• Otter Views: The Old School Song

    Having been lucky enough to live this long, I’ll board a plane Tuesday morning to attend my 50th high school reunion. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m also worried. I don’t fly often, so all the usual airport stuff has me on edge. Will the shuttle arrive on time? Will I be able to operate the baffling e-ticket console? Will my carry-on bag squeeze into the newer, smaller overhead compartments? Are carry-ons even permitted any more?

    But those are minor concerns. My big worry, the one keeping me up these nights, has to do not with flying but with singing. See, our 1964 graduating class has been chosen to perform the school song. Not once, but at three separate reunion events.

    At another school, this might not be a problem – even after a 50-year hiatus. But our school song is in Hawaiian. In addition, it’s a very old and honored anthem, composed 250 years ago as a birth song for Kamehameha I, who would become Hawaii’s greatest monarch.

    As our choirmaster taught us 50 years ago, it’s important when singing a song this venerable to enunciate every syllable, glottal stop and accent mark. Place names must be pronounced correctly. Elisions must be graceful and purposeful. No slurring. Bass, baritone and first and second tenor parts must be distinct but harmonious.

    So, pressure.

    Admittedly, the people who first sang this song faced considerably more pressure. If they messed up, their skulls could be crushed with a huge rock. If our performance falls short, we’ll just face humiliation and dismay.

    I should mention that, 50 years ago, ours was a pretty small school. The 1964 class had 34 graduates, of whom about 20 will make next week’s reunion. So it’s not like 300 of us will be singing the school song and 200 can just move their lips. No, it will be very clear who’s flat, who’s sharp, who’s pretending, who’s off tempo.

    So, more pressure.

    To spare us from humiliation and dismay, or at least minimize those outcomes, our reunion coordinator e-mailed us the music, Hawaiian words and English translation of the school song. I can’t read music, but I did transcribe the words into a notebook. Now all I have to do is learn them again.

    Let’s see:
    “Ku akula ‘oe I ka mala nai a ke kipu’upu’u; Nolu ka maka o ka o hawai a uli;
    Niniau ‘eha ka pua o ke koai’e
    Eha I kea nu ka nahele a’o waika . . . .”

    I had trouble with that section in glee club 50 years ago, so I used to stand between two basses who were part-Hawaiian. I would listen to them and try to duplicate their rendition, but mine was always a split second behind. In a choral unit as small as ours, this little lag invariably caught the choirmaster’s ear.

    “Mister Stevens, learn the words so you can sing at tempo. You’re giving the bass section some reverb we really don’t need.”

    As fate would have it, our former choirmaster will be attending next week’s reunion as the guest of our class. I don’t know if he will conduct any of our performances of the school song, but he will certainly be listening for any lags among the basses.

    And that’s the most pressure.

    With a few exceptions, the Class of 1964 were not gifted singers. But ours was a gifted choirmaster. Under his diligent, long-suffering and occasionally sarcastic tutelage, we learned to sing in English, Latin, Spanish, French, Greek and German. We even finally mastered the school song and even won a contest singing it.

    Alas, once our class graduated and the choirmaster moved on, renditions of the school song fell off rather badly. These days, I’m told, the student body disremembers the melody, mispronounces the place names, and only mumbles the hallowed lyrics. I’d fit right in.

    To remedy this lamentable situation, our aged and time-winnowed class has been called upon to show the other reunion goers how the school song is supposed to be sung. This is a daunting and humbling charge, but we can take heart from the song itself. Its lyrics tell of ancient warriors sent to the Mahiki forests near where the school is now. In the buffeting kamakani wind and icy Kipu’upu’u rains, they stripped saplings to fashion spears for war.

    “Hole Waimea I ka ihe a kamakani Hao mai na ale a ke kipu’upu’u
    La au kala ihi ia na kea nu
    O’o I ka nahele a’o Mahiki . . . .“

    That’s what the school tried to do with us. The cold winds and icy rains were meant to harden our resolve, sharpen our skills, and launch us into the world to fly swift and true as spears.

    Ideally, we would also have remembered the school song. But hey, you can’t have everything.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 23, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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