The Haili Church Choir of Hilo, Hawai`i
The Haili Church Choir is one of the two oldest and most widely acclaimed Hawaiian church choirs. Since the beginning of the 1900's, it has been the "training school" for some of Hawai`i's foremost names in traditional Hawaiian music, both sacred and secular.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, church choirs were instrumental in the development of Hawaiian music. While they are not the oldest, nor was the choir officially named until 1909, the Haili Choir, because of its performance out reach, became the most prominent. The choir began in 1902 under Harry K. Naope, Sr., at the Kalepolepo Chapel, one of the seven branches of the Haili Church. Naope was a music teacher in the public schools, and received his training in music at Lahainaluna Seminary on the island of Maui.
Until the advent of church choirs, Hawaiian children learned to sing and play instruments from their parents and grandparents at home. Music was an essential part of family devotions, common in Old Hawai`i. At that time, the church was the foremost educational facility for most Hawaiians, and congregational singing was their first music "school."
The most musically talented adults and young people moved into the choir when it was formed. The majority of them could neither read nor write music, but they had excellent memorization abilities, learned from the intensive person-to-person training received at home. The result of professional choir training under Naope was the development of not only many famous singers, but conductors and composers, as well. Helen Desha Beamer was, for many early years, Haili church organist.
Unlike the choirs of today, Harry K. Naope, Sr. had only one sheet of music from which to teach his choir members. He copied the music onto large sheets of butcher-type paper, and tacked these sheets to the walls of the Sunday school rooms. Choir members were required to memorize the songs from these sheets. Also, because of the unreliability of the church's pump organ and the lack of trained organists (most of whom were pianists), Mr. Naope wrote out and taught both sacred and secular compositions, and his translations of English songs into the Hawaiian language. Thus, the Haili Choir learned, and became known for their A Capella singing, (without instrumental accompaniment.) in the language native to the Hawaiian people.
The driving forces in establishing the century long reputation of the choir for perpetuating traditional Hawaiian music in performance is due to the efforts of both Harry Naope, Sr., and Albert Nahale-a, Sr., Minister of Music. They helped to create a viable, exciting, and rich choral agenda, in demand for community events. In 1962, twenty-five choir members, directed by Maria Brown Hendershot, toured Canada and the West Coast. They also performed on every island except Ni`ihau. Choir programs are carried on today by second, third and fourth generations of the original choir families, some of whom have been members for more than 50 years.
Among the early Haili Choir notables to gain professional reputations were Joseph Kalima, Sr. and his sons ("The Hilo Kalimas"), Enoch "Bunny" Brown and His Hilo Hawaiians, Kihei Brown and his trio, the Nathaniel Sisters, the Brown Sisters, and falsetto star George Kainapau.
Generations of family musical groups also grew up in the Haili Choir, and their descendants today are well known: the Beamer family, the Browns, the Deshas, Punohus, Nahale-as.
One hundred years of perpetuating traditional Hawaiian music are imbedded in the history of the Haili Church Choir. It has exerted a major influence on the development of Hawaiian music in the Hilo area, as has the Kawaiaha`o Church Choir in Honolulu. Other church choirs, formed later from their example, continue Hawaiian music's historical preservation on the islands of Kaua`i, Maui, and Moloka`i.
Today's Haili Church Choir is most often accompanied by piano, organ or other stringed instruments, although they still sometimes sing A Capella.
-- History courtesy of choir member Hawea Waia`u, Ed.D, twin of Kihei Brown and grandaughter of Stephen L. Desha, Sr.