Hapa, "Ke Ku'ulani"
When I studied music in college, one of my professors said that the most beautiful Christmas music ever written was composed in Hawaii after the people there converted to Christianity. I believe that that could be said still today, and I would offer as proof "Ke Ku'ulani," composed in 1995 by Barry Flanagan, of the group Hapa.
I do not know what the words mean, and I cannot find a translation of the lyrics: even so, I am always moved by this song. I recognize some of the words: "aloha," or the Hawaiian word for greeting and parting; but "aloha" also means compassion, affection. peace, and mercy in Hawaiian—when Hawaiians greet each other, therefore, they are wishing each other compassion, mercy and love. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful words in all of the languages of humanity. Also recognizable in the song is the word "Jesu," or "Jesus." The rest we can intuit. There is a breathtaking moment at the climax of the song when a male chorus shouts in descant above the melody—it is a triumph of joy.
In Hawaiian, Hapa means "half," and the duo explains their group this way: Hapa is "a Musical Duo from Hawaii that consists of one member of South Pacific Ancestry and one guy from New Jersey." Flanagan is the guy from Jersey. He founded Hapa in 1983, then spent the next ten years raising money for "a first-class recording that would change the way people out of the state of Hawai'i perceive Hawaiian Music” (Lahaina News). His music certainly did that for me. Many singers have worked with Flanagan, but he is the one constant in the group, and he is recognized as a masterful guitarist and composer.
My partner Drew and I went to Maui in 1998. One day, in a market in Lahaina, Drew pulled me to a CD stand and said "listen to this." He put earphones on my head: and what played was one of the most astonishing songs I had ever heard, Hapa's "Ku'u Lei Awapuhi." Before that moment, I had never taken Hawaiian music seriously. But that one song proved it could be possessed of dignity and beauty worth pursuing (I will write more about this song and additional Hapa songs in other posts). Drew and I bought every Hapa CD we could find to take home. The songs were revelation after revelation.
It may be that Barry Flanagan is doing for Hawaiian music and Hawaiians what Antonin Dvorak did for African Americans and Native Americans when Dvorak—one of the greatest composers—encouraged them to preserve, perform, and take pride in their music, at a time when some thought it less than worthy. Perhaps history will look back on Flanagan as a seminal influence on Hawaiian music, a composer who showed them what treasures they have already and what they could yet write for the world.
Drew, my parter, never heard Hapa's Christmas song "Ke Ku'ulani." I found it after Drew had died. I believe he would have loved it, and it has brought me comfort. I know of no better gift to offer at Christmastime than this song. Here is a link to it; the song is from Hapa's 1995 album Hapa Holidays:
And here is a link to Hapa's website:
I created "Tidings of Great Joy," the image above, in 2007. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Luke 2:10: "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."