History Meets Classical Music on Hawai‘i Island

Mar 21, 2019

Credit HeungSoon / Pixabay

A Big Island composer has created several musical works highlighting events and people in Hawaiian history. This weekend, he is premiering a symphonic suite that recalls one of the most significant battles in Hawaiian history.

Herb Mahelona is a Hilo-based teacher, musician, and composer. For more than 20 years, he has created musical works from his perspective as a Native Hawaiian. This Sunday, the Kamuela Philharmonic will debut The Battle of Kuamo'o Suite. He explains why he chose this theme.

"This event takes place on this island, and it was THE pivotal battle that changed Hawaiian culture forever."

The battle erupted soon after the death of Kamehameha the First, with his heir ordering the end of the Kapu system – traditionalists wanted to keep it.

The new work is a portion of an opera Mahelona wrote that was first performed at Kamehameha Schools Hawaii in 2014.

"The theme of the opera is why people made the decisions that they did, especially in 1819, where people chose to forgo an old system in favor of a new unknown system, why would someone do that? It's really love. Love for the country, a desire to see the country further itself and progress. People advocating for keeping the system really wanted Hawaii to stay rooted in what it had always been. Two motivations, two outcomes, so it's the great stuff of opera."

Mahelona says he sought inspiration, as he always does, by going to the place he would write about — the Kuamo'o Battlefield in South Kona.  

"It's important to get permission from the people you're writing about, even though they're long gone. I introduce myself, I state my intentions, what would you like me to highlight. I just sat there very quietly. Right away, this big wind came, and I heard this woman's voice ‘Let them know, everything we did, we did for love.’ That's how the story kind of morphed into a love story, two husband and wives that have to watch each other perish for what they believe in, love of people for the land that they live in, for their king, for their traditions, and their history."

The Kamuela Philharmonic's performance of Herb Mahelona's Battle of Kuamo'o Suite is this Sunday at 4 p.m. There's more at kahilutheatre.org