Community Collections Grants Recipients: “Heirloom Songs” from Kohala, Hawai’i: Documenting a Fragile Musical Legacy

The following is a guest post by American Folklife Center (AFC) Folklife Specialist Guha Shankar, who interviews AFC Community Collections Grant recipient Mark “Boots” Lupenui about his project, Unearthing the Lost Songs of Kohala. This post is part of the Of the People blog series featuring the 2022 awardees of the American Folklife Center’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. 

Community Collections Grants promotional graphic featuring Mark Boots LupenuiMark “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.” Here, 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? And how do you assess the documentation you have collected thus far?

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.

A photo of a transcription of a song on paper with notations

Elder and kohala perfomer Richard Solomon’s transcriptions of the song, “Halawa Kohala My Home,” with musical notation. Courtesy of Mark “Boots” Lupenui, 2022.

What has the reaction been of the artists you are documenting, particularly towards the aims and scope of your work?

Almost everyone I have approached has been surprised and amused that anyone would care about their songs, much less want to “preserve” them. But once we get past that stage in the conversation they all seem to experience a swell of pride at the notion that what has been so important to them might be available to share with people who might not even be born yet. And it’s more than a sense of personal pride on their part – to me, it seems more that they are glad for the opportunity to share their love for Kohala and to be a part of preserving its unique character.

What “aha” moments or stories can you share with readers?

I interviewed one elder who was surprised that I was interested in his songs. When I arrived at his house on the day we had chosen to record his story and songs, his entire family had come over to witness the “event.” We all sat in his garage while he talked on camera about his life and how he came to write his songs, and his son accompanied him on the ‘ukulele during the performances. I was moved as I listened to both the songs and his musings because they painted a picture of a beautiful time when Kohala was more difficult to access, and the people there lived most of their lives within its borders. They lived, worked, played, and fed their families all within Kohala’s lands and from its resources. I got the impression that the old man missed the perceived safety of old Kohala and the gifts he and his family received from its bounty. These simple songs made me long for a time long past, but it also strengthened my resolve to do what I can to shine a light on the need to be careful in our rush to develop our remaining quiet spaces and to hold precious the remaining gifts residing in all our homelands. –Boots Lupenui

A Selection of Musical Performances from Hawai’I at the American Folklife Center

Homegrown: Herb Ohta, Jr., Hawaiian Ukulele Master: International recording artist Herb Ohta, Jr., recorded for a Homegrown at Home concert, 2022

Ledward Kaapana: Hawaiian Music:  National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow and master Hawaiian slack key guitarist, ukulele player, and vocalist Ledward Kaapana performs in concert, 2017.

Unukupukupu Halau Hula: Unukupukupu, the traditional Halau Hula (Hula School) of Hawai`i Community College, Hilo, Hawai`i, performs at the Library of Congress, 2012

Gary Haleamau: Traditional Hawaiian Music from Las Vegas: Gary Haleamau and his band perform traditional Hawaiian slack-key guitar from Nevada, in the AFC’s Homegrown Concert Series, 2008

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