Below is an excerpt from an interview by Folklife Specialist Guha Shankar with Community Collections Grant recipient Mark “Boots” Lupenui entitled, “Heirloom Songs” from Kohala, Hawai’i: Documenting a Fragile Musical Legacy, as part of a series on the Library’s Of the People blog featuring the 2022 awardees of the AFC’s Community Collections Grants program. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story.
Mark “Boots” Lupenui’s project, “Unearthing the Lost Songs of Kohala,” seeks to document old, unrecorded songs of the Kohala region in the northwest portion of the island of Hawai’i. Lupenui calls them, “heirloom songs,” and his project is an urgent one as the numbers of elders who carried on the tradition dwindle. He notes, “We are trying to preserve these heirloom songs, these snapshots of our history, culture and way of life before the last remaining memories of them disappear forever.” In our interview, he offers his view on progress to date on the team’s efforts at archiving the cultural heritage of the community.
Boots, you have noted previously that your approach to documentation involves artists/ practitioners performing and/or telling their own stories in their own voices to the community as well as to wider audiences. How has this concept worked in actual practice?
It makes such an impact on me to hear these folks telling their own stories and singing the songs they wrote. They are the true voices of Kohala and those voices are fleeting, so preserving the recordings of them is important. Most of these people are not professional performers, and so it requires a bit of explanation and a ‘kid gloves’ approach to get them to give more complete information on camera. They can be a little shy about performing, as they are always surprised that anyone wants to record the songs they wrote years ago. Still, it makes me smile to hear these salt of the earth folks tell their stories. I get chills listening to their humble songs and imagining what they might sound like to people who listen to these recordings years or even generations from now.
In what ways is this project important/meaningful for you as a documentary field worker who is also a community member and performer?
As an artist and musician myself I hope to move people with my work. When I think about the songs I am documenting, I am reminded that each of these pieces is the work of someone who was trying to move people as well, trying to share some idea or emotion during a moment or time that is past. Also, these songs provide a window into a simpler world, a glimpse of a magical Kohala that is quickly changing …and I am grateful for that glimpse. My hope is that others will hear these works and will recognize in them the call to care for the amazing place we call home.