating with a degree in political science from Coe College in 1952, at his mother’s suggestion, he met with the preeminent Hawaiian language and culture authority, Mary Kawena Pūkuʻi. Casual, general conversations with her turned into lessons in mele oli and mele hula over 12 years.
In a 2005 interview, as a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Kaʻupena recalled that, after about two years of study with “Puna,” as he affectionately called Pūkuʻi, he received a pivotal phone call from her daughter, Pele Pūkuʻi Suganuma, “I was working at the Bishop Museum at the time and she called me and says, ʻKaʻupena, would you like to be my hoʻopaʻa?’ That developed into the most thrilling years of my life. I continued with Kawena for years and years after that.”
In addition to learning chant from Pūkuʻi, Kaʻupena recalled bringing Kumu Hula Tom Hiʻona to his home on Date Street to learn to hula. He remembered Hiʻona’s instruction that, during the kāholo between verses, the index finger and thumb are separated when gesturing out but brought together when the hands return inward. Hiʻona explained, “You give out knowledge but you save some for yourself.”
Kaʻupena’s increasing knowledge of Hawaiian performing arts led him to collaborate in live and recorded performances with other Hawaiian musicians like Mahi Beamer and Noelani Kanoho Māhoe and the Leo Nahenahe Singers. These collaborations frequently inspired Kaʻupena’s own musical compositions – most in Hawaiian, but some in English. His first composition in 1961, ʻĀlika Spoehr Hula, honors Alexander Spoehr, Bishop Museum Director. Kuʻu Lei Pīkake speaks affectionately of a close friend, the historian Pauline Nāwāhine King Joerger. Nuha Blues won first place in a 1973 song contest.
Kaʻupena’s open, friendly, and engaging manner, together with his great respect for the knowledge of his kūpuna, earned him a special place in the hearts of many of the elders he sought out and came to know. He spoke fondly of Johanna Wilcox (the niece of Robert Kalanihiapo Wilcox, the Hawaiian Territory’s first delegate to the U.S. Congress), remembering her as the first woman in Hawaiʻi to register to vote. Wilcox’s aloha for Kaʻupena is reflected in her mele inoa for him, Maui Nani, in which she fondly refers to him as “ka pua miulana,” (the champak – related to the magnolia – blossom) poetically affirming his paternal Chinese heritage.
Over the years, Kaʻupena participated in pivotal Hawaiian cultural events and was a recipient of several major awards.
In 1969, he chanted for the unveiling of the statue of King Kamehameha I in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. In 1975, he directed and chanted in the dedication ceremony launching the Hōkūleʻa double-hulled canoe. In 2004, he received the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2005, he was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow for his life’s work as a Hawaiian “chanter, composer, instrumentalist, and tradition-bearer.” In 2009, he was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.
Despite these achievements and awards, Kaʻupena seemed to wear all of them lightly, affectionately referring to all friends and friends-to-be as “Pally,” and putting all who knew him at ease with his infectious sense of humor.
When I last spoke with Kaʻupena over the phone in late June of this year, I asked if he was still taking his daily walks. In a very understated way, he answered, “These days, whenever I feel like walking, I find myself reaching for a donut instead.”
For those of us who were privileged and fortunate to have known Kaʻupena personally, we will miss him dearly. For those who did not know him, I have little doubt that, through his work and example, he will guide and inspire generations to come.
E kuʻu kumu ē, ua pau kā ʻoe hana, ua pio kā ʻoe ahi, ua pala kā ʻoe ʻāhui, a kau ka ʻōpua hīnano i ka lani ua mālie. (My beloved teacher, your work is done, your fire is extinguished, your bunch of bananas has ripened, and white puffy clouds like hīnano blossoms rest quietly in the heavens).
This hoʻomanaʻo is based on an essay about Kaʻupena by Noelani Māhoe in “Hawaiian Music and Musicians: An Illustrated History” (1979) and on my recollections of conversations I had with Kaʻupena since we first met in 1971.