King Kalākahua (David La‘amea Kamanakapu‘u Mahinulani
Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani)

Photo by James J. Williams. Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PPWD-15-4.018

Native Hawaiian, Music, Dance, Cultural Activism

King Kalākahua (David La‘amea Kamanakapu‘u Mahinulani
Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani)


King Kalākaua reaffirmed Hawai`i’s sovereignty through advancing the island country’s international profile and promoting Hawaiian cultural revitalization after decades of suppression.

Born David La‘amea Kamanakapu‘u Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani, King Kalākaua was formally educated and literate in both Hawaiian and English. He assumed the throne in 1874 after a grueling campaign against his opponent, the Dowager Queen Emma, wife to the late King Kamahemeha IV. 

Kalākaua identified the potential in hula and music to act as a conduit for cultural preservation, and used diplomatic events to demonstrate Hawai‘i’s capacity to maintain its unique knowledge systems while adapting to ever-changing circumstances. Early 19th century missionaries to Hawaiʻi had associated hula with “non-Christian” behavior and because of their religious prejudice, criticized and condemned it, making hula controversial in the 1800s. 

Hula is widely considered a dance form, but it is at its core, a system of archiving and recalling information through sound and movement, and is also an outlet for creative expression. Hawaiian music and hula is highly responsive, since the choreography and composition of new hula movements and songs often chronicle key events occurring during the choreographer or composer’s lifetime. Hula ku‘i, or joined hula, was popular during the governance of King Kalākaua because it integrated Hawaiian hula and music traditions with international traditions, many of which came to the islands by immigrants and visitors. Hula ku‘i brings together multiple dimensions, an apt metaphor for Kalākaua’s approach to cultural continuity through creative innovation. His enthusiastic patronage of hula marked a public revival of Hawaiian culture ushering in what is considered to be the first Hawaiian Renaissance. 

Beginning with Kalākaua’s reign, ‘Iolani Palace grounds became a site for hula’s revitalization. Court dancers, musicians, and visiting hālau hula (hula school) commemorated highly visible events, such as King Kalākaua’s coronation, his birthday celebrations, and government ceremonies. Their inclusion at monarchical occasions served as an official endorsement of hula, oli (chant), and mele (music) as art forms, and increased international access to Hawaiian culture. King Kalākaua also initiated the documentation and transcription of traditional knowledge and practices, a process that concerned and was criticized by some. For instance he engaged scholars to transcribe the verses of the Kumulipo, a sacred chant which contains the Hawaiian creation story and a record of the royal lineage. Additionally, he recorded and translated Hawaiian narratives into English, which were compiled into the publication The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Gables and Folk-lore of a Strange People (1888).

Political diplomacy was a marquee attribute of King Kalākaua’s reign—and the representation of Hawaiian culture was critical to his project. He was the first head of any country to circumnavigate the globe. His efforts secured allies around the world and created platforms for expressions of Hawaiian nationhood. Nineteenth Century Oceania was devastated by European and American colonization. By purposefully integrating existing art forms, technologies, and diplomatic methods with new ones, he presented the island country as simultaneously authorized by the deep past and avant garde on the international stage.

Among his works of interest to folklorists are:

Na Mele Aimoku, Na Mele Kupuna, a Me Na Mele Ponoi O Ka Moi Kalākaua I. Dynastic Chants, Ancestral Chants, and Personal Chants of King Kalākaua I. (1886).

The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folk-lore of a Strange People. (1888).

Healoha Johnston