Ka hia manu

One of the chapters I wrote for Teaching Music Through Performance in Choir was about “Ka Hia Manu” by Stephen Hatfield. I genuinely think this is a fabulous song with tremendous educational value, but before I talk specifically about that, I want to say a word about the TMTP series.

There are posts just about every day on ChoralNet and the ACDA Facebook page from choral directors asking for repertoire suggestions. I always want to ask, “have you checked TMPTC?” The repertoire they discuss is the best quality, a variety of levels of difficulty, widely contrasting styles, sources, geographical and cultural origins, historical styles, etc. Seriously, Heather Buchanan and Matthew Mehaffey are excellent curators and editors of repertoire. I don’t get any money from the sales of the book or anything, I just really genuinely think it’s a high quality resource for choral directors. I hope you’ll check it out.

Anyway, I finally got to conduct “Ka Hia Manu” in performance, and it was just as fun as I hoped! I ran into some unexpected surprises, though, that I thought I’d take a chance to add to what I have to say in addition to what I learned about it for TMPC.

For all my insistence that the singers should learn the notes before they start worrying about tongue-twisting texts, I started with the text. My singers don’t have extensive vocal training; I’m their voice teacher. So I get to be very specific with my training, and use the repertoire we sing as tools for teaching technique. “Ka hia manu” happens to be a phrase with some lovely opportunities and unfortunate traps for vowels. If that [i] is too shallow, the [u] will never be as hooty as it ought. So we did a lot of warming up on the text, making the “ah” as lofty and spacious as possible–a challenge in New England, especially. Also, it does get fast and repeat often, and the only way you can prepare that thoroughly enough to sing with confidence in just two rehearsals a week for three months is if you start early. So we did. We chanted “toi tito iti Ho-o-o-tumatu’a” for hours.

It turns out my singers really enjoy glottal stops.

They also enjoy banging bamboo poles on the floor.

They enjoy it a lot.

We started rehearsing with bamboo poles about six weeks out from the performance, because I knew coordinating singing and playing would be a physical challenge that is only reconciled with a regular practice over time. I wanted to assign some people to play the poles and others to hold music, and others to clap, but once the basses and tenors got their hands on bamboo poles, they were unwilling to give them up. So I changed their clapping to further bamboo pole banging, which resulted in less timbral contrast but increased joy. I’ll take joy over timbral contrast any day of the week.

We didn’t have time to memorize it. The basses and tenors used music stands and shared scores, reading in performance like instrumentalists. The sopranos and altos have to clap at the end, too; so I made that transition an event. I postponed their clapping to the final page, holding the last fermata before the “ha!”s, then they all dropped their folders to the floor on the downbeat of the first “ha!” It was kind of awesome.

One of the most fun things in this very fun song is the altos shouting “Kaoha!” And I think of that moment in a very specific way.

When I was a kid, I listened to a lot of musical theater records both at home and at my maternal grandparents’ house. One of those musicals was Peter Pan. It was never my favorite show, except I LOVED the songs “Tender Shepherd” and “Ugg-a-Wugg.” I never saw the show until the live broadcast a couple of months ago, but I LOVED Tigerlilly shouting “UGGA WUGGA MEATBALL!” I didn’t know about racism and cultural appropriation (which is so cringe-inducingly bad in the original TV broadcast found on YouTube that I can’t even bring myself to link to it), so I all I thought was that it was awesome to shout “UGGA WUGGA MEATBALL!” It became a phrase that passed through my head in moment of silliness all my life. So when it came to the altos shouting “Kaoha!” in the second half of “Ka Hia Manu,” I wanted it to have that same feeling of atavistic abandon and joy.

Telling my students this story, we discovered my students have memories of this same affect from their own childhood entertainments. It comes from Finding Nemo, and it goes like this:


It worked. They totally engaged in the appropriate energy once they had that reference in mind. So, if you’re teaching “Ka Hia Manu” to adolescents these days, I highly recommend you refer them to the initiation scene in Finding Nemo for the kind of energy in a lot of it.

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