Oli Defined

The Oli (Hawaiian Chant) falls into two broad categories, mele oli and mele hula. Mele oli are chants delivered with no musical instruments and are generally performed by one individual. However, mele hula are chants accompanied by dance and or musical instruments and are often performed by a group. Within these categories are dozens of kinds of chants, formal and informal, for specific occasions and purposes. Each type of chant was performed in a specific way and style. For example, kepakepa style (rapid rhythmic recitation) for prayer chants, ho‘āeae style (soft and short drawn-out vowels) for love chants, ho‘ouweuwe style (heavier voice with protracted vowels) for wailing or lamenting chants, and koihonua style (distinctly pronounced words) for genealogical chants.

The mana (spiritual power) of an oli lies in its themes and kaona (hidden or double meanings). Hidden meanings, such as rain as a metaphor for love, or the lehua blossom as a metaphor for warrior could make a chant both a recounting of an actual event, or speak of love and war depending on who heard and understood the chant. As such, the oli may be understood on different levels by different people. Whether speaking of actual events or filled with metaphors, the oli reflects a people and culture that are quick-witted, poetic, and finely attuned to nature in their imagery, themes, and kaona.

With no written language, the ancient Hawaiians depended on the oli as their primary art form to preserve oral histories and traditions such as genealogy, special places, important events, and prayers. As such, the oli was the very life blood that preserved and perpetuated the Hawaiian culture. Individuals were chosen in their youth and received special training to oli and become living historians and genealogist. The oli was accurately committed to memory sometimes covering over a hundred generations and several thousands of years. Today, the oli is referred to as the “soul” of the Kanaka ‘Ōiwi (aboriginal peoples of Hawai‘i) and is recognized at the highest form of the Hawaiian language.