Mele Ma'i are "genital songs" that have a specific function in the hula and in the beliefs of old Hawaiians. Mele Ma'i have been called "sex chants" by some but this is a naive label for them. The true mele ma'i transcends this definition.
At the birth of children of high station (e.g., children born into the ali'i and kahuna classes), these chants were composed so that these children would, in turn, someday have children of their own so that their family lines would continue on. The continuance of these families were important because it was largely through certain families that certain professions and seats of rule ran. Mele ma'i were not meant to be graphic descriptions of the genitalia or of sex acts but rather to be admonishments of blessing and hope. It is well to remember the old Hawaiian proverb, "I ka "olelo ke ola, i ka 'olelo ka make," ("in the word is life, in the word is death") and that the words contained in mele ma'i are teeming with life.
In a formal program of hula, these hula ma'i are presented as the last dances of the hula 'olapa or hula 'ala'apapa dances. It is fitting to close such a program with those hula that pertain to the continuance of life. Old Hawaiians did not view these dances as "dirty," vulgar or lascivious but saw them as a healthy realization of life itself. Today's audiences, socialized by the western view of sex and procreation, often react to these hula ma'i in a disrespectful way with "cat calls," whistles, lewd remarks and such. This is not to mean that the old Hawaiians did not fully enjoy these dances because they did. They just expressed themselves differently -- in a Hawaiian style. The audience is a component of any performance and the dignity and understanding that was there in days gone is now absent.
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